Obituary: Carl Graffunder, 94, Minnesota architect

  • Article by: CHAO XIONG
  • Updated: September 12, 2013 - 3:32 PM

The story goes that in their native Germany, members of the Graffunder family were known for traveling up the Rhine River and repairing castles. Some Graffunders ended up in the United States, where at least one, Carl O. Graffunder, picked up the family trade, designing midcentury modern homes in Minnesota that remain highly praised today.

Graffunder, 94, died Aug. 27 after a brief bout of pneumonia. He left behind about 130 homes and buildings in Minnesota, including an A-frame home on Lake Minnetonka in Mound where his wife still lives.

“He lived life expecting it to be good, and it was,” said his wife, Mariedawn Graffunder.

Family members and friends said Graffunder always made time for fun despite his demanding career, whether it was spending time with his four children or having cocktails with friends accompanied by live piano music.

“He always took time to enjoy life,” said his daughter, Sybil Graffunder. “Even if it was driving across town, he’d take the scenic route.”

Graffunder’s parents — a father who made cabinets, reupholstered furniture, hung drapes and laid tile, and a homemaker mother with a penchant for singing — emigrated from Germany to the United States. He was born in 1919 in Rock Island, Ill., and raised in Hibbing, Minn. Graffunder, the oldest of five, declared in eighth grade that he wanted to be an architect.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture at the University of Minnesota in 1942, joined the Navy as a naval architect repairing ships during World War II and received his master of architecture degree from Harvard University in 1948.

Mariedawn Graffunder said University of Minnesota personnel were swift to meet him on the Harvard campus upon his graduation and recruited him back to Minnesota. Graffunder taught at the U of M from 1948 to 1986.

His interests in the “honesty of materials” (exposed wood beams and concrete), affordability and energy efficiency were forward-thinking, said Tom Fisher, dean of the university’s College of Design.

“In that way, he had a lot of values and interests of modern architects,” Fisher said. “It was kind of like Carl was the grandfather, as was Ralph Rapson, for a lot of our students today.”

Graffunder also ran his own firm. Joe Michels was a draftsman for Graffunder from 1953 to 1956, and recalled his boss giving employees freedom at work.

“We always knew that if we had a question, he would always come up with an answer, and it would … be a very good one,” said Michels, who was also a student of Graffunder’s at the university.

In 1956 Graffunder traveled to Korea to help a university establish an architecture school in Seoul. Instead of taking a direct route home after the six-month job, his curiosity took him to 13 cities across Europe.

It was later that year that Graffunder met Mariedawn, his second wife. Graffunder’s first wife and the mother of his four children, Marguerite Koontz Graffunder, died in a car accident in the early 1950s.

Mariedawn was throwing a party at her home for friends who were moving into a Graffunder house. Naturally, the architect himself was invited. But her friends canceled at the last minute.

“I called Carl and said the party was off,” she said. “He said, ‘That’s just too bad, because I’ve got a baby sitter and I’m coming.’ ”

Graffunder showed up at her home, and soon the two were sipping cocktails on a boat gliding across Lake Minnetonka. It just so happened that Graffunder had run into a friend who welcomed them aboard.

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