The house looks old. The red oak floors creak, the cafe curtains hang stiff with starch, the wall plaster was clearly applied by hand at some fuzzy point in the past. Walk through the rooms, and it's clear they've been well-lived-in: light bulbs have been changed, meals have been cooked, children have been hustled off to bed.

The truth is, though, that this house in Minneapolis' Linden Hills neighborhood is brand-spanking new. Most of it, anyway. The oak trim is new. So is the stucco, the roof, the kitchen, the landscaping, the lighting and the master suite.

The original 1920s abode was purchased five years ago by a doctor and his wife, after their three kids flew their suburban coop in Plymouth. The wife had the idea of buying a little place and turning it into the quintessential grandma's house, a "darling little cottage" that would be rich with memories from Day One. Minneapolis architect Andrea Peschel Swan, then of TEA2 Architects, now of her own eponymous firm, was up to the task. This is how she created "old" from "new":


Certainly it would have been easy to grand-scale this little house and just add a few nostalgic finishes. But the architect and the homeowner were insistent that a picturesque little cottage needed to be just that ... little. Even with a modest master suite addition, the house is under 2,000 square feet.

Old-fashioned dimensions

The house may be small, but it has 13 rooms, a testament to the old-time tendency toward teeny, cordoned-off spaces. To maintain that vintage vibe, the homeowner and architect kept the old rooms, and did not enlarge any of them. In the diminutive galley kitchen, Swan incorporated several pull-out storage racks and a nifty fold-down breakfast table. The homeowner even agreed to a surprisingly narrow 27-inch-wide refrigerator because a typical one would have looked out of place.

Classic colors

Swan and the homeowners chose a color palette that would speak to the 1920s and 1930s: a soft oatmeal for the exterior stucco, a saturated forest green for the shutters, a chestnut brown for the cork flooring in the kitchen. All woodsy, homey and inspired by the Arts & Crafts period.

Period details

Swan knew that in order to create the fairy-tale "grandma's house" the owners had in mind, she had to deliver subtle, nostalgia-inspired detailing. So she designed an oak-framed passthrough window between the dining room and kitchen; she dreamed up little decorative brackets to go around the stove; she sketched oak-leaf cutouts for the shutters, and envisioned a custom copper rain chain that would add old-time charm while hydrating the side gardens. The homeowners' favorite room is the downstairs bath, with its clawfoot tub, milky porcelain sink and freestanding towel cabinet built by a local artisan.

Lighting reproductions

Many lighting reproduction companies specialize in UL-rated fixtures with just the right look for period houses. Swan took all her selections from Rejuvenation Lighting, a Portland, Ore., company that hand-builds fixtures of burnished brass, polished nickel and steel. But other reputable reproduction companies include Urban Archaeology, Schoolhouse Electric Co. and American Nail Plate Lighting.

Conscious restraint

Although the project was a major overhaul that touched almost every room, Swan was conscious of when to let the house just be. The original red oak floors were simply repaired and refinished. The hand-trowled plasterwork on the walls got a touchup and new paint, but that's it. The house has many arched doorways connecting the rooms, and Swan let them be.

Exterior attention

What would the perfect grandma's house be without a picturesque cottage garden? Not much, thought the homeowners, so they brought in Yardscapes, a Minneapolis landscape design company, to install a simple paver patio surrounded by grasses, ligularia, astilbes and hostas. In the front, the woman of the house planted a small garden of meaningful plants: columbine for Colorado, where their son went to college and met his wife; forget-me-nots for Alaska, where their two youngest were born; rambling roses for New York, where both daughters went to college.

Curated possessions

After all the architect's hard work, the homeowners could have blown the entire mystique with a single flat-screen TV. But that lives in the lower level, along with the brand-new washer and dryer and the full-size refrigerator. In the rest of the house, the owners have taken a curatorial approach. There are art pottery pieces from the early 20th century and prints of famous Grant Wood paintings, but there are no Tupperware containers, clever clocks or Blu-ray collections. In fact, most of the couple's possessions have a family connection, like the walnut step stool carved by a brother, or a grandmother's oil painting. "They don't shop at Ikea," says Swan of her clients. "They like everything to have a story and a memory."

Alyssa Ford • 612-673-4116