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Island time

  • Article by: JIM BUCHTA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 4, 2009 - 8:49 AM

A unique Madeline Island getaway becomes a full-time retreat.

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Large cracks in the ice that separate Madeline Island from Bayfield, Wis., mean that the ice road, which residents have used all winter, is no longer passable. For the next several weeks, they'll rely on windsleds to cross to the mainland. It could be weeks before ice-out and the car ferry starts chugging back and forth again.

For many second-home buyers, the logistical challenges of island living would be a deal breaker. But for Glenn Carlson and Michael Fray Childers, the sense of escape that comes with island life was ir- resistible.

Still, the two surprised themselves when they settled on one of Wisconsin's Apostle Islands for their vacation place.

"We always thought it was going to be someplace warm," said Carlson, "but somehow our compass got screwed up."

That must have happened when they scouted Madeline Island for building sites. They fell in love with one of the first ones they saw -- a rugged parcel surrounded by tall pines and a stretch of rocky shoreline. There, they built an unconventional retreat that fit the site so well that they're turning their weekend getaway into their year-round home.

"We looked at that shoreline and said that this was the spot. It was very emotional -- it wasn't rational," said Childers. "I couldn't get over the idea that I could actually live there."

Not so simple

Originally, Carlson and Childers had planned to build a simple cabin. But after a relative gave them a book about cabins written by Twin Cities architect Dale Mulfinger, those plans changed. They hired Mulfinger, founder of SALA Architects, and fellow architect Dan Wallace.

According to Mulfinger, the design process started with a directive from Childers, who said, "I want this to be something special."

Mulfinger and Wallace took that as a challenge: "It was as if he was saying 'You've done some interesting things, but this one has to be more interesting,' " Mulfinger said.

Childers and Carlson, who had recently relocated from Los Angeles to Madison, Wis., didn't have set ideas about what their cabin should look like. But Childers did want the design to evoke the sense of transformation that a passenger on the ferry might feel: the excitement of boarding, the anticipation as the boat churns toward land, then the peace of being at the destination.

Childers suggested Mulfinger use a wall to create that transformation. So, during his first visit to the building site, Mulfinger traced the shape of that wall in the snow. That frozen doodle became the basis for the structure's design, which creates a feeling of passage by taking visitors across several thresholds before they're finally rewarded a view of the lake.

For example, to get to the house, you pass through a garden with eight birch trees. The trees represent the Eight Mundane Concerns that Buddha taught his followers to leave behind.

The 2,000-square-foot building is essentially composed of three sections: a glass pavilion that contains the living room, dining room, kitchen and a sleeping area; a two-story box with a second bedroom and office that appears to be floating; and a 100-foot-long wall that connects those two sections with a hallway-style gallery. (The wall also conceals the mechanical systems.)

Although the structure looks arresting -- with its floor-to-ceiling glass walls, cantilevered box and gallery-like passageway -- the most unique aspect of the design is the roof. Mulfinger and Wallace said they wanted the roofline to mimic the upward movement of the surrounding trees, so they used premanufactured roof trusses and turned them upside down.

"It's almost like a low-flying cloud," Mulfinger said.

Shortly after the cabin was finished, Childers decided that he didn't want to leave. He moved there permanently and started a new career as a Realtor. Carlson plans to move there in May. The men say being in their cabin-turned-home helps them forget about the fast pace of life on the mainland.

"What I've found is that when people spend time in the space, they tend to think a little differently about how they conduct their daily routines," Childers said. "It's a very difficult place to leave."

Jim Buchta • 612-673-7376

  • about this series

  • The Home of the Month program is a partnership between the Star Tribune and the Minnesota chapter of the American Institute of Architects. It features architect-designed houses selected by a jury of experts. The houses represent a range of prices, styles and locations.
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  • The site includes a rocky shoreline


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