Norm Domholt put a lot of himself and his history into his new house in Excelsior.
The stair rail has the exact shape of the one in the house where he grew up. Every time he grips it, “I’m touching my folks, my upbringing. I get to touch my childhood.”
Two stones, set into the foundation, came from his ancestors’ Norwegian homestead.
And the whitewashed oak flooring is a daily reminder of one of Domholt’s first jobs, sweeping the floor in a flour mill.
“There was always a residue of flour stuck in the cracks,” he recalled.
As a sweeper, no one was interested in his opinions. Now, as a business owner, he seeks insights from all his employees.
“I wanted to remember how that felt,” he said of his days as a voiceless sweeper. “Those lessons brought me here. I purposely put them [the whitened floorboards] there to remind me of small beginnings.”
His community’s history was also on Domholt’s mind when he built his house. Excelsior, a small city set on a big and highly coveted lake, was originally built with modest cottages. But as Lake Minnetonka lakeshore has skyrocketed in value, many cottages have been torn down and replaced with much larger houses that dwarf those around them. A movement, Protect Excelsior, has bubbled up among residents trying to preserve their city’s quaint vintage charm.
“This was a simple, humble town,” Domholt said of Excelsior’s roots. He wanted his new home to feel like a vintage lake cottage — and to fit in with the cottages remaining around it. “I wanted to build for the character of Excelsior.”
Domholt had gotten to know Excelsior while living for eight years in a century-old house on the same site as his new home, which overlooks Gideon’s Bay. He tried to put “Band Aids” on his home’s aging structure.
Finally, his brother asked him, “Are you going to outlive this house?” Domholt said no. “He said, ‘What are you waiting for?’ ”
It was time, Domholt decided, for the old house to come down and a new home to take its place.
To design his new home, he turned to TEA2 Architects. “I had experience with TEA2,” he said. “I knew of their style, and really liked the team.”
Chemistry and camaraderie were important to him because he wanted to be part of the process. “Building a house like this should be really fun,” he said.
Domholt, an entrepreneur and founder of a robotics company, comes from a long line of men who knew their way around a construction site.
“My father was a structural engineer, his father was a cabinet maker, and his father was a Norwegian barn builder,” Domholt said. From them, he learned to appreciate a “good house” — one with sound construction, quality materials, and a design that suits its site and surroundings.
“Norm’s intent was to make a house with a lot of character, that felt like it belonged here,” said Tom VanDeWeghe, senior project manager at TEA2.
The challenge, said architect Dan Nepp, was how to create a modern, light-filled home on a very narrow lot — “in a charming and respectful way.”
Early in the process, another stakeholder entered the picture — Teresa Kain, a personal trainer whom Domholt had started dating. She was also a fan of cottage-style architecture. As their relationship developed, Domholt increasingly sought her input.
When he showed her TEA2’s first drawing for his house, with cedar shingles and a stone base inspired by vintage cottages, Kain was smitten. “Oh, my gosh!” she recalled. “It was the lake cottage I had in my head.”
Scaled for Excelsior
TEA2 created an understated design for the new cottage — 1½ stories instead of two, with gables and large eaves. Instead of facing the street, “the garage was turned sideways so you could see the house,” said Nepp. The main entrance is on the side yard, with a path that invites visitors to an entry garden and courtyard — or down to the lake.
The unassuming height helps the house avoid overwhelming its neighbors. “It sits in very gracefully,” said Nepp.
“We could have built much taller,” said VanDeWeghe. “But the only way to get a cottage feel is with 1½ stories.”
That was fine with Domholt. “A two-story? Dad would have killed me,” he said.
(The house preceded but is in line with Excelsior’s recently established design standards aimed at reducing mass, scale and height of new construction.)
Soon the TEA2 team had two clients.
“Teresa started showing up at meetings,” VanDeWeghe said. “The more Teresa showed up, we started rethinking the master suite. The closets got bigger.” So did the laundry room, at Kain’s request.
The couple got engaged, and then married. The wedding venue? Their house, which was in mid-construction.
“We had to put a bathroom in for that day,” Kain said.
They exchanged vows while standing on a piece of carpet-covered plywood, surrounded by family and friends, then walked to Excelsior to celebrate at their reception.
Now that the couple are living in their completed cottage, they couldn’t be happier with it.
The main-level living area is flooded with light and lake views, thanks to an open floor plan and an abundance of Marvin windows of many types, including awning windows that can be fully opened to let in breezes, and sliding and swinging glass French doors.
On one side, the windows are strategically placed high to let in light without staring directly at the house next door. On the other side, art-glass windows frame a built-in buffet.
“It solved a problem,” said VanDeWeghe. The colored, textured glass lets in light while screening the neighboring house.
The art glass is also a nod to cottages of the Victorian era, said Nepp. “We wanted to reinvent that.” The softly colored glass adds “beauty, privacy and a bit of a playful feel.” It also reminds Domholt of the stained-glass windows in his grandmother’s house.
Headers over some windows were inspired by the ones Domholt’s great-grandfather used to build. “It was in all his barns — his signature,” Domholt said.
The kitchen, open to the living and dining rooms, is a clutter-free oasis with honed granite countertops and a blue-green island. A walk-in pantry holds the ovens and freezer, hidden behind cabinet doors.
There’s also a sunny breakfast nook with a built-in booth with storage under the seats. The backs are removable, for seasonal switches in upholstery fabric.
Upstairs, the master suite’s sloping ceilings remind Domholt of his grandma’s attic. The suite includes a cozy fireplace, abundant built-ins, a TV that lowers from the ceiling and a spalike bath with a soaking tub and a shower with dual shower heads and benches.
Most of all, he appreciates the home’s fine craftsmanship and the memories of collaborating with all the skilled people who helped him create it, Domholt said.
“My dad would be so happy with this house.”