For a writer and an architect, a colorful, whimsical Wisconsin getaway was a place to nurture their love of nature -- and each other.
The peonies have long-since bloomed, and the purple irises have faded, but Susan Allen Toth's Wisconsin getaway explodes with color. So does Toth, who emerges from her woodland garden in a fuschia hat with a brim that flops in the breeze.
Wind Whistle is the whimsical getaway that Toth and her late husband, architect James Stageberg, designed and built for themselves near Stockholm, Wis.
"He designed Wind Whistle for the two of us -- but really, in many ways, for me," she said.
During their more than two decades together on the bluff, Stageberg, one of the state's best-known architects, designed several color-saturated follies for his wife, a writer best known for her gardening and travel books.
It all started with a visit to what was then a vacant lot. It was winter, the leaves were off the trees and Toth was captivated by the miles-long views of Lake Pepin, a widening of the Mississippi River about 90 minutes south of the Twin Cities.
"I told James that it was too good for the likes of me and he said, 'In that case, we're going to buy it.' He thought there was nothing too grand for me."
Stageberg first designed the lemon-yellow house at Wind Whistle, which was named after a pub in England. The house is accentuated with mint-green trim, a tower that looks like the crow's nest of a ship and a curved shingle roof that seems to mimic -- or mock -- the rolling bluff. Every room except one (a second bedroom) has views of the river valley, and the interior was designed to nurture the couple's relationship as well as their individual creative pursuits.
The kitchen, dining and living rooms open to one another, so that one could relax in the living room while the other cooked a meal. Upstairs the loft space where Stageberg had his drafting table offers a clear view over the treetops along the bluff. The room next to it has a desk and a chaise lounge for napping. Up a narrow ship's ladder there's a rooftop patio and a small sauna, complete with its own tiny window overlooking the river.
The house, like every building on the property, is a Crayola fantasy.
"I have no architectural gifts at all," Toth said. "But I am good with color."
More accurately, she seems obsessed with color, right down to her toenails, each of which is painted a different hue. Toth calls herself the "mistress of spray paint" because on nearly very surface -- including the roof shingles, trim and siding -- she used color prolifically, sometimes to the chagrin of Stageberg's architectural contemporaries. Like them, he used color sparingly in most of his projects and would never have considered the frilly floral wallpaper Toth used in their house.
In fact, the bold use of color was so out of character for Stageberg that visitors, including friend and fellow architect Ralph Rapson, were sometimes surprised to discover that he was living in Technicolor.
"They'd say to James, 'How did you get so much color in your life?' He said, 'I married it.'"
Stageberg admired Toth's ever-expanding gardens but not the growing collection of gardening tools she kept near the front door. So he designed a garden house with a curved multi-colored shingled roof, which resembles an upside-down rowboat plying the woods. The building is divided into two rooms, one for the tools, the other a small screened room with a table and chairs where Stageberg and Toth shared meals and played cards.
Not satisfied with just the garden house, he also designed a garden overlook, a free-standing deck with a curved back made of metal lattice.
In part because of its wild colors, in part because of its unique forms, Wind Whistle drew lots of attention. It was the subject of several articles and TV shows, including the Travel Channel's "Amazing Vacation Homes." Toth and Stageberg even collaborated on a book about it, called "A House of One's Own: An Architect's Guide to Designing the House of Your Dreams."
Toth's favorite building on the property is the one-room studio, with its pink and purple trim. Accessible only by an ankle-turner of a dirt path that leads to a short bridge, you enter into the studio by descending a ship's ladder into a small room with just the bare essentials for a writer's getaway: a bed and a desk tucked under a set of windows with unobstructed views of the river below.
Stageberg had a favorite building, too. It was the last he designed before Parkinson's disease set in, and the last he visited during his final day at his retreat. Called the Whim, it was planned as his studio, but became a guest cottage.
Toth, who spent years caring for Stageberg until he died last May, recently decided that it was time to sell their getaway.
"It's very hard being here without James," she said. "This house is saturated with love."
And she knows that it may take a while to sell. This unique collection of buildings may not appeal to the typical buyer.
"They're going to have to be fond of color," she said.
Jim Buchta • 612-673-7376