The challenge: Susan Hoyt and Steven Taff bought their 1954 midcentury modern gem in University Grove, an enclave of architect-designed homes in Falcon Heights, more than three decades ago.

The home’s ideal location was only two blocks from the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus, where Taff worked as an economics professor.

The couple raised their family in the split-level house. But as with many homes from that era, the kitchen was dark and cut off from the rest of the living spaces.

The small galley-style kitchen still had its original plain-Jane birch cabinets and dark-hued sheet vinyl covering the floor. A built-in glassware storage cabinet in the center blocked light and views. Plus a wall closed off the kitchen and casual eating area from the living room.

The couple wanted a modern functional kitchen that would still evoke the home’s classic midcentury modern vibe, while opening up and improving the flow on the main floor.

“The home had a striking entryway, high ceilings and wood-covered walls,” Hoyt said. “But it needed more light, and we weren’t taking advantage of the unique character.”

The design team: Architect Gar Hargens of Close Associates Inc. ( and Andrew Peterson, owner of Design Filter ( The contractor was John McLaughlin Construction, and the cabinetmaker was Steve Koeln, Big River Studio.

The solution: The couple chose Hargens of Close Associates for the project. Although their 1954 home was originally not a Close design, it echoed many of the iconic midcentury homes in the neighborhood that were designed by Winston and Elizabeth Close, who founded Close Associates in 1938, Hoyt said.

“We knew we needed an architect who can handle that, and wouldn’t advise us to paint the wood white,” she said.

Although many modernist homes have a somewhat open floor plan, the Hoyt-Taff residence’s atypical walls created closed-off areas, Hargens said.

The new plan removed the built-in cabinet and full wall to open up the main floor, draw in light and create connected cohesive spaces.

For fresh design details, Hargens contrasted rich natural materials with bursts of color, adding interest and pizazz, he said. “We wanted to improve function, while providing variety and contrast with materials and color.”

Wood renewal: The old carpet and vinyl flooring were replaced with red oak, for a seamless flow between the kitchen and living room. The original wood on the living room walls and vaulted ceiling was restored.

New and improved galley kitchen: Knocking down walls allowed more counter work space and storage cabinets. A coat closet was converted into a pantry with a sliding barn door.

Creative cabinets: Teal-hued opaque-glass upper cabinets “add interest to a white and wood environment,” Hoyt said. The lower cabinets are vertical-grain rosy-tinged red oak, accented by sleek brushed-nickel pulls.

The backsplash is a piece of smooth white glass with a glossy finish.

Eco-friendly: The new countertops are made of dark gray PaperStone recycled paper from Natural Built Home. “It’s a little softer than granite, which suited our taste,” Hoyt said.

Practical panels: Three translucent glass panels define and separate the kitchen from the living room without blocking light and taking up space.

“It was an elegant and inexpensive solution,” said Hargens, “and you can see between them.” The upper open glass shelves on the opposite wall repeat the glass motif.

Let there be light: The original living room, accented with cedar paneling on the vaulted ceiling and walls, “was lovely but dark,” Hoyt said. New fixtures, including track lighting and a drum-style suspended light, which can be dimmed for ambience, made a dramatic difference, she said.

The restored cedar and painted dove white walls also brightened up the space.

Staying in character: Hoyt and Taff have a philosophy of “less is more,” and preserved the home’s simple midcentury modern aesthetic.

First impression: The dark, dated stone tile in the front entry was replaced with vibrant turquoise Marmoleum, a natural flooring product. “We decided to take a risk and do something more colorful,” Hoyt said.

The result: The refreshed kitchen has better flow and greater functionality and is a smarter use of the galley-shaped space. Hoyt and Taff can pull stools up to a new casual snack bar. The adjacent renewed living room feels bright, open and airy.

“We strengthened the midcentury modern style by better connecting the spaces,” Hargens said.

Hoyt agreed. “It’s easy and comfortable to live in. We bought the house 31 years ago, and knew we would like it long before the style became popular again.”


Everyday Solutions features projects by AIA Minnesota member architects that solve a homeowner’s everyday design challenge. o submit a project for consideration, please send uncompressed JPEG images of the element or space, before and after photos and a brief description of the story behind the project to Angie McKinley: mckinley@aia-mn-org.