In 1976, Tom Ellison and Joanne Ellis Ellison honeymooned at Lutsen Lodge on the shore of Lake Superior. Over the years, they took their two children on trips canoeing and camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and hiked in North Shore state parks.
“We always loved Lake Superior,” said Joanne. “It was our interior ocean experience.”
But they had never crossed Duluth’s Aerial Lift Bridge and set foot on Park Point, a long and narrow sandbar stretching for 7 miles.
“We would pass through Duluth to get to the beauty of the North Shore,” said Tom, architect and founder of TEA2 Architects in Minneapolis. “We didn’t know about the beauty of Park Point’s dune beaches.”
The Ellisons discovered Park Point and its quaint beach settlement in 2004 while hunting for Duluth-area property on which to build a summer vacation home.
Tom and Joanne walked the point and were surprised by the clumps of dune grasses. “After college, I worked in Boston and visited Cape Cod,” said Tom. “The plants, the grass and the sandy beach reminded me of the Cape.” Then serendipity connected them to “this tremendous piece of land that had never been built on,” said Tom.
The 80- by 200-foot property sat on the far end of the point and delivered views of Lake Superior on the east side and Superior Bay on the west side, with rolling water as far as the eye could see. Building a home on Park Point would give them a connection to the city of Duluth — while also allowing them to experience a tranquil nature setting.
“We knew we could design a house on top of the ridge that could look out in both directions,” said Tom.
Several years later, the couple were ready to dig in on the design of that vacation home. “We wanted it to be a retreat — but not just for lying around,” said Tom. “We both wanted to do creative work while we were there.”
So the Ellisons decided to include an artist’s studio for Joanne and an office/studio for Tom. Their final “working retreat” is composed of two steep gabled structures linked by a second-floor screen porch.
The north gable houses Tom’s office/studio on the second floor, while the south gable holds Joanne’s studio, tucked inside the peak of the third floor.
In her studio, Joanne has an eagle’s-nest view of water vistas while she’s painting. “When the wind is blowing off the lake, it’s really something,” she said.
‘Symbolic of our marriage’
The two separate gables are “symbolic of our marriage,” explained Tom. “We are two independent people working on our own — and we meet in the middle at the end of the day.”
The common living spaces — kitchen/eating, library and living room — are on the main floor. The owners’ suite is on the second floor, as well as a guest bedroom and half-bath nook at the far end of Tom’s office/studio.
Finally, they designed the home to be only as wide as one room to maximize the view of the lake from just about every single space. Dormers jutting out of both gables draw in light and expand the vistas from the upper floors.
In fact, the couple can bask in the glow of sunrise in the morning and sunset in the evening — all from the same spot in the living room. The result is that the home “connects to our environment as directly and dramatically as it can,” said Tom.
On the home’s traditional exterior, thoughtful touches “give it a sense of whimsy, and are a nod to the North Shore,” said Joanne. The front entry is clad in birch siding, and dark gray stone wraps around the base.
“The other wood shingle siding relates to architecture you would see on Cape Cod,” said Tom.
Joanne, a Master Gardener, fills the copper window boxes with flowers and tends gardens on their land.
Inside, the aesthetic “walks the line between modern and traditional,” said Tom. The open, airy floor plan, punctuated by a band of clerestory windows, is accented with a variety of warm woods, as well as cool metals. The open staircase melds a steel cable railing with a walnut handrail and treads.
The living room’s wraparound oak window seats provide abundant storage and “a sense of refuge in an open room,” said Tom. Joanne has sprinkled driftwood, feathers and rocks, collected on walks, throughout the spaces.
The coolest element inside the cook-centric kitchen is open shelving suspended from a wall of glass. It allows Tom and Joanne to gaze at wildlife and the wooded landscape while reaching for a plate or preparing dinner.
Since the kitchen is visible from other rooms, they added a hidden pantry in which to store the refrigerator and other appliances. A “reverse” banquette built into the kitchen peninsula offers lots of seating to admire Lake Superior’s mystique.
The dwelling’s most unique feature — the second-floor screen porch that links the studios — was born when the couple were standing on the point watching the harbor sunset. “We wanted to experience it in a more direct way than from inside a room,” said Tom.
So they tucked the second-story porch between the two gables to create vast unobstructed views of the lake and the bay. The porch’s curved roof is clad in metal on the outside and fir on the inside. To reach his office/studio, Tom has to walk through the screen porch. “In the winter, I just jog across.”
Tom and Joanne were equal design partners on the project, collaborating on functionality, materials and features. Tom found the drawn-out, detailed process of building his own home more challenging than any of the projects he’s done for his TEA2 clients.
“It was difficult narrowing down the world of possibilities,” he said. “I was always thinking about how it could be done better.”
The Ellisons’ Lake Superior vacation home amid the tall pines was completed in 2011. Two years later, the couple decided to sell their Minneapolis residence and move Up North for good. Joanne is retired, and Tom is semiretired, now designing projects for North Shore clients.
The couple also have gotten involved with the Tweed Art Museum and Park Point community gardens. Now they can canoe, walk the miles of beach and swim every day. And bird-watching has become a new passion (Park Point is a popular bird migration area).
But the magnet was — and always will be — Lake Superior.
When you live on the shore, the lake is an irresistible fascination, Tom said. “There’s so much drama between the storms and sun — and it’s always changing.”