Jane King Hession and Bill Olexy wished that they could have picked up their 1950s home in Alexandria, Va., and dropped it onto a lot in Minnesota.
“It was one-level with a butterfly roof,” said Hession of the Charles Goodman-designed midcentury modern house. “We loved the space and light.”
In 2011, the couple planned to move from the Washington, D.C., area back to the Twin Cities for the arts scene, old friends and winter beauty. But when they went house hunting, Hession and Olexy were discouraged by the dearth of suitable midcentury ramblers they could update and customize that were located in a walkable neighborhood close to downtown Minneapolis.
Then they heard about a lot with a sign that said “bring your architect,” suggesting that the tiny century-old farmhouse on the property was a teardown. It was a rare find in Edina’s popular Morningside neighborhood, but the piece of land posed a challenge. What could they do with a narrow 50-by-200-foot lot that shared a driveway with the neighbor?
Still, Hession and Olexy bought the plot sight unseen after consulting with Minneapolis architect Tim Quigley, an old friend and professor at the University of Minnesota School of Architecture, where Hession earned a master’s degree in 1995.
“I’m a preservationist at heart,” she said. “But we realized the farmhouse was obsolete and not worth saving,”
That meant that they could start fresh and “build the home we’ve always wanted,” said Hession, who became enthralled by modernist architecture while growing up in New York when she saw the TWA terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport designed by Eero Saarinen. She turned that passion into a profession as an architectural historian and co-author of “Ralph Rapson: Sixty Years of Modern Design” and several other architecture books. She became good friends with Rapson, architect of the original Guthrie Theater, and worked as his archivist.
Olexy, an architectural photographer, and Hession collaborated with Quigley about ways to infuse midcentury modern qualities such as flowing open spaces, clean lines and big windows in light-filled rooms with the overall design essence of the 1950s minimalist house they had left behind.
“But we didn’t want to slavishly reproduce a model midcentury modern house,” Hession said. “We wanted the comforts of the 21st century — but in a casual, relaxed atmosphere.”
Before they could tackle the design, the architecture team had to solve the problem of building a house — as well as a two-car garage, per requirements by the city of Edina — on the narrow, sloped site. Quigley and architect Bob Le Moine came up with an innovative idea: place the garage in the middle of the home.
“We decided that was where an attached garage could go and do the least harm,” Quigley said. “It allows views and light to come in the front as well as in the back of the house. And they could have a back-yard terrace.”
Instead of dominating the front entrance, the garage door would be hidden on the side of the home and open to the shared driveway with the neighbor. The couple wholeheartedly embraced the idea.
“Unconventional was essential on this lot,” Hession said.
Quigley Architects had never done this type of design before, “but it was the key that unlocked the whole plan,” Quigley said.
The home’s linear floor plan mirrors the shape of the property. The sheltered front entry opens to the living and dining rooms, offering views of the street through a wall of massive picture windows. The unusual garage placement created a long hallway “gallery” connecting the living room in the front to the kitchen and family gathering area at the rear of the home.
“Jane and I share an enthusiasm for Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian homes, and many of them had a long hallway,” Quigley said. “This one does double duty as storage and a photo gallery.”
The home’s retro-inspired butterfly style roofline soars up to 12 feet high and “really opens up the space” Olexy said. “It’s like our home from 1952 — but with high-efficiency glass.”
Quigley also raised a section of the roof above the kitchen and family room to gain space for a band of clerestory windows that offer 360-degree views of trees and sky and let in sunlight while giving the homeowners privacy.
The modern aesthetic is carried throughout the home with the inventive use of simple materials that help keep costs down. The couple chose large porcelain tiles that mimic an industrial metallic sheen for the fireplaces in the living room and master bedroom as well as the kitchen backsplash.
“We wanted to keep it economical,” Olexy said, “except the range hood and Wolf cooktop were a big splurge.”
Although the home is just under 3,000 square feet, including the finished basement, Quigley fit in a spacious master suite and two offices for the work-at-home couple, who are collaborating on a documentary on Elizabeth Close, one of the first modernist architects in Minnesota.
In the summer, Hession and Olexy pretty much live on the two-level terrace just off the back hall that offers plenty of room to dine alfresco and lounge on butterfly chairs surrounded by a circulating pond filled with goldfish.
“We had a koi pond in Virginia, and we really liked the sound of water,” Hession said.
Although the couple couldn’t transport their ’50s home in Virginia to Edina, they were able to capture the spirit of its smart minimalist design in a new rambler that fits the way they live today and anticipates the way they’ll live in the future.
“For us, modern is easier to live in,” Hession said. “We re-created the things we loved about that house.”