As a suburban teen, Diana Chandler was eager for a change of scene. She left Minnesota to attend college in Connecticut, then moved to New York City to pursue acting. “I was never coming back,” she said.
She did come back to visit her mother, who still lived in Chandler’s childhood home, a midcentury rambler overlooking Lake Harvey in Edina. But Chandler’s life was in New York, with her husband, Spencer, an actor and musician.
“I wanted a New York City apartment,” said Diana. “I didn’t understand the appeal of a house in the suburbs.”
After becoming a parent, her perspective started to shift. Getting around on the subway, with a small child and baby gear in tow, wasn’t easy. Then Diana’s mother died, leaving her the rambler, which had been in her family since her grandparents built it in 1953.
“I wasn’t ready to sell at first,” Diana said. She felt a sentimental attachment to the house, so she thought about holding onto it and renting it out. “At the time, we had no plans to move back here,” she said. But soon, with a second child on the way, both she and Spencer started thinking, “The apartment was getting smaller,” she said. The couple couldn’t help comparing life in New York to a more peaceful life in Minnesota, on a lake, surrounded by trees and wildlife.
“We have a house,” Spencer realized. “We had the key. All we had to do was let go” of living in New York.
They could always visit, the couple theorized. “We could do fun stuff — without slogging through life there.”
So the family pulled up stakes and moved halfway across the country into Diana’s childhood home, “the only house I ever knew,” she said.
Like most older houses, it was ripe for some updates. It wasn’t energy-efficient, and the layout was segmented, which left some rooms — including the living room — rarely used. “It was a living room to look at but rarely gathered in,” said Spencer.
At first, the Chandlers planned to make only a few minor changes. But living in the house for a year helped them understand what they loved about it — the tranquil setting, the windows overlooking the lake and the breezeway — and what they wanted to improve. “It was like a rehearsal,” said Spencer.
They ended up gutting most of the structure and re-creating it within the existing footprint, with most rooms in the same places.
“We loved the size — just right for a family,” said Spencer of the 2,900-square-foot walkout rambler.
“We went from, ‘We have to pull up this old carpet,’ to completely remodeling the whole house,” said Diana.
Restoring the cupola
To reinvent their home, the Chandlers turned to architect Jeremiah Battles of Acacia Architects, Golden Valley. The home’s original architect, William Brooks Cavin Jr., was a modernist best known for commercial buildings, such as the Veterans Service Building in St. Paul and the Washburn Library in Minneapolis. Cavin’s papers were on file at the University of Minnesota, where he taught for two decades, and Battles was able to use them for reference.
“We kept the essence of it, and fixed the things that needed fixing,” said Battles, which included adding spray-foam insulation and other updates in the name of sustainability. “We wanted to do justice to it.”
Part of doing justice to the house was restoring Cavin’s original vision for its design. When Diana’s grandparents bought the lot in the 1950s, a neighbor who had owned the land reserved the right to approve their plans. One of Cavin’s early designs for the house included a cupola, which the neighbor rejected. “They [her grandparents] wanted to do it, but it was nixed as too modern,” said Diana. “Jeremiah proposed adding a cupola, to restore the original plan.”
The cupola, with clerestory windows, adds height and presence to the house. At night, it emits a warm, comfortable glow, “like a beacon,” said Battles.
The Chandlers were committed to keeping all their mature trees. “We love every tree on this property,” said Spencer. In the end, only one birch was moved — to build a small 3 ½-foot addition in front, creating space for a new entry and mudroom.
“The rest is all original footprint,” said Battles. “It took a lot to get things to fit in this footprint.”
Inside, the main-level floor plan was opened up to create one large living/dining room. “Bringing light in was important,” said Battles. New windows help create a connection between the indoors and the outdoors, including the lake.
The new great room includes built-in cherry bookcases, and a cherry ceiling. The cupola ceiling also is paneled in cherry. “It warms up and connects the space,” Battles said. Reclaimed wood flooring from local ash trees complements the room.
The kitchen, formerly small and closed off, is now spacious and open to the dining room.
“We went through so many different iterations of the kitchen,” Diana said. The final design includes a large center island, big enough for homework and baking projects to go on simultaneously. “Before, there was no counter space.”
Instead of a trendy white-on-white kitchen, the Chandlers opted for warm finishes, including cherry cabinets, soapstone countertops and a handmade-tile backsplash. Sliding Japanese shoji screens, with acrylic panels that mimic rice paper, can be closed to create a sense of separation between the kitchen and the great room.
The master bedroom now has a small seating area with a big window overlooking the lake. That was Spencer’s request. “There was no place to sit,” he said. “We popped it out.”
Diana’s childhood bedroom was a time capsule of her youth. “I had painted all over it — lyrics, poems and paintings — and my mother left it,” said Diana, an artist. She had the room repainted for their 10-year-old daughter, Olivia. “There goes my teenage angst! That is her room, not mine anymore. Time for everybody to move on.”
The home’s lower level also was updated, with insulation and new windows to bring in additional light. But they kept the original terrazzo floor. “I never liked it, and wanted to redo it,” said Diana. “But everybody says, ‘Wow! This is cool.’ ”
Spencer got a music room with a wall just for hanging his collection of instruments. “Before I had ’em in cases,” he said. A new lower-level kitchenette was outfitted with the repurposed cabinetry from the upstairs kitchen, creating storage space for all the dishes they inherited from Diana’s mother. “We can store the Christmas plates down here,” Spencer said. “We thought about every inch of this house.”
Now that they’re settled in, the house Diana thought she never wanted feels like home.
“What’s really lovely is that it’s still the same enough for a sense of continuity — but different enough that it feels like my own,” she said.
“I think my mom would really like it. She wanted me to live here, but I didn’t know it,” Diana said. “She asked me if I’d ever come back to live here, and I said no.
“After she died, I realized she was asking, ‘What’s going to happen to this house I love?’ She loved the lake, the trees, the squirrels and her raccoon. I’m glad to be here in space that she loved.”