Rambler becomes a homemade villa

  • Article by: KIM PALMER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 28, 2012 - 1:38 PM

A professional designer transformed his mid-century house into an Old World masterpiece by acting as his own demolition crew, architect, general contractor and landscape designer.

As an interior designer, Brian Ellingson has overseen a lot of home makeovers, but probably none more dramatic than his own.

How dramatic? He started with a basic '50s rambler and transformed it into a two-story Mediterranean-style house that would look at home in a French village or an Italian vineyard.

It wasn't a teardown. Ellingson kept the rambler's original foundation and footprint, re-used everything he could -- from wood flooring to old appliances -- added a second story, then retrofitted the house with arches, beams, ornate ceiling treatments and wrought-iron balconies that evoke earlier centuries.

"I wanted a European feel, with all the architectural detail," he said. He and longtime partner Gary Domann had admired country French and Italian houses on their travels, and Ellingson had worked with clients seeking to replicate that look, first during his long career with Gabberts and later at his own firm, Ellingson Interiors (www.ellingsoninteriors.com).

But why buy a rambler only to turn it into something else? Ellingson and Domann chose it for its setting, an oversized lot on a small lake in Edina, with city parkland on the opposite shore.

"It's all about the view; it's like having a cabin up north," Domann said.

The rambler, built in 1954, had been remodeled in '68, and still had most of its vintage mid-century modern features, including a stone fireplace, Harvest Gold kitchen appliances and a very "Mad Men"-esque lower level, complete with wood paneling and a crocodile-upholstered, crescent-shaped bar.

Ellingson wanted 9-foot ceilings on the main floor. "We had to take the roof off to add ceiling height," he said. So while they were at it, they decided to add an entire second story. They hired professionals to do that, and to stucco the exterior. "Then I took over myself," Ellingson said.

He and Domann did the demolition work themselves, and Ellingson served as his own general contractor. "I'm very hands-on with the blueprints -- I'm not afraid to move walls," he said.

He found craftspeople who could produce the Old World features he wanted, from a stone carver who apprenticed in France to create a fireplace mantel, to a cabinetmaker to manufacture the ceiling beams in the 19-foot-tall great room. "They're designed to look like a support structure, but they're just decorative," he said.

'Major meltdown'

The most challenging feature, by far, was the groin-vaulted ceiling in the main-floor hallway. Ellingson found a local company to manufacture the underlying steel framework. "It was all computer-generated; usually they do them for churches," he said.

Ellingson admitted that he was overwhelmed when the framework was delivered and he wasn't sure what to do with it next. "I had a major meltdown," he said with a laugh. "Fortunately, my brother was able to figure it out."

Throughout the process, Ellingson was committed to salvaging and repurposing as much as he could.

He pulled all the nails out of the rambler's original oak flooring and re-used the wood elsewhere in the house. Pine floorboards that they found in the attic during demolition are now installed in a guest room. Even that '60s Harvest Gold stove and refrigerator that once served the main-floor kitchen are now in use on the lower level, near the vintage bar. "I hate to waste things," Ellingson said. "There are enough things in landfills."

He and Domann furnished the house with a combination of pieces from their previous home, a downtown condo, plus antiques and reproductions from flea markets and estate sales.

Both are collectors, and many of their finds are displayed as decorative elements, including bird prints by British ornithologist John Gould, antique inkwells, blue willow china, black cloisonne, World War I-era fashion advertisements and French military epaulets.

They've also transformed their back yard, creating an Italian-style garden with a pavilion and fountain that was inspired by a book-jacket photo. Ellingson designed the landscape himself, but hired out the actual digging, he said. "Some people might refer to me as an egomaniac who had to have absolute, total control," he said. "But I had a vision of what I wanted to do out there."

The house and grounds finally look the way Ellingson envisioned them. "Now I'm fine-tuning," he said. "It was fun -- a labor of love. I would do it again, although I don't know if I'd ever find another lot I liked this much."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784

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  • Interior designer Brian Ellingson remodeled his one-story rambler into a two-story traditional-style home. Looking down the main hallway. A reading room on the left and dining room on the right with the stairway to the second floor on the far right.

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