Photographer Karen Melvin drove her Sea Ray across the water to capture prime shoreline shots of boathouses on Lake Minnetonka. Then she stepped out of her boat, onto the dock and into the enchanting simple structures that for more than 100 years epitomized a slice of lake life.
“A house or cottage on Lake Minnetonka has a view,” she said. “But the boathouse allows you to be right on the shore and hear the water lapping.”
Melvin and writer Melinda Nelson have spotlighted 35 boathouses, gazebos and screen houses along the 125 miles of the lake’s bays in their new coffee-table book “Boathouses of Lake Minnetonka” (Big Picture Press, $49.95).
“I wanted to give readers a sensory experience of old and new boathouses,” said Melvin.
Many of the west metro lake’s boathouses were originally built in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and Nelson unearthed detailed historical facts on the succession of owners for each one.
“Frank Griswold [inventor of a streetcar traffic signal] built ‘Gerry Lo,’ a 30-foot runabout and the fastest boat on Lake Minnetonka in 1929,” said Nelson. “The boathouses were designed like jewel boxes to store these expensive gems.”
The popular “double-decker” style allowed boaters to drive or roll their wooden runabouts into the “water garage.” Ladies could don a wool swimming dress in a changing room, and then later watch the sailboat races on the upper level, said Melvin.
Today, restored and brand-new boathouses boast stone fireplaces, dining areas and even a sauna. They still store lake toys, but mostly they’re for reading in a hammock, entertaining or sipping a cocktail while gazing at the fiery sunsets across the lake.
The old boathouses are remnants from another era. Since the 1970s, Lake Minnetonka municipalities — with the exception of Wayzata — prohibit new structures to be built close to the water’s edge. Owners can only repair, remodel or restore a boathouse in the existing footprint.
We chatted with Melvin and Nelson about the plucky women who shaped the lake’s history, Melvin’s secret “crush” and how an Asian pagoda-style boathouse ended up on Smithtown Bay:
Q: When you were shooting photos, did you feel a strong connection to any of the boathouses?
KM: Judson Wayne Bishop, a Civil War general, built a cottage with a boathouse that had a romantic wraparound porch on the top deck with fantastic views on Casco Point. He built it after his wife died, and he married the nanny who took care of his boys. In a photo Bishop had this huge pompadour of hair and was tall, dark and handsome. I felt like I was being called to this place.
Q: Karen, you’ve already published the book “Legendary Homes of Lake Minnetonka” in 2009. What attracted you to boathouses?
KM: I had a cabin on Lake Minnetonka for 11 years and took friends on boat rides, and they’d always ask about the charming boathouses. In 2003, I started photographing boathouses for a magazine article I did with Bette Hammel, and the response was great.
I’ve always been enchanted by their diminutive size and how they represent simple living. When I told people I was going to do this book, they asked “are there really that many?” As we did our research and drove around the bays, before long, we had 35, and could have kept going.
MN: I’ve lived in Excelsior since 1991, six blocks from the lake, and served on the Historic Preservation Commission. The lake is historic as well as modern — with old and new families — and so many bays and inlets and interwoven stories to tell.
Q: What were homeowners’ reactions when you contacted them about featuring their boathouses in a book?
KM: Since I have a history of previous architectural books, they knew what to expect and were enthusiastic. But some said that the inside of the boathouses weren’t photo-worthy. I told them “I’ll take care of that.”
Q: What did you do?
KM: Some people treat their boathouses as a beautiful jewel to be preserved — while others were used as a storage catchall and needed some fluffing and buffing. I did some staging and styling. For some, I only had to add a bowl of peaches, while others I styled the rooms tastefully with furnishings and accessories. I was schlepping for three years.
Q: How did the 35 boathouses make the cut?
KM: It kept evolving. I made a list of desirables from cruising around on my boat. And then homeowners would tip us off to others. They needed to have a good history, [be] quirky, beautiful or have well-designed interiors. We wanted to show everything from very old to the handful of new ones.
MN: We developed a broad definition of “boathouse,” including everything from screen houses to sleeping porches. It’s really a place of respite next to the water. The collection expresses the personality and soul of Lake Minnetonka.
Q: Which is the most unusual and head-turning boathouse?
KM: The Robbins-Scott “pagoda” boathouse on Smithtown Bay is the granddaddy of the lake. It was built in 1916 and has a mix of Japanese and Chinese influences, which is unusual for Minnesota.
MN: The Robbinses journeyed to the Far East and honeymooned in Japan in 1912. They elevated their love of Chinoiserie design right down to the boathouse.
Q: The book is filled with vintage photos of women on the lakeshore. What role did they play?
MN: We wanted to honor the many women who helped shape and document the history of Lake Minnetonka. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, women ran the homestead, they cooked and taught the children how to swim. They packed up the family to spend the summer at the lake cottage.
We were charmed by some of the women who helped record the history. Thelma Jones wrote a book, “Once Upon a Lake,” filled with vivid emotional stories of Lake Minnetonka.
Q: You include detailed historical facts — even the names of owners’ dogs. How did you do research?
MN: We were architectural Nancy Drews. We read old newspaper clippings, interviewed owners, read letters and documents at the historical societies around the lake, looked at cookbooks and examined deeds at Hennepin County Government Center.
Q: Why have boathouses become such idyllic retreats?
KM: There’s a movement to going back to the feeling of quiet, simpler living, and the need to get away from harried life. That’s the core of these boathouses.
Q: Why do many owners fix up and renovate these old structures?
MN: They make the investment because they love the lake, and the boathouse is part of a family legacy. There’s a sense of stewardship — like owning a house on Summit Avenue.
Q: What was the best part of taking photos for the book?
KM: In 2012, my husband and I sold our little slice of heaven — our cabin on Cook’s Bay. This [working on the book] was my way to reconnect with Lake Minnetonka. Plus, I got to have drinks and appetizers, and made a lot of nice friends.