A home as dramatic as its St. Croix River–bluff perch
In 2007, two long-time architecture and design aficionados, Jim and Victoria, purchased an 11-acre property on the bluffs of the St. Croix River for its resplendent views. The existing home had started life as a cabin, and had been added to with more enthusiasm for size than cohesive design. It was something they lived with—but didn’t love.
They first looked into the possibility of remodeling the home, while adding a separate studio and a garage. The couple’s fondness for Arts and Crafts style had evolved into an interest in even purer contemporary design, so they sought out Charles Stinson, president of Charles R. Stinson Architects in Minneapolis, for his expertise in creating a modern aesthetic with a unique sense of place.
Stinson produced an initial plan, but the homeowners soon decided that the constraints of remodeling wouldn’t produce their desired result. Jim said it felt like “throwing good money after bad.” Or, in his more charming parlance, ‘like putting lipstick on a pig.’”
The couple decided to pursue new construction with their architect, who had been thinking the same thing as soon as he visited the inspirational St. Croix bluff. “I went out to the site and felt it—felt the flow of the property with open arms,” Stinson recalls. He redrew the whole site, anchoring a new home farther up the bluff where the studio and garage had been proposed, with sweeping views down to the pool, spilling into the St. Croix and out over the trees to the east. The organic-feeling, two-level home was designed to float on the sloping site with buoyant horizontal forms and tree-like verticals. “By keeping the architecture simple, it gets out of the way of itself and the view does all the work,” Stinson reasoned.
Easier said than done. The paradox of modern architecture is that what looks simple is devilishly hard to execute, as Steven Streeter, president of Streeter & Associates, can attest. “A lot of builders want nothing to do with modern projects,” said Streeter, who has been building Stinson designs for 27 years. “There are no baseboards, no moldings, no trim around the windows, no forgiveness. Every corner and intersection is visible and has to be perfect.”
Due to its situation on a protected scenic waterway, this project had even more approvals to solicit and more rules to follow than most new buildings. Since they purchased the property, the homeowners have worked with the DNR, Washington County, and Denmark Township to steward the land. Garnering approvals from all these entities required months before construction could begin.
“On an involvement scale of one to ten, we were about a ten,” Victoria admits, laughing. Stinson originally planned to raze the existing house, and situate the art studio in a loft-like space on top of the new house. But the homeowners wanted to maintain a presence on the edge of the bluff. They compromised by tearing down three-quarters of the existing house and flattening its peaked roof. The remaining portion became the art studio, satisfying size guidelines for the one auxiliary building allowed on riverfront properties. At the same time, the building was less visible from the river (conservancy points!) and echoed the design of the main house (architect-approved!). “This back and forth led to a successful rethinking of the whole property as one idea,” says Stinson.
The new home is a composite of rectilinear volumes, linked with stacked horizontal lines that suggest terraced steps. A smooth custom plaster finish echoes the site’s limestone bluffs; the front door, garage doors, and broad fascia are trimmed in copper that takes on a natural patina. The home’s vertical forms are both exterior and interior elements, piercing the glass walls and extending from the roof to lower level—signature Stinson. Clerestory windows above the wide eaves and walls of glass below allow a flood of natural light and unite indoor and outdoor environments.
The rich, organic materials on the home’s exterior flow inside as well. Victoria has been a fiber artist for the past 24 years, so she selected many of the luxurious textures and textiles, from the dining room chairs that feel like curly lamb’s wool, to the polished petrified wood tables, to the bead chain ShimmerScreen “curtain” that cascades from the ceiling between the living and dining spaces.
She also chose the multi-layered, almost iridescent Venetian plaster on the vertical forms, an art accomplished by Otto Painting Design. And she designed the sliding walnut slab door with silver solder in the knot holes with the help of Fritz Cabinetry, and a stunning etched glass wall extending through both levels, produced by GlassArt Design.
As a teammate on interiors, Sally Wheaton Hushcha, principal of Wheaton Hushcha Design, played the role of editor. “With many clients, there’s a huge learning curve,” Hushcha says. “This client was so knowledgeable and enthusiastic, I just tried to encourage the editing process.” For example: the wall behind the sideboard in the dining room, a space that usually calls for big art. While visiting the Donghia showroom in Chicago, Hushcha and her client came across an exquisite beaded faux shagreen (sharkskin) wallcovering from Élitis. “This wallcovering was so special, the space was finished,” she says. “It was the art.”
With an open floor plan and day-long natural light, continuity and flow of interior materials were especially important. David Wilson, associate AIA at Stinson Architects who collaborated on the project with Stinson, helped visualize what these elements would look like in situ. The firm’s newly upgraded software allows a virtual walk-through of the house with the exact wallcoverings, tiles, colors and furniture. The program even adjusts for light variations throughout the day.
The interior scheme was built around a palette of greys, starting with the central piece, the sleek kitchen by Valcucine, an Italian manufacturer known for its use of eco-friendly materials and zero-waste philosophy. Dove-colored frosted glass and walnut cabinet fronts present a seamless façade, behind which drawers glide quietly and everything is meticulously organized. It’s gorgeous, yes, but also a working kitchenthe homeowners are avid cooks. Glass countertops, like the cabinets and drawers, are both hardworking and recyclable.
Between the ultra-green kitchen, solar panels on the studio, geothermal temperature control, rain gardens, wide eaves for shade and triple-paned glass, this program would seem a model of eco-sensitivity. “Let’s be real,” says Victoria, “a 5,500-square-foot house is going to have environmental impact. We tried to be as green as possible, given that we like having space.”
The dark 2’ x 3’ porcelain tile on the main floor was chosen early on, partly for the home’s four-legged residents. Wood is a default flooring in new homes, but as the experienced Westie owners discovered in past homes, “Every speck of dirt, all those paw prints—no more wood floors!” Victoria said. Fully stretched out, the dogs demonstrate the tile’s warm-in-winter, cool-in-summer tactile pleasure. Anyone who has made a career of letting the dog out and back in can appreciate the brilliance of Stinson’s custom automatic Solo dog door, activated by the pups’ RF collars.
Another brilliantly pragmatic solution to the need for a room of one’s own is the home’s two master suites—hers on the main floor, all light and blue and watery; his on the lower floor, quiet and contemplative. Both master baths have a wall of glass facing the river: In fact, every room in the house, with the exception of the exercise studio, enjoys that magnetic, ever-changing panorama.
The sublime view of the sparkling St. Croix, the verdant bluffs, and the tree-drawn horizon pulled the couple to this spot in the first place. When Stinson first proposed siting the home farther from the edge of the bluff, Jim scaled a ladder set up in the bed of a pickup truck to take a look at what would be the new home’s most awe-inspiring feature. Even as other elements evolved, commitment to the sweeping view remained unchanged.
Sarah Barker is a freelance writer in St. Paul.
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