On the outside, Robyn Abear and Steve Etzell’s home still has some of its original 1960s features, including its distinctive mansard-style roof.
But inside, the look is 21st century: Hot rolled steel covers a workstation, textural gray flannel encases the foyer closet and a crisp white-on-white kitchen is outfitted with Ikea cabinets. From the living room, you can see clear to the rear of the house and beyond to the Westwood Hills nature area bordering their back yard.
After a two-part renovation, the Abear-Etzell home in St. Louis Park is no longer stuck in the ’60s. Now the interiors boast an open, modern aesthetic, and the couple and their two children feel more connected to one another — and to nature.
“It truly feels like a new house,” said Abear. “I wouldn’t want to change a thing.”
When the couple bought the two-story home in 2004, they chose it for the neighborhood, its four bedrooms and big yard, and were eager to make lots of changes.
“The home was in good shape and well-built,” said Etzell. “We knew we would do some renovating — it was just a matter of how much and when.”
The main-floor layout consisted of compartmentalized rooms finished with dark stained woodwork and beige carpeting. The kitchen was walled off from the rest of the house. And the best view of the nature area was from a small window above the kitchen sink.
After living in the house a few years, the couple decided they wanted to do much more than just paint the kitchen and install new cabinets. They were drawn to modern architecture and “a clean, uncluttered look,” said Abear. They researched architectural firms and discovered that Geoff Warner of Alchemy Architects in St. Paul was a good fit. “We liked Geoff’s aesthetic and modern sensibility,” said Abear, “and his philosophy that you have to use expressive materials to make it nice.”
The couple asked Warner to revamp the kitchen first, and draw up a design for the rest of the main floor for a later phase. “I’m a software engineer,” said Etzell. “I was interested in a design that’s less about bells and whistles and more about how it works.”
Warner came up with several plans, including one that required knocking down four walls and opening up the kitchen/dining area to the living room.
“We had to renovate both the living room and kitchen at the same time if they wanted both spaces to share the light and views,” said Warner.
By removing some walls, Warner’s design turned a rarely used formal dining room, the kitchen and a casual eating area into one multifunctional mega-kitchen. “We went for the most dramatic solution that altered the house,” said Abear, who loves to cook with Etzell. “It created space for the big island we always wanted.”
The 12-by-4-foot island, topped with stainless steel, anchors the new rectangular-shaped kitchen and dining area, which faces the back yard. Bryan Carpenter, a designer at Alchemy, placed four standard windows in a row, ribbon-style across the back wall.
“It emphasizes the linear shape of the room and the great view of the wetlands in their back yard,” said Carpenter. The couple also were able to incorporate appliances they previously had bought, along with minimalist white Ikea cabinets accented with sleek steel pulls.
Carpenter also designed a modern version of a pot rack — an overhead shelf suspended above the island made of industrial steel tubes supporting a perforated steel shelf. “The overhead rack is genius,” said Etzell. “It’s architecturally pleasing and useful.”
The renovated kitchen is no longer closed off, but opens to the living room. To divide the two spaces, Warner designed a workstation that doesn’t block the view of the back yard, but provides a computer desk and other storage. The side of the station facing the living room is covered with hot rolled steel. “The rolled steel had the industrial look we liked and was cheaper than wood,” said Steve. “The heat causes the imperfections and texture,” added Warner.
Warner hid the mechanicals and ductwork within sculptural columns and soffits framing the workstation. Abear painted the columns with layers of gray-toned Venetian plaster to add age and depth to the surface.
The kitchen is the hub of the new open spaces, which are tied together by white oak floors and light pine trim. “Now families spend more time cooking and socializing around the kitchen,” said Warner. “The 1960s houses were less formal than the 1940s houses. And houses today are even less formal than in the 1960s.”
Warner infused one-of-a-kind design elements into other outdated parts of the home. To dress up the oak entry closet, Warner suggested covering it with industrial gray felt inspired by the “Felt Suit” sculpture by Joseph Beuys at the Walker Art Center. “The industrial fabric plays off the color and texture of the rolled steel,” said Warner. Abear and Etzell agreed to try it, and Abear even sewed the closet’s gray felt sliding door.
Warner also modernized the carpeted staircase and black wrought-iron railing by restyling it with white oak treads and steel cables strung from the second floor to the base of the staircase like a stringed instrument. Abear did the research on how to design the cables and found the hardware to fit it all together.
“It connects the two floors, is sculptural and practical and keeps it light and airy,” said Warner. But they did save the ’60s brown tile in the foyer, which was still in great condition, as a nod to the period of the house.
Part 2 of the renovation, completed this year, erased any remnants of the dark age. It involved gutting and rebuilding the second-floor master wing and drawing in more natural light. The new clean-lined contemporary bedroom is defined by white oak floors and sleek white wardrobe cabinets.
The vaulted white- and gray-tiled master bathroom features a space-saving door-less shower straight out of Dwell magazine, with the floor slightly sloped to drain water. Warner added a skylight in the hallway, and the bathroom doors have translucent glass to capture more light.
“The design is minimalist, but expressive with a warm, tactile quality,” said Warner. “No one wants to live in a white museum.”
Abear and Etzell both grew up in small towns surrounded by nature and are pleased that Warner’s renovation, above all, amplifies their view of the outdoors.
“When we were eating dinner, our son pointed to a great horned owl that had just landed in a tree 50 feet away,” said Abear. “We never would have seen it in the old kitchen.”