A no-frills cottage on Swan Lake has been the idyllic summer sojourn for five generations of Jenny Piazza’s family.
In the 1890s, her great-great-grandparents, George and Hettie Lowry, bought 40 acres on the northern Minnesota lake in Ottertail County with their neighbors to form the Swan Lake collective.
After buying a granary from a farmer, George had a team of horses drag it across the ice to the lakeshore, said Jenny. “My great-great-grandmother chose a flat area on the beach only 50 feet from the lake.”
Over the years, the Lowry family added bedrooms and a bathroom onto the granary, using rocks and stumps for footings. Through all the cottage evolutions, the screened front porch remained the old reliable gathering place.
Jenny’s mother eventually inherited the cottage, shaping her countless memories of heading up to the lake after school got out and spending lazy summer vacations with her siblings and the kids from the “Swan Lake Club” families.
They water-skied, played board games and cards, held frog races. “It was like a big summer camp,” she said. “We were creative — we didn’t have TV.”
In the late 1990s, Jenny, with her husband, Jerry, became the sole owners of the summer retreat, and planned to eventually pass the legacy cottage down to their two children — and on to the next generations.
But thanks to the low marshy spot on the shore and the aging modifications, the ramshackle structure’s seasons were numbered.
Every spring, the couple had to fix broken water pipes and clean up after mice. The roof leaked, the kitchen floor was humped in the middle, and they had to prop up the bed with concrete blocks to make it level.
“It got to the point where it was almost falling over,” said Jerry.
In 2012, the Piazzas enlisted architect Dale Mulfinger of SALA Architects to design a new cottage they could build within the same footprint of the old one.
Mulfinger, author of five books and an expert on cabin design and lore, is known as “the cabinologist.”
Jenny had read about one of his “porch cabin” designs in “The Cabin.” “I wanted it to look and feel like my old cottage — but newer,” she said. “He got that.”
The porch cabin originated about the turn of the 20th century when families would spend the entire summer at the cabin, which often boasted a screened porch wrapped around three sides, said Mulfinger.
“People ate, slept and lived on the porch,” he said. “When it got cold, they moved to the hearth and fireplace inside.” Over time, families filled in the big porches with bedrooms, bathrooms and dining areas.
Mulfinger’s design for the new Piazza cottage makes the front porch the essential centerpiece by giving it the prime spot on the lakeside.
From inside the living room, you can step through four glass accordion doors to the porch. Each bedroom has French doors also opening to the porch.
The nearly 400-square-foot room is big enough to nap, eat meals and gaze at the lake just a few feet away. And to give it three-season comfort, the porch is outfitted with floor-to-ceiling EZ Screen windows, which are raised or lowered to expose screens.
“You can work a crossword puzzle, read a book and watch people on the beach,” said Mulfinger.
Another priority for Jenny was to save the granary — which was still in good shape — for its nostalgic value and strong bond to family history. She wanted Mulfinger to incorporate it into the design. “It was my way of holding onto part of the old cottage,” she said. “And it didn’t leak.”
So after they tore down the weathered walls around the granary, Jerry used a tractor to drag the 12- by 14-foot structure to its new resting spot on a cement slab.
The repurposed granary was turned into an unheated guesthouse, and is connected by a covered walkway to the main cottage.
All it needed was a fresh coat of paint inside, and new siding on the outside. The Piazzas added a “half sleeping loft” in the roof, which has become the teenage hangout.
The low-slung, 1½-story main cottage is 2,188 square feet with four bedrooms and two bathrooms. The central living area features exposed timber-frame construction to support the two bedrooms upstairs.
In the living room, Jenny and Jerry replaced the old wood-burning stove with a stone wood-burning fireplace, accented with a rustic mantel from a neighbor’s old barn.
The walls and ceilings are covered with a mix of painted or stained beadboard, board-and-batten siding and wainscot to evoke that “old cottage” spirit.
The kitchen’s fresh white cabinets and quartz countertops contrast with the dark-stained wide-plank floors. Modern touches include vibrant canary-yellow island stools and an industrial metal light fixture.
Jenny is still cooking on the 1950s stove from the old cottage because “it meant a lot to me,” she said.
Space-saving alternating-tread stairs climb up to the center loft, which acts as a bridge between the two bedrooms, and overlooks the living area below. “You can call down to people in the kitchen from up there,” said Jenny.
Multiple shed-dormer windows draw in bright light and circulate airflow in the center of the cottage.
Today the comfortable heated retreat doesn’t have to be closed up in the fall, and the Piazza family can savor it year-round. “I wanted to do it right to honor my ancestors,” said Jenny. “We hope it will last another five generations.”
Families invest in their decades-old cabins because “they want to make it into something that’s enduring,” said Mulfinger, who featured the Piazza lake place in his newest book “The Family Cabin,” due out this fall. “And they all have idiosyncratic quirks unique to their family.”