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Karen Melvin and Bette Hammel were just like the scores of walkers, joggers and canoe paddlers gawking at the extraordinary residences around the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes. Except they got invited inside 26 of them.
"When I walked around Lake of the Isles at dusk, I could see the beautiful chandeliers of an Arts and Crafts home from the sidewalk, and I wanted to know what it was like inside," said photographer Melvin.
That curiosity and the success of their first book, "Legendary Homes of Lake Minnetonka," led Melvin and architecture writer Hammel to collaborate on a new book, "Legendary Homes of the Minneapolis Lakes" ($49.95, Minnesota Historical Society Press, available Thursday).
For lake strollers, Melvin and Hammel organized the homes by lake -- Harriet, Calhoun, Cedar and Lake of the Isles -- listing the residences in the order that you would find them as you move counterclockwise around each lake.
Read on for a lively Q&A as the friends chat about lake lore, how they got access to the grand homes and the insider tales they picked up along the way.
Q How did you decide which Minneapolis lake homes were "legendary"?
KM A lot of the houses Bette and I were attracted to are the iconic homes that you notice when walking around the four lakes. The Martin House was one I really wanted to see -- it's an Italianate villa and one of my favorites. Larry Millett's guide to the Minneapolis lake district was our bible, and Realtor Barry Berg gave us a list of homes he recommended for photogenic interiors.
BH They had to be architecturally and/or historically significant. We wanted a variety of architectural styles of homes -- some smaller, if possible. Historian Bob Glancy's research on Kenwood homes was a great source.
Q Why did you decide to do another book on lake homes after your Lake Minnetonka book?
KM People told us they were glad we did this anthology with all the history in one book. We naturally thought of Minneapolis with so many fantastic houses around the lakes. I like old things and stories about stained glass and secret passageways -- this is the way I experience history, by exploring these houses with Bette.
BH Barbara Flanagan said in one of her columns after seeing the Minnetonka book that she hoped we would do one on Lake of the Isles. I thought, "Maybe we've got something here."
Q How is this book different from the first book?
KM I wanted to bring the readers in close to the details of a Federal Style, Queen Anne and a modernist home. The best way to do that was to shoot on a vertical format. It's a more intimate experience in viewing the work of an architect, designer and homeowner's interpretation of the space. I wanted to cover each page with ink from edge to edge. The Lake Minnetonka book was much more about big rooms.
BH For me, it was a more challenging project. I had personal knowledge of Lake Minnetonka because I live in a house across from a bay. I had a lot more to learn, and I was looking forward to it.
Q What did you uncover during your historical research?
BH I wanted to stress the architects who made these homes possible -- but the history of the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes was just as fascinating. In 1883, the Minneapolis Park Board was thoughtful enough to hire Horace Cleveland [a Chicago landscape architect], and it was his vision that helped create the parkways around the lakes owned by the people -- which attract more than 5 million visits a year. I was surprised to find out that in the late 1920s, there was horse racing on the ice of Lake of the Isles.
Q How did you get people to invite you in?
KM Overall, homeowners were welcoming and appreciated being part of the book. John Higgins was all about living in a historic house; he owns the Bull Higgins House on Isles, and he wanted to share it with people. Some people didn't want to be named, and others were fine with it.
BH After we narrowed down the number of homes, we cold-called the owners. We proposed only public spaces -- we did not do bedrooms. It helped to have already done the Minnetonka book, because they could see it was a worthwhile coffee-table book. But with thousands of people and cars going by all the time -- we could appreciate their wish to be private.
Q Which homes did you really want, but couldn't get?
KM A 1950s Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian home on Cedar Lake and the Queen Anne-style Chrisman home on Isles. They didn't work out.
BH I wanted the Chrisman house so bad.
Q What's one of your favorite homes?
KM The Fiterman Scogmo-Morin House by Edwin Lundie, because he was an architect who focused on details and craftsmanship to the nth degree. He designed these retreat homes but they have an Old World flavor.
BH The Kenneth and Judy Dayton house. It's by Vincent James and an outstanding example of minimalism, but is not stark and cold. I was impressed by its elegant simplicity and the great view of the entire length of Lake of the Isles. You can see the banana sculpture in the yard when the leaves are off the trees.
Q What was a "wow" house for you?
KM The Rand McGlynn-Phelps House was restored in rich jewel tones -- it's a very dramatic interior with a stained-glass skylight and marble floors. The scale and size of it makes it feel like an embassy. Texturally, it's eye candy. When other homeowners saw photos of the Rand House at a book fundraiser last year, they asked me if I was sure I wanted to photograph their homes because it didn't look like that.
BH When I was driving around Lake Harriet, I stopped my car. I thought the Rand House looked so European and so non-Minnesotan. I knew it was a house we had to have in the book. When I went inside, I was in awe of the two-story atrium and marble floor.
Q How long did it take for you to shoot the 26 homes?
KM From May to November 2011. I shot [each of] the interiors in one day with two interns, an assistant and stylist helping me. I didn't want to put the homeowners out any longer.
Q How long did it take to research each home?
BH About five months during the winter of 2011. It wasn't just interviewing today's owners. It was finding out about yesterday's owners.
Q Which house was really fun to photograph?
KM The 21st Century House by Altus Architecture. It's a fabulous modernist house and was a pure pleasure to shoot. My jaw dropped when I saw the race car on the wall. There was a dropcloth behind the sofa catching drips of oil. I thought -- wouldn't it be great to get the car when the light was hitting it perfectly?
Q Did any celebrities live in these homes?
BH The present owner of the Bull Higgins House on Lake of the Isles, John Higgins, bought the house from Bobby McFerrin, former [creative] chair of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. McFerrin lived there during the '90's, using the basement for his music studio.
Q Any quirky anecdotes uncovered during your research?
BH While we were visiting Dolly Fiterman's home, she told us of an incident when she got stuck in her elevator in the atrium exactly when an illustrious group from the Art Institute was touring the art in her house. After a while, the leader noticed that their hostess had suddenly disappeared. "Luckily," said Dolly, "the elevator is glass-enclosed so they found me in there, waving."
Lynn Underwood • 612-673-7619