Growing up in Farmington, Cass Stillman dreamed of adventures in faraway places. So a week after she graduated from college, she moved to the other side of the world: South Africa, to work as a dental hygienist. "I wanted to work someplace they spoke English," she said.
She fell in love with Cape Town and all things African, but eventually returned to Minnesota, where she met her next lifelong love: her husband, Andy, who shares her passion for travel. "We both have wanderlust, and we travel together really well," he said.
About 20 years ago, they made their first trip to Africa together. "She wanted to go back, and I fell in love with it, too," Andy said.
The Stillmans make their home in Minnesota. But Africa is almost their second home. They've returned numerous times and led many groups (Cass is now a travel consultant, and Andy operated a food import business that he recently sold.) They've visited about a dozen African countries, even Uganda, back when tourism was first emerging after the overthrow of Idi Amin.
But their commitment to the continent goes deeper than just exotic vacations. They've also done mission work in Kenya, through a foundation, building a women's clinic and adopting a village where they're building a school.
Over the years, they've also built a collection of African sculptures, masks and other artwork, most of which they kept in boxes because they didn't have much space for displaying it in their house in Minnetonka. They finally decided to build a house where they could surround themselves with things that reminded them of their favorite destination.
But first they needed just the right site. They'd been looking for two years when Cass, out for a bike ride, came across a property for sale, a former dairy farm on a wooded, secluded site in Woodland, a small city tucked between Deephaven and Minnetonka. There already was a house on the property, but it had been built in 1962 and needed major repairs. The Stillmans decided it wasn't practical to save the house, although they did save the former barn and some exterior stonework.
To design their new house, they turned to architect Jim McNeal of Charles Cudd DeNovo, whom Andy had met on a Parade of Homes tour. "There was this guy there with a sketchbook," Andy recalled. "I could see his passion for wood and stone. We hit it off. I knew this was the guy."
Andy had a strong idea of what he wanted — a house that felt warm and relaxed, large but not grandiose, with a lot of stone and arches. "Stone is my favorite material," he said. He also wanted some African elements, and some cottage influences.
"I told Jim, 'I need you to create a new style: African storybook cottage.' "
McNeal was up for the challenge, which wasn't as incongruous as it sounds. "They didn't want literally African, but a hint to African," with African-inspired carvings, finishes and details, McNeal said. "Andy had the vision, and I could play off of it."
McNeal's first design, with a stone and stucco exterior, looked a little more Mediterranean than what Andy had in mind. So McNeal added a tall chimney and took the stone all the way up to the roof. "Kind of like 'The Hobbit,' " he said.
That was the look Andy had envisioned. "It was like this guy climbed into my head," he said.
Inside, the centerpiece of the home is a round living room, or rondavel, from the Africaan word "rondawel," which refers to a Westernized version of an African hut. The room has a distinctive curved drystack stone fireplace and a ceiling with classical groin vaults but in a machete shape. "Instead of traditional details, we came up with our own," McNeal said.
To fulfill Andy's vision for a one-of-a-kind house, McNeal assembled a team of artisans.
"Everybody had a voice," Andy said. "I told them, 'I'm going to let you guys have a lot of rein — give me your best.' " That's his advice for anyone building a custom home: "Choose the right people, then allow them to use their talent to the fullest."
That's not to say Andy didn't weigh in from time to time, such as when he decided that the interior woodwork needed raw, scraped edges for a rustic African aesthetic. "The corners were too sharp. It reminded me of my attorney's office," he said.
Stonemason Luke Busker of Roberts, Wis., played a pivotal role in the project. "He's not just a mason, he's an artist in stone," Andy said.
Busker made 12 trips to Montana quarries and brought back tons and tons of stone for the house and grounds. The handcut, drystack stone arches in the kitchen were especially challenging, Busker said. "It required a lot of math."
He devoted nearly two years to the project. "That was my baby," he said. "It's not like it's my house, but it has a special place in my heart. A lot of blood, sweat and tears."
The 6,400-square-foot home includes a gallery, where the Stillmans can display their African art, as well as art-friendly niches and alcoves.
When it was time for finishes and fabrics, McNeal called in interior designer Abby Wettleson of Charles Cudd DeNovo. Wettleson met first with Cass to understand why the African theme was so close to her heart. "She had lived there and always loved it. It was important to both of them," Wettleson said.
During the project, Wettleson learned the difference between African and Indian elephants, where to find crocodile-shaped hardware and how to use limestone tile to mimic the look of ivory. "There was so much permanent detail in the house, like carving, that the other things didn't need to be so obviously African," Wettleson said. "We chose organic things and warm, earthy colors."
Wettleson and Cass even got their hands dirty fabricating the laundry room countertop, which is made of blue glass and concrete. "My favorite color is blue," Cass said. "We collected Skyy vodka bottles for a year," with help from a restaurant in Hudson, Wis., then crushed them and mixed them into the concrete themselves.
At the end of the project, the Stillmans treated McNeal and Wettleson to a trip to South Africa to see its wonders for themselves.
"That was like a dream," Wettleson said. "It was the project of my career — the most involved and rewarding, and the most unique and personal home I've done."
Andy, who christened the house Mwamba Boma, which is Swahili for "big stone homestead," loves every inch of it. "This is everything I wanted, room by room," he said.
The couple, who entertain frequently, have hosted many gatherings in their new home, including several fundraisers for African-related causes. Andy's favorite compliment came from a guest: "Someone said, 'It's big, but it doesn't feel too big. It's very warm.' That was music to my ears."