'Superior Split lives up to name

  • Article by: Jim Buchta
  • Star Tribune
  • March 15, 2006 - 10:35 AM

As a home builder's daughter, Tara Clark has always lived in houses built by her father, Clarence Kemp, who's been in the business since the early 1960s. So when Clark and her husband, Tim, decided to build a getaway house on the North Shore of Lake Superior, it was only natural to carry on the tradition.

For Clark, it was a chance to weave the carpentry skills of her father with the architectural creativity of his friend, Dale Mulfinger of SALA Architects in Minneapolis. The result is a house that defies simple description. Contemporary? Kind of. Cozy? Yes. Traditional? In some ways. Unique? Absolutely.

"This is certainly not a traditional, North Woods nostalgic house," said Tim Clark. "Everything is on very steep and interesting angles, and Mulfinger did that because he knew Clarence could build it."

The Clarks gave Mulfinger and Kemp carte blanche on the design, but there were some things that were not negotiable: They wanted plenty of room for their three kids and their friends, a studio space for Tara and a design that steers clear of superfluous sentimentality. At the same time, they wanted the house to nurture their connection to the rugged landscape right outside their window.

"We wanted a wilderness sanctuary, not a Minneapolis house," Tim Clark said. "We wanted it to be a lake house and wanted it to be different, a place where people could be creative, be quiet and have fun."

Mulfinger, who designed the house with Barbara Murphy, visited the site, a large plot of land that Kemp subdivided into 11 home sites, and was stunned by the rugged beauty of its shoreline and the power of the lake -- fierce enough to carve land and crack stone.

"The site is majestic and it deserves a big response," Mulfinger said, recalling his interest in creating a structure on par with the grandeur of the lake.

Thus inspired, he drew a house that he calls "Superior Split" because the house is actually two separate structures held together by one roof.

Both sections, including a garage and the main living spaces, are tucked under a broad roof that slopes towards the ground. One half of the roof covers a garage and a second-floor studio space; the other shelters the main living spaces, including three bedrooms, an office/guest room, a living room and the kitchen. Both halves are connected by an open terrace on the first floor that also serves as the front entry, and by a screened sleeping porch on the second level that connects the studio to a second-floor hallway in the main part of the house.

This house isn't small. With more than 2,400 square feet and sweeping roof lines, it's a somewhat imposing structure that easily could have overwhelmed the site. But by splitting the house in half, Mulfinger created an opening in the facade and a framed view that provides a tantalizing glimpse of the lake.

Paying homage to the rugged, random quality of the North Shore landscape, there are few 90-degree angles in the house. In most houses, for example, the ridge line of the roof runs at a right angle to the edges of the roof, but in Mulfinger's interpretation, the ridge line crosses the roof at a slight angle. To make structural matters even more complicated, the two sections of the house are set at an angle to one another. By not aligning the ridge line to roof and the roof to the house at right angles, Mulfinger was able to create unconventional walls and ceilings with unexpected angles and few, if any, square walls.

"It separates the men from the boys when you build something like that," said Kemp, recalling the mental gymnastics it took to build the house. Every structural roof member, for example, is a different size and had to be cut on the radius to fit flush with the unusual line of the roof. Kemp, who has been building houses for more than 40 years, said that he wasn't intimidated by the project, in large part because of his rapport with Mulfinger.

Tara Clark said that even today she's amazed by the complexity and detail of the house. "My dad had several workers who said they couldn't do this. Nothing is straight in this whole thing. You look at it and say, 'How did anyone put this together?' It's a sense of pride and craftsmanship that my dad has spent a lifetime achieving."


Jim Buchta • 612-673-7376

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