Barbara Lordi loves tending her Prairie-style garden and cooking vegetarian meals with herbs plucked from her own yard. Her husband, Scott Dyer, perhaps even more the urban agrarian, turns compost the way other people do crossword puzzles -- intensely. His 400-square-foot vegetable garden, surrounded by a rough-hewn fence he made himself, is so picturesque it could have been painted by Norman Rockwell.
As perfect as they seem for each other, Dyer and Lordi kept separate houses for almost a decade before remodeling Dyer's painfully plain 1954 rambler, which is less than a block from Lake Calhoun.
The couple -- he's a widower, she a divorcée -- waited to blend households because they didn't want to disrupt their four kids on the cusp of adulthood (two hers, two his). And then there was the matter of the yard. Finally, they decided to sell her house and remodel his.
"I loved my house, and it was hard to say goodbye, but this one had the better garden space," says Lordi.
Just before the last kid departed for college, Dyer and Lordi contacted architect David O'Brien Wagner, a principal at SALA Architects, to help them make one house for them and their blended family.
Wagner's design combines Native American and Japanese influences with the Midwestern ethos prescribed by progressive architects such as Purcell and Elmslie. The exterior has a hipped roof and layers of deep eaves, in the classic Prairie style. But inside there are bookcases that recall a Japanese tansu chest and light fixtures with shoji-like screens. The upper-floor screened porch rises from the top of the house like a Japanese teahouse, but is made mostly of cedar, a classic Native American material.
The dominant element of the remodeled space is wood: oak on the floors and thick horizontal bands of Douglas fir around all the windows and doors, on the baseboards, and around all the walls. A maple staircase leads to a second-floor treehouse-like retreat, which serves as Lordi and Dyer's bedroom, with the three-season porch just steps from their bed.
Against that natural backdrop, the couple kept the finishes understated: soft gray tiles in the kitchen, a bare counter save for a cast iron juice press. The master bedroom is painted in "Eucalyptus" from Restoration Hardware, a hue so muted it has but the faintest breath of green. The tableau is so quiet, in fact, that the few elements of drama really carry their weight. The seafoam green granite island in the kitchen immediately draws the eye. An acid-stained concrete sink in the master bath is such a potent verdigris that it is hard to see anything else around it.
In each room, Lordi made a conscious choice to let the natural elements speak for themselves.
"I don't want anything on the walls," she says. "I like it pure."
The few flourishes come mostly from friends and family members or Dyer himself, a woodcarver who turns abstract figures in ebony, cherry and walnut. A double-sided fireplace of battleship-gray stone in the great room will soon be topped by a weaving made by a relative. A Douglas fir shelf suspended above the kitchen island holds a collection of vintage American pots and a few quirky pieces thrown by her daughter, Catherine. "I just adore them," says the proud mom.
The gardens are as personal as the house. A family friend helped them design a Prairie-style garden, now thick with switchgrass, coneflowers and rudbeckia. Lordi's front herb patch yields sweet, Thai and dark opal basil (her favorite). There's also the little bluestem that Dyer collected, as well as plugs of dianthus from Lordi's former house near Lake Nokomis.
Just up the bluestone drive is perhaps the most artful of Wagner's touches: stained glass panels in the front door, designed by the architect and made by Century Studios in St. Paul. The panels show a tiny red square, which represents the Lordi/Dyer house, connected to blue squares representing Cedar Lake, Lake of the Isles, Lake Harriet and Lake Calhoun.
After Wagner finished the house, he gave it a name: Mde Medoza, which is what the Mdewakanton tribe of the Dakota Sioux called Lake Calhoun. It means "spirit of the loon" or "lake of the loon."
"That was very special," says Barbara. "This house feels very 'us.'"
Alyssa Ford is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.