Empty nesters Mary Glas and Mark Larsen were on the hunt for a nice condo on the Mississippi River. But they discovered that finding a unit in their price range, with three bedrooms to accommodate their visiting adult children, was hardly a slam dunk.

Glas and Larsen were close to giving up when a Realtor friend tipped them off about a house for sale in the quiet St. Anthony neighborhood of northeast Minneapolis.

The couple were intrigued, and biked by the plain-Jane residence, noting its prime location across from a park and walkable distance to Lund’s, restaurants, bars and other Northeast businesses. Plus it boasted a unique deep back yard — without a city alley.

But once inside, they found that the 1993 tract home possessed all the design flaws of that era — small, dark, compartmentalized rooms with few windows, and walls that blocked natural light. It was also outdated, with floors of dark wood parquet, and golden-oak cabinets and railings. “It felt so closed in,” said Glas. “You couldn’t see the back yard — or the sky from anywhere.”

Although they weren’t crazy about the four-level split floor plan, there was one positive: All the main living areas were on one floor, they said. Glas and Larsen returned to the home five times — the last time with their friend and contractor Tom Lemmerman, who convinced them that it was a solid house with plenty of potential. In 2010, they bought the property — warts and all.

“It was such a good price,” said Larsen. “So we knew we could do a dramatic remodel.” But they weren’t quite sure how to make the home light-filled and inviting.

In the fall, the couple went on the Homes by Architects Tour to gather ideas. They fell in love with a modern modular home in Minneapolis designed by Eric Odor of SALA Architects. The couple were drawn to its simple modern aesthetic that used materials and design strategies to infuse some warmth.

“The home was clean, bright and had a modern feel to it,” said Glas. “It was the right size, and all the space was usable.”

The couple were captivated by Odor’s creation — but weren’t quite sure they needed to hire an architect for their project. After Glas and Larsen gave Odor a tour of their home, he crafted a model showing how they could knock down walls to make spaces flow and draw in more light. The model included three “bump-outs” that would create abundant storage cabinets in the kitchen and living room, as well as a mini-mudroom in the entry.

Larsen and Glas decided they wanted to do more than just “a nice remodel.” The scope had grown to completely transform the function, flow and feel of the split-level, they said. “With Eric’s ideas, we could do something really special and live here a long time,” said Larsen.

Starting from scratch

Odor’s tract-home transformation involved gutting the interior, removing walls and creating a new open floor plan within the 2,300-square-foot footprint. He relocated the kitchen from the back to the front of the house, and strategically positioned massive windows to capture light from the east in the morning, and from the west in the evening.

He also arranged the living areas around a two-story bathroom shaft, modeled after the original Walker Art Center’s elevator shafts. “I envisioned them as ‘galleries for living,’ ” he said of the main floor.

Just beyond the vaulted kitchen, Odor designed a wood-paneled drop ceiling to draw the eye to the back wall of floor-to-ceiling glass overlooking the gardens.

The split-level home had a split staircase — heading up to the bedrooms and down to the family room — which posed a puzzling challenge for Odor. The split staircase was set at a 45-degree angle, hindering flow and light. Odor’s solution was to take out a 10- by 16-foot chunk of floor. This created a two-story space with a new staircase that connected the three levels, which was key to opening up the house.

“I tore out 160 square feet to make the house live larger,” he said.

Glas agreed. “We lost some square footage — but what we have left is all usable and committed.” Larsen likes the open sightlines. “Now we can see wall to wall — before we couldn’t see 12 feet.”

The new staircase is constructed of recycled Douglas fir steps with a see-through steel-cable railing. “We hand-picked the fir from the Duluth Timber Co.,” said Glas. “And Mark cut and sanded them.”

On the second level, Odor converted the existing three small bedrooms into a spacious master suite appointed with a walk-in closet and Carrara marble-tiled bathroom. Odor compared the newly finished lower level to a garden apartment that houses a TV/guest room, bathroom and flex room with a Murphy bed.

The interior wasn’t the only part that got a makeover. Odor re-skinned the exterior with low-maintenance fiber-cement siding. He pushed out the front entry 2 feet and projected the sheltering canopy beyond the face of the garage.

“For little cost, it was a game-changer,” he said. “The entry canopy is now the focus of the front facade, not the garage, and it invites you in.”

To keep costs down, Larsen and Glas invested some sweat equity, including doing all the demolition, ripping out carpet, cutting and finishing the millwork and planting trees and shrubs. They also sourced and ordered many of the materials, including the cabinet components from Larsen’s company.

“It was a lot of grunt work — I had to haul and load wood flooring three times,” said Larsen. “But it was worth it.”

Glas and Larsen gave up their dream of a condo overlooking the river but gained a comfortable modern split-level with plenty of space for their kids to stay over and a yard for their prairie perennial gardens.

“This house is so open,” said Glas, “that when we’re making coffee in the kitchen, we can hear the water flowing from the fountain in the back yard.”