Not-so-big house captures oh-so-big views
by Greg Breining
Photo by Susan Gilmore
Joel and Susan Barker have the best view in town.
You could argue the point, but you’d be quibbling. Their new home sits on Cherokee Heights on St. Paul’s West Side, overlooking the Mississippi and a stunning sweep of cityscape, with the Minneapolis skyline to the west and Battle Creek to the east. “I’ve been to a lot of cities,” says Joel, “and this view—where you get the Cathedral and the Capitol and the downtown and the river—it’s really hard to find anything better than this.”
The spectacular site not only provides a good vantage point, it also offers surroundings fit for a castle. But the Barkers didn’t want a castle. Or even a mansion. They were aiming for about 2,000 square feet.
“One of the things that made the project interesting is that the Barkers wanted a small house, but they had a commanding site visually,” says the architect who designed the house, Kelly Davis, principal of SALA Architects. “To put a little peanut up there would have been quite out of place.”
He designed a house with an intentionally bold presence that not only fit its surroundings, it also met the Barkers’ size requirements. The couple’s push against the bigger-is-better trend makes sense, considering that Joel is a guy who habitually looks to the future.
In fact, you might say that a good view is his stock in trade. As a futurist, author, public speaker, and filmmaker, Joel helps people visualize what lies ahead. He wrote Paradigms: The Business of Discovering the Future (Collins) in 1993, and his newest book, Five Regions of the Future (Penguin/Portfolio, 2005), describes the technological “ecosystems” in which our world will operate.
For years, Joel and his business partner—his wife, Susan—spent summers in Minnesota and winters in Florida, where the warm, humid weather saved Joel’s speaking voice. But a few years ago, they realized it was time to come north to connect with their eight grandchildren. “They’re not teenagers yet,” Joel says, “so they still like us.”
Photo by Susan Gilmore
Previously, the Bakers’ lived in a 5,000-square-foot house in Minneapolis, and then a six-bedroom, 4,000-square-foot house in St. Paul. However, after reading Sarah Susanka’s book The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live (Taunton Press, 2001), the couple was inspired to downsize. They moved into a rental property they owned on Cherokee Heights, but quickly realized they loved the site—not the home, a 1920s house converted into a triplex. “It was a good old house,” says Joel. “It just didn’t meet our needs. So rather than knock it down, it was good to save it.”
“To repurpose it,” says Susan.
She found a vacant lot nearby, owned by the Neighborhood Development Alliance, which builds and rehabs housing. The Barkers donated the old triplex; the alliance paid to move it and convert it to a more functional duplex; and affordable housing got a boost. It was a win-win-win: The Barkers cleared their lot at a low cost, and saved energy and materials in the process.
Then the couple turned to SALA Architects. “We decided to have a not-so-big house,” says Susan, echoing the book title. “Some architects did not want to talk to us unless we wanted to build a 5,000- or a 7,000-square-foot house. When we called SALA, they had a totally different attitude.” When the Barkers said Prairie style, SALA turned them over to Kelly Davis.
Naturally, the couple wanted to capitalize on the terrific view. But they also wanted energy efficiency—in the vernacular of Joel’s latest book, “limits tech.” “Those are qualities that are important to the Barkers as well as to us,” Davis says.
As you drive south across the High Bridge, the Barkers’ bluff-top house stands out: Low-pitched hipped roof, strong overhangs, and a substantial silhouette bolstered by 2-foot-high stucco walls around the porches that visually counterbalance the verticality of the house. The wide front entry adds to the visual heft. Window divided lights and a stucco and shingle exterior accent the Prairie lines.
Inside, the front hall rounds the fireplace and opens to the “viewing room.” Susan insisted the window frames be painted white to make the woodwork disappear so that nothing distracts from the view. Elsewhere, riff trim is straight-grain, naturally finished oak, and the floors are also red oak. The open floor plan leads to the dining area and kitchen, where appliances hide behind oak cabinetry. A similar strategy is at work in the library where a pivoting cabinet opens to produce a flat-screen TV. Around the house are surprising touchstones to the view, such as the 1-foot square window in the first-floor powder room that centers on the Capitol.
The second-floor stairway and hall run along the back of the house so that all three bedrooms overlook downtown. The floor plan feels more spacious and roomy than its 2,000 square feet, thanks to the wide hallways, shallow staircases, and abundant glass. Says Joel, “There are so many windows, you’re always looking out.”
Photo by Susan Gilmore
Though the energy-saving windows are argon-filled, the potential for heat loss was a concern. To compensate, the Barkers ditched the original plans for a stick-built house and opted for concrete walls poured between stacked foam blocks. The foot-thick, foam-concrete-foam sandwich blocks air infiltration.
The landscape, too, is eco-friendly. Tony Randazzo, landscape ecologist for Great River Greening, picked low-maintenance natives, such as little bluestem and Pennsylvania sedge, along with no-mow grass for the front. To prevent runoff into to the nearby river, rain hitting the house is channeled down to a rain garden, which is planted with blue-flag iris. Other conservation measures include a 92-percent efficient gas furnace, on-demand hot water that heats only as needed, and compact fluorescent lights.
The Barkers find, however, they barely use the lights. When indigo twilight fills the sky and the lights of downtown wink on—when, as Joel says, “the show is starting”—they leave the lights off. All attention focuses on the city and the glowing Capitol in the distance. “The view is so sensational at night that it’s crazy to turn the lights on,” Joel says.
While such a view may not reach all the way to the future, it comes mighty close.
Greg Breining is a St. Paul writer.
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