Mike and Sharon Ahern are enthusiastic fans of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. They’ve visited many of his famed sites including Fallingwater in Pennsylvania, Taliesin Studio in Wisconsin and several historic Chicago-area homes.
The Aherns were attracted to his Prairie School-style architecture, including the low-slung profile and the way dwellings were designed to merge with their surroundings.
When the couple decided to build a new home in Sunfish Lake in 1985, they fantasized about who they would hire to draw up the plan. Wright had died almost 30 years earlier. But his chief draftsman was still alive.
“We talked about how great it would be if John Howe designed it,” said Mike.
Howe was only 19 when he landed a position as an apprentice at Taliesin Studio. Over the years, he became known as “the pencil in Wright’s hand” and a prolific architect in his own right. Howe designed many elegant modern homes in Minnesota.
The Aherns decided to take a shot and look him up. “We were surprised to learn that he was still practicing architecture in an office in a Burnsville shopping mall,” said Mike.
Then in his 70s, Howe met with Sharon and Mike and walked their 3-acre sloping property covered with blue spruce and open fields. “He was pretty vigorous and very engaged,” recalled Mike.
The Aherns asked Howe to design a one-level, three-bedroom home with a walkout basement for them and their growing family. “He said he could do the house within our budget,” said Mike, “and then he proceeded to go over that.”
But Howe did site the home “beautifully on the brow of the hill with south-facing angles,” said Mike. “The wide eaves shade the summer sun — but in the winter we get wonderful southern light.”
The Aherns loved Howe’s drawings of the proposed floor plan, said Mike. But they had to “wrestle with him” regarding some of the features they wanted, such as the walkout level to take advantage of the hillside.
The size of the kitchen also caused friction between Sharon and Howe. “He resisted her request for a bigger kitchen,” said Mike. “When she got him to admit he didn’t do much cooking, he compromised on the size.”
The completed 4,200-square-foot home boasts many signature Wright and Howe features, such as built-in benches in the kitchen eating nook, a floor-to-ceiling Kasota stone fireplace in the living room and an elevated stone patio to extend living spaces to the outdoors.
The contemporary open floor plan is accented with warm red oak and a long bank of windows to gaze at wildlife. There are also built-in light boxes in the ceilings. “You get reflective light off the ceiling, as well as light below — it’s a nice effect,” said Mike.
The Aherns have preserved the 1980s Howe characteristics, including the unique drive-through garage, which is entered from either side. “Both Wright and Howe hated garages,” explained Mike. “It’s basically a drive-through carport.”
The only updating they’ve done is in the kitchen, with refaced cabinets, Silestone counters and new appliances.
Now that their children have left the nest and Sharon is retired, the Aherns have bought a condo overlooking the Mississippi River in downtown St. Paul. “Three acres was a lot to take care of,” said Mike.
Although Howe never was able to tour the completion of his masterful design, due to health issues (he died in 1997), “his spirit is here,” said Mike. “The comfortable sheltering spaces have worked very well for us for 31 years.”
• The 4,257-square-foot home includes four bedrooms and five bathrooms.
• The library/office features a built-in desk and bookshelves and opens to the patio.
• The master bedroom has his-and-her separate bathrooms that are connected by a shower and whirlpool tub.
• A cedar-clad wall in the foyer has a built-in storage buffet facing the dining area.
• The walkout lower level houses a TV room, recreation room, sauna, exercise room and guest suite with a bathroom.
Ginger Overbye of Edina Realty has the listing, 612-720-2096 and firstname.lastname@example.org.