When I was growing up in 1970s Burnsville, Krestwood Knolls (note the pre-Kardashian use of the K) was the neighborhood that all upwardly mobile homeowners aspired to achieve.
One of my father’s favorite Sunday afternoon activities was home-gazing, and his orange Pinto station wagon (don’t judge, it was the ’70s) often gravitated to Krestwood Drive, where he would ooh and aah over the gussied-up ramblers, Colonials and split-levels.
Me? I would invariably ask him to detour to a very different kind of suburban enclave. The traditionalist in him didn’t care for it one bit, but I dreamed that we’d trade our shag carpeted split-entry on B’ville’s west side for a townhouse in stylish Birnamwood.
Now, nearly a half-century later, Birnamwood is aging better than a premium-vintage Burgundy.
It was created by Pemtom, a developer that practically invented the Twin Cities suburban townhouse landscape. Through the participation of its many forward-thinking principals — including visionary land-use expert Bob Engstrom — the company took a pioneering approach to multiunit development. Open spaces were reserved for all residents to enjoy. Rather than being bulldozed, the terrain’s natural features were not only preserved but treated as marketable assets.
Pemtom tapped Stillwater architect Michael McGuire for a half-dozen of its townhouse projects.
“They got better as we went along,” he said with a laugh. “The more successful they were, the more license I had.”
In 1965, when the company launched Windsor Green in New Brighton, it was treading on uncharted territory. It’s difficult to imagine today, but the 245-unit project was the first of its kind in the metro area. Engstrom recalls drafting the state’s first home association legal documents, culled from a template from the Urban Land Institute.
Suburban Twin Citians, long accustomed to single-family living, snapped up Windsor Green units as quickly as they could be built. Buoyed by consumer interest (witty advertising by Carmichael Lynch of Minneapolis generated plenty of interest), Pemtom quickly added nearby Brighton Square, then headed south to Burnsville.
By 1967, the company was drawing up plans for what might be considered its masterpiece: Birnamwood.
Public, yet private
The neighborhood is loosely organized around a meandering, semicircular drive, one that begins and ends at a single exit; it’s a gated community, minus the gate.
Like its Pemtom siblings, Birnamwood achieves its sense of visual timelessness by relying upon strong horizontal lines, a tightly edited inventory of building materials — Chicago common brick, cedar plank siding — and a muted, earth-toned color palette: moss, taupe, cocoa, mud.
“Someone once said about me, ‘Your favorite color is brown,’ ” said McGuire with a laugh.
The neighborhood’s layout ingeniously shoehorns 222 homes on 43 parklike acres (the rough equivalent of 32 football fields), but “crowded” is one word that could never be associated with Birnamwood, because the row houses dot a wooded, gently rolling landscape. The neighborhood’s southwestern portion overlooks a golf course, which emphasizes that sense of openness.
What leaves a lasting impression, all these years later, is the homes’ relationship to the shared open space, an unspoken public-private dialogue. They’re placed in compact clusters that maximize sightlines to wooded areas and lawns, but their garages also line up along easily accessible, alley-like promenades that link to that main circular drive.
Paved walking paths to tennis courts, a swimming pool and other amenities add a second connective tissue. As he did at Windsor Square, Engstrom commissioned architect Jack Buxell to create sculptures (in enduring Cor-ten steel, which takes on a rusted patina), which he believes were the state’s first private residential developments to include public art.
Engstrom recently visited Birnamwood, and remains impressed.
“This is going to be an unusual moment of modesty for me,” he said with a laugh, “but compared to a lot of what others have done over the years, it has stood up quite well.”
No kidding. Today’s ticky-tacky townhouse developments could take all kinds of cues from Birnamwood. Its homes boast enviably roomy patios and decks, but their staggered placement shields them from prying eyes and eavesdropping ears. It’s a semi-urban neighborhood that retains a sense of suburban privacy.
“I’m a loner,” said McGuire. “I like my neighbors, but I like my privacy. I believe in living in tight, compact neighborhoods, for that social connection. But I also want to be able to sit outside and not have a conversation with my neighbor.”
McGuire trained at the University of Minnesota School of Architecture, and launched his career in 1960. While his portfolio contains some notable commercial projects — including downtown Stillwater’s Dock Cafe and the remake of that city’s century-old grain elevator, which houses his offices and studio — his life’s work has primarily been in the realm of residential design. He’s still at the drafting table at age 88.
His final townhouse project was Eastbank in North Hudson, Wis., and it’s a beauty. Residences were outfitted with St. Croix River boat slips.
“That’s my favorite,” said McGuire. “It’s the one that I had total control over.”
Spoken like a true architect.
Pemtom, now the Pemtom Land Co., has thousands of metro homes to its credit. Post-Birnamwood, the company (and McGuire) built Scarborough in Bloomington and the Cedar Lake Townhomes in Minneapolis.
Engstrom, the author of 1979’s “Planning and Design of Townhouses and Condominiums,” also remains active, and influential.
His Bloomington-based Robert Engstrom Co. is the force behind innovative projects (Fields of St. Croix in Lake Elmo, for starters) that echo the open-land formats of his progressive Pemtom projects. His latest, Wildflower at Lake Elmo, features 145 homesites and a 40-acre conservancy planted in native prairie pollinators.
“After all these years, I still enjoy it,” he said. “It’s still relatively easy to recognize good design from bad design. And it keeps me young.”