Jennaea Gearhart moved around a lot as a kid, which sparked her early interest in home design.
“My mother loved getting a fresh start in each new house — and always included me in the process of making selections and decisions,” she said.
Gearhart, now an interior designer, was born in the Twin Cities and moved away at age 3, but the area always felt like home. So when she and her husband, Kurt, and their three children got an opportunity to relocate from New York City to the Twin Cities a few years ago, she was thrilled.
“I just love this area,” she said. From afar, she had long followed the work of local craftspeople, architects and designers, and had even been checking out homes. “I was constantly trolling real estate.”
Before she began house-hunting in earnest, Gearhart sought out Albertsson Hansen Architecture, a firm that had designed projects with an aesthetic she found similar to her own. She met with architect Todd Hansen, a meeting that ended with Gearhart asking, “OK, how do you feel about Ikea kitchens?”
When Hansen told her that he had one in his own home, Gearhart knew she had found a like-minded collaborator.
“I can’t bear spending boatloads of money on kitchens,” she said. “I like the ability to redo it.”
The interior designer and the architect found other common ground, Hansen said. Both believe that homes should be designed “for daily pleasure, daily family use — not to impress other people, but to enjoy life,” he said.
Together, Hansen and Gearhart looked at everything from cottages and Cape Cods to Victorians, until the Gearharts settled on a 1910 home in Minneapolis’ Kenwood neighborhood.
“It was a grand old home that needed to be brought back to life,” Gearhart said.
The home was closed off and dark, and a renovation done in the ’80s — the addition of a closet and powder room — made the space feel even more cramped.
Many old houses that have been modified over the years suffer from poor circulation, Hansen said. “You walk into a house like that, and you can feel blockage. A lot of our remodeling projects are about opening them up and letting them breathe again … getting the blood to flow again in these houses.”
The goal of this project was to open up some key spaces in the house to bring in light and improve the flow. Removing the ’80s closet and powder room, along with a coal furnace and chimney, dramatically improved the floor plan on the first floor.
“It changed the house,” said Gearhart. “That was an expense that was well worth the money.”
The new kitchen’s open shelving also helped open things up, Hansen said. “By going with open shelves, you define the space at the back wall of the cabinets” — and create display space for attractive objects.
That suited Gearhart’s preferences, too. “If I see it, I use it,” she said. “That’s one of the things that is really important to me in my house. Things that are functional can be beautiful. They need to serve a purpose, or they need to make you so unbelievably happy that it doesn’t matter what purpose they serve.”
During removal of a bank of old kitchen cabinets, there was a nice surprise: windows that had been covered over. Hansen incorporated one into the design, which brought in even more light.
The living room area originally extended the length of the house and felt a bit like “a bowling alley,” Gearhart said.
Adding a bathroom off the front entry to replace the lost powder room helped break up the space, Hansen said.
The upstairs floor plan also was improved. A former remodeling that included a gas fireplace, as well as the chimney that extended through the attic, had made the master suite feel cramped. The space was gutted to create a 180-square-foot master bath.
‘Patina of the old’
One of the major challenges of the project was to resist the temptation to over-renovate.
Many home makeovers attempt to correct every little detail, Hansen noted. He and Gearhart didn’t want to do that. Instead, they opted for “just changing what needs to be changed but still leaving the patina of the old,” he said.
Gearhart said, “The house was such an amazing house to start with that we had so much to work with.”
Original features such as a built-in buffet and stained-glass windows in the dining room stayed, but now with a more open floor plan and a barn-wood table and benches, the effect is casual instead of stuffy.
“We’re not formal,” Gearhart said. “This is the way we entertain.”
The modern Ikea kitchen with stainless-steel appliances was a purposeful departure from the home’s turn-of-the-century aesthetic, and set the stage for interior design that mixes vintage and modern.
In the boys’ bathroom, for example, an old medicine cabinet was kept, while modern fixtures and tile were added. In the master bath, a claw-foot tub and vintage-style mirrors are next to clever vertical-drawer medicine cabinets built into the walls flanking the sink.
A plan to source old barn doors for the master bath was jettisoned after contractors made a lucky find downstairs — the original parlor pocket doors with the track, buried in the walls. The vintage doors were installed upstairs with the track exposed.
The former kitchen countertops also were repurposed, used for the vanity surface in the master bath and in a window shower niche in a kids’ bathroom.
Gearhart chose a white-on-white color palette for her newly remodeled interiors.
She even painted the wood floors white, a choice that some people consider almost “sacrilegious,” Hansen said.
“Particularly in the Midwest, people have a thing about natural woodwork,” he said. But he and Gearhart have Scandinavian and Northeastern colonial sensibilities, two traditions in which painted wood is embraced.
Because Gearhart wanted to paint the floors, finding a house with heavily distressed wood floors actually was a plus. “These couldn’t have been refinished if they tried,” she said.
The all-white interiors might not seem family-friendly, but they are, Gearhart said.
“The whole house is white, and everybody’s like, ‘How do you live like this?’ ” she said. “Everything is slipcovered, which means it’s washable. The paint on the floor is porch paint, which means it’s scrubbable. And if you look closely, it is all well-worn. There’s a purple Sharpie [mark] on the couch from when one was a toddler. We live in our house.”
The project and Albertsson Hansen Architecture recently were awarded best in show for 2014 by the American Society of Interior Design. (The project, along with other kitchen projects, will be open for touring April 18-19.)
Gearhart said she likes that people enter the house and immediately can see that it’s home to a busy family. “You know that I have three kids,” she said. “They’re active, and loud and crazy. You know that we’re living in it. There’s nothing precious. There’s nothing museum-quality.
“You can want your house to look like a magazine, but you can’t live in a magazine picture.”