For their vacations, Mark Wernick and Nancy Entwistle usually gravitated to western Wisconsin. They’d visit the Creamery, a restaurant in Downsville, ride their bikes along the Red Cedar Trail or hike the soaring bluffs.
The couple had a home in Minneapolis but were drawn to the rolling hills of the Mississippi River Valley. “I’ve always dreamed of riding a motorcycle in this area,” said Wernick. “It’s so beautiful.” Whenever they climbed a bluff and admired the scenery, they would ask each other the same thing: “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a house with this view?”
In 2009, Entwistle and Wernick decided to move beyond talking about it and start looking for a piece of land, where they could build a weekend escape from the city and be close to many friends who had retirement homes in the area. “We were both hitting our 60s, and decided we have to do it now, or else it will be too late,” said Entwistle, who grew up in a small town in Wisconsin.
A friend told them about a real estate company, with a booth at the State Fair, that was offering land near Pepin, Wis. The couple drove out with an agent who showed them lots in the woods. “But the view of the valley was too tunnel-like,” said Wernick. As they were leaving the development, they spied a piece of property for sale with trees strategically cleared out to show off and sell the view.
“It had farmland, bluffs, Lake Pepin,” said Entwistle. “You could see it all.”
Entwistle and Wernick snapped up the 8 rural acres outside of Pepin, and enlisted SALA architects David O’Brien Wagner and Chris Meyer to design their second home sited on a bluff high above the Mississippi River Valley, just like they’d dreamed of 20 years earlier.
“David came out and walked around the property to figure out how to mesh the house with the slope and contours of the landscape,” said Wernick. “And we told him it had to be attractive enough for us to want to drive through traffic every weekend.”
Farm in front, beauty in back
The completed one-of-a kind getaway has a gravel driveway that leads first to a cluster of outbuildings — a tool shed and a machine shed — which gives the agrarian setting a farmstead feel and offers some privacy.
For the house, Wagner designed a low-slung, rectangular-shaped structure to fill in the 100-foot-wide gap in the tree canopy created by the developer. The shed roof mimics a farm building, said Wagner. But at the entrance is an unexpected wall of rusted Corten steel, which roots the home to the landscape by blending with the forest setting.
The exterior’s textural steel shell opens to a huge picture window, giving a glimpse of the bluffs and the river valley out the back of the home. Inside, a wood and glass box holds the living and sleeping quarters.
Wagner calls it the “Edge House.” “The design is a mediation between two realms: the farmland to the north, and the bluff above the Mississippi River Valley to the south,” he said. The picture window serves as a threshold between the farmland and wooded edge beyond.
Wernick and Entwistle didn’t want to worry about climbing steps as they aged, so the 1,800-square-foot home is on one level. The owners’ bedroom is at one end, and the guest bedroom, which doubles as Entwistle’s art studio, is at the other end.
“When you walk in and turn to the right, it explodes into a big, tall space with high, sloping ceilings, walls of windows and the river,” said Wagner, referring to the simply designed, spacious open area that encompasses the kitchen, living and dining rooms.
It’s a marked contrast to their home in the city — “a 1967 rambler with little rooms and lots of walls,” said Entwistle. “This feels open, uncluttered and relaxing.”
But the best seat in the house is on the steel-railinged deck thrusting out above the valley. “Sometimes the clouds are so white and fluffy,” said Entwistle. “When the fog rolls in, the river disappears. And lightning puts on quite a show.”
Numerous built-in maple bookcases and cabinets divide and define spaces, as well as providing efficient storage. The built-ins lend simplicity and practicality to the small space, said Meyer. To warm the home all year long, Wagner put in a heated concrete floor, colored and polished, and a Danish wood-burning stove. Silver and black pendant lights suspended from the ceiling continue the metal motif and are reminiscent of what you might see in a factory or bakery. With the exposed Douglas fir beams and columns, steel brackets and cross braces, the interiors are a “truthful, honest expression of what it takes to hold a building up,” said Meyer.
Wagner and Meyer, who helped design the Green Dream Home at the 2009 Minnesota State Fair, also incorporated many passive heating and cooling design principles into the Wernick/Entwistle retreat. For example, the home is oriented toward the south to harness solar energy, while wide overhangs block the hot sun in the summer, and screened doors and awning windows take advantage of the valley breezes. The house is expected to be certified in the Wisconsin Green Built program. “For us, it has become second-nature,” said Wagner. “The architectural community is committed to smart design to reduce our impact on the planet.”
Wernick and Entwistle drive the 85 miles to their getaway as often as they can. And with Wi-Fi, it’s easy to bring their work with them. Entwistle is a Web designer, and Wernick is a Hennepin County judge. “I like writing legal opinions from here because I can relax and focus,” said Wernick.
And when it’s time to play, he pulls his new Harley out of the machine shed. Just like 20 years ago, the couple explore the towns along the winding county roads. But now they don’t have far to go home.