Like-new house fits an old block in Minneapolis

  • Article by: Jim Buchta
  • Star Tribune
  • March 15, 2006 - 11:07 AM

Flanked by two handsome, Romantic revival-style houses built during the early 20th century, Beth and Rick Anderson's nondescript 1960s house seemed like an afterthought.

"It stood out for the wrong reasons," said Mark Larson, one of two Minneapolis-based architects hired to rescue the south Minneapolis house. "It was basically a box, a blank slate with no personality."

Though the Anderson's dowdy in-fill house was in solid condition, it fell short of serving the family's active lifestyle and matching the neighborhood's early-20th century charm. So, the Andersons hired Larson and his wife and business partner, Jean Rehkamp Larson, to help answer a familiar, but increasingly perplexing question: Remodel or start shopping for a new house?

The first step, Larson said, is to come up with a preliminary design and calculate the cost. In this case, the house had good bones, including a solid foundation, brick fireplace and some structural components worth salvaging. But it had an impractical floor plan, cramped kitchen and none of the character that's common in the neighborhood.

"When you're fresh out of school and have lived in apartments your whole married life, it felt pretty good when we moved in," Rick Anderson said. "We had a lot of space. ... But as our standards and expectations became higher it started to feel less appealing."

For years the Andersons contemplated a project-at-a-time approach, starting with new kitchen cabinets and flooring. But each time, they came to the same conclusion: The house didn't have the flow or the finishes they wanted. "As we visited other houses in the neighborhood we would see stark differences between what we were living in and what was out there," Rick said.

The Larsons presented several options that focused on reconfiguring the floor plan and giving the house a modern makeover.

The plan included adding space to the back of the house and a new porch to the front and reorganizing the rooms throughout.

They started with new front and rear entries. Originally, the house had a front door, but the only access to the back yard was through a side door and a set of sliding doors that opened to a rear screened porch. It wasn't a good arrangement for a number of reasons. The side entry opened unceremoniously right into the dining room and did little to cultivate a physical and visual connection to the backyard.

So the architects came up with a design that groups the front entry foyer, mudroom and powder room on one side of the house without wasting valuable space elsewhere on the main level. That allowed them to create a bigger kitchen, including an eating space, that's connected to the family room and a formal dining room and living room.

To make that happen, they moved the side entry to the back of the house and connected the mud room at that back entry to a central, all-purpose foyer that's also connected to the front entry, forming a central hallway.

So when you step into the front entry, you're in a foyer that opens directly into the living room or a small powder room. Or you can proceed down a short hall toward the back of the house, to the casual dining area, the basement stairs and the mud room that opens onto the covered porch at the back of the house.

Limestone tile floors help visually connect the formal space at the front of the house with the informal space at the back, but they also provide a durable, easy-care surface.

Visually, the hallway is divided into two distinct "zones" by a graceful barrel-vaulted ceiling that creates a threshold between the front and back entries. There's a traditional painted ceiling in the casual mud room and a slightly lower, cherry-wood paneled arched ceiling over the formal entry. The dining room ceiling got the same treatment. "It feels more intimate," Rehkamp Larson said. "It makes you feel like you're in the hull of a boat."

There are practical reasons why it made sense to connect the two entries, Larson said. There's a handy place to stow shoes, gloves and backpacks regardless of what door you enter. Also, there's an immediate view of the front and back yards, and light spills into what otherwise could be a dark space.

"Even if I can see the dirty shoes at the back of the house, I feel like I'm in a different space," Rehkamp Larson said. "It's an efficient way to have the front and back entries share the same function."

It's these kinds of gentle, open transitions that can transform a house from a rabbit's warren of small, cramped rooms into a series of rooms that flow easily from one to the next. The key to improving the circulation path throughout a house, Rehkamp Larson said, is widening doorways and creating multiple entrances and exits in places that make sense. In this case, doorways that were only 2 feet 8 inches wide became 4 feet wide.

Another way to make a house feel more spacious and open is by creating views from one room to the next.

"Visual connection is as important as physical connection," Rehkamp Larson said. "You need to have a sequence of spaces. If there are thresholds that are open but defined, your eye can see the stopping point. It feels bigger because you think it's three rooms away."

Upstairs, the house has a new master suite with a walk-in closet and private bathroom -- amenities it didn't have before. There's a laundry room, two bedrooms and an office, as well.

With all of the changes and the cost of renting a house while the project was under construction, it would have been less expensive to buy a lot in the suburbs and build a new house. The Andersons knew that going into the project, but they didn't want to leave their neighborhood, which is just a block from Lake Harriet and five miles from Rick's downtown Minneapolis office.

Also, the values in their area had increased so significantly that the neighborhood was able to support the increased value of the house.

But it's not an approach that will work for everyone.

"It can be a slippery slope, and you can see why people end up doing tear-downs in the end," said Mark Larson. "But in this case the house was usable."


Jim Buchta • 612-673-7376

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