A Minneapolis family’s vacation home on Lake Superior gives new life to old barns
Tom and Nicole Wolfe’s new vacation home, rising from a bluff on Lake Superior’s southern shore, looks a lot like a barn.
As it should: The 4,250-square-foot, six-bedroom home is a barn. Actually, it is composed of lumber from six barns, and many other odd structures as well, including a pioneer-era log house, and a Wyoming snow fence.
This unique project was born when the Wolfes decided they wanted a place for their large family (five children, ages 4 to 12, with busy schedules of their own) to gather together and relax. They also wanted a big chunk of wild land within a reasonable drive of the Twin Cities. This site—300 acres sandwiched between tracts of Brule River State Forest just 30 minutes east of Duluth, outside Maple, Wisconsin—fit their needs perfectly. Plus, it included a sandy beach on Lake Superior.
Soon after the Wolfes purchased the land in 2007, their vision of a vacation home took on the outlines of a barn. “My grandpa had a farm down in Iowa,” says Tom. “We’ve always been infatuated with driving back to Iowa and seeing the old barns.” Adds Nicole, “I think we’re city folk who wished we lived someplace else. But we can’t commit to that, so we have to pretend we live on a farm.”
For Jared and Amanda Groebner, there’s no pretending. The couple owns TimeWorn, a design-build firm that specializes in giving new life to century-old lumber and timber, and new uses to the aging log structures and barns that dot the rural landscape. The couple—he’s an architectural designer and contractor; she’s an interior designer—works out of Amanda’s childhood farmstead near Atwater.
At any given moment, hundreds of thousands of board feet of materials from several barns or log homes are being cut and stacked in the 13-acre yard. TimeWorn finds the timber and lumber for most of its projects—from homes to furniture—in central Minnesota. “You can look at a map from 1860, and that’s where I’m going to find the hand-hewn log cabins,” says Jared. “You can see where the population increased in 1900, and that’s where I’m going to find the Doug fir or red pine barns.” Many barns were built from kits, ordered from Sears, Roebuck and Co. for under $1,000.
When Tom and Nicole, visions of a barn home dancing in their heads, discovered the Groebners, the two couples immediately hit it off.
The Wolfes began with the idea of a small living apartment inside a spacious barn to accommodate family and guests. Then, the barn began to fill with bedrooms, bathrooms, and a laundry. The Groebners nurtured the Wolfes’ excitement while reining in less practical ideas—like a fire pole from a third-story loft to the ground floor. Says Nicole, “They would fix our idea to make sure it would work.”
With a size and basic features in mind, the Groebners set out to find a suitable barn. At any time, they have contracts on a hundred different barns, but, as Amanda says, “They’re not all qualified to be a house.”
Photo by Troy Thies
Then, outside New Ulm, they found a barn in perfect condition. “It was one of the nicest barns I’ve ever seen,” says Jared. As important as its condition was its configuration. Says Amanda, “This one worked out really well for the great room and kitchen size.” A TimeWorn crew was dispatched to the site to dismantle the barn board by board.
The Groebners designed the home’s rooms to nestle within the original spacing of the posts and beams. The major shortcoming was the roof. The barn’s original was a simple peak, and Tom and Nicole wanted something that really said barn. So Jared reconfigured the lines to an iconic gambrel, made from the rare 1930s standing-seam steel of the original that was still nearly perfect after a century.
Construction on the home site began in late 2008 and continued through the winter. The redesigned roof was installed when it was 20 degrees below zero.
The finished house is stunning, both for its sweeping view of Superior and for the surprising incongruence of a barn in the Wisconsin north woods. The centerpiece of the house is the great room, a space of barn-like dimensions, with a stone fireplace in one corner and a sprawling kitchen with spectacular site lines toward the lake. “It was really this view that dictated where rooms ended up,” says Amanda.
The lower level, where cows originally stood in stanchions, is now an enormous game room. “This is where we send our animals, too,” laughs Nicole. “All the kids stay down here.” With walls of lumber cut from massive beams and wainscoting of recycled roof boards, the room is close to indestructible. This is where the kids play games, roughhouse, and watch DVDs on the big screen hidden behind a barnwood door.
Materials salvaged from other buildings contribute to the walls, ceilings, floors, and furniture in the home—red elm, white elm, white ash, black ash, hard maple, red oak, white oak, hemlock, southern white pine, heart pine, tamarack, more than 20 species of wood in all.
Ax-scarred logs from an old cabin were ripped lengthwise to harvest the heartwood that became the stairs. The rugged exteriors were put to good use, too, shipped off to a TimeWorn client in Big Bear, California, for siding on a new house. Redwood siding from one old barn was re-cut to tongue-and-groove for flooring in Tom and Nicole’s bedroom. Slabs cut from the scarred surface of logs hand-hewn by a broadax more than a century ago form one wall of their bedroom. In another bedroom, weathered Wyoming snow fence serves as both distinctive walls and flooring. Built-ins made from a variety of woods provide storage and display space throughout the house—from the floor-to-ceiling lockers in the entryway to buffet in the dining room to the red elm dresser in the owners’ bedroom.
Repurposing old structures holds a different appeal for each of the Groebners. Amanda enjoys the history: “I like hearing stories about barns that have been in families for generations.” Jared revels in the surprises contained in the wood itself, usually much older than trees cut for lumber today. “Every time I cut a piece of wood I never know what I’m going to see,” he says. “You’ll come across one piece of wood that is like no other piece of wood you’ve ever seen before. You don’t get that with new wood.”
Greg Breining is a St. Paul writer.
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