The challenge: When Brenda Schroeder and Jeff Wolf bought their first home, they were newlyweds, and the house was a modest split-level in Eden Prairie. “We thought we would have a small house, then get a bigger house,” recalled Wolf. Fast-forward 28 years, and the couple were still living in their “starter house” — but growing tired of their outdated master bath and original cramped kitchen. “We thought about moving,” Schroeder said. “We looked at other houses but we didn’t like the location or the backyard.” The combination of their quiet street, big private yard and great neighbors finally persuaded the couple to improve rather than move — and turn their starter house into the home of their dreams.
The designer: Mary Maney, Crystal Kitchen + Bath.
First step: The couple kicked off their home improvement project by updating their master bath. Frequent travelers, they wanted to incorporate ideas from a favorite vacation destination. “We took pictures of outdoor showers we had in Fiji,” said Schroeder. “That was our inspiration.” Stone tile was used on the shower floor, as a backsplash and as an accent to replicate the outdoorsy look the couple were seeking. Maney complemented the stone tile with a dark brown tile, a floating vanity, mirrors with lights and a heated floor and towel bar. “I like the rocks,” said Schroeder. “The only thing it doesn’t have is palm trees above — and open breezes.” The project went so well that the couple next tapped Maney to redesign their main floor, including the kitchen and living room. “We had just finished the bathroom, and they said, ‘Why don’t we get started [on the main floor],’ ” said Maney. “We get a lot of repeat customers, but rarely immediately.”
Opening up: Gaining more space in the kitchen was a high priority for the couple. “The kitchen was really small,” said Schroeder. “We’ve never been able to spend much time there cooking or relaxing.” And it felt dark and closed off. “We have a pretty backyard but had tiny windows,” she said. “Our two big goals were to open it up to the backyard and make it much more functional.”
The couple had a small, 9- by 12-foot dining room they never used, and a partial wall separating their cramped kitchen from the living room. Maney proposed getting rid of the dining room and the partial wall and using the space to create a bigger, better kitchen with room for a center island. At first, Wolf resisted. “When we bought the house, we loved that [partial wall],” he said. But he soon saw the merits of the plan.
Fireplace focal point: The couple had always wanted a fireplace in the kitchen, but the home’s split-level layout couldn’t easily accommodate one. “We came up with the idea of centering it between the kitchen and the living room, so you can enjoy it in both rooms,” Maney said. The new fireplace has a sleek contemporary tile surround and double-paned glass that remains cool to the touch. The fireplace also serves a practical purpose, vented to push hot air into the lower level. “The basement is definitely warmer,” said Schroeder. The flat-screen TV on the living-room side of the fireplace has an “art screen” when not in use, creating a focal point.” The fireplace is so nice,” said Schroeder. “Sitting watching a movie is just the best.”
Smart storage: To create the pantry space that the couple craved, Maney designed two pullout cabinets, one inside the fireplace wall and another tall, narrow one in the space between another wall and the refrigerator.
Light and bright: A new sliding glass door and new larger windows replaced the two tiny ones. “We never had natural light like this,” said Schroeder. “It just brightened up the house so much.”
Fresh materials: Bamboo cabinets stained dark espresso, new birch flooring and Cambria quartz countertops replaced the late ’80s staples of whitewashed pickled wood cabinets, vinyl flooring and laminate countertops. “The backsplash tile is like waves, and the countertop is like sand when it washes up on the beach,” Schroeder said.
Today’s technology: Schroeder, a longtime employee of Best Buy, equipped the house with the company’s Magnolia Audio Visual technology. “Lighting, shades, everything is controlled by phone,” said Maney. There’s even a “kitty cam” for watching the couple’s two cats in action.
Future needs: The couple incorporated several aging-in-place features to ensure they can remain in their improved home as long as they want. They include grab bars in the tub and shower, and new railings on their staircase, for safety.
The result: The couple didn’t expand the footprint of their home, but it lives larger, they said. “It’s so amazing to come home to,” said Schroeder. “We relax in our house more. It’s a much more calming environment.” Wolf appreciates that the two of them can be in the kitchen at the same time. “‘We didn’t have room to cook together before,” he said.
And while they have no immediate plans to retire, they’re looking forward to their next chapter. “We thought it would be our starter house,” said Schroeder. “All of a sudden, it’s 30 years later, and now it’s our retirement home. And we didn’t have to go through that whole downsizing thing.”