Back in 1991, Ann and Doug McMillan walked into what appeared to be a no-frills, knotty-pine-paneled cabin from the 1950s. Then they saw the stainless-steel countertops and backsplash in the kitchen. “The kitchen drawers were even lined with steel,” recalled Doug. “The cabin was one of a kind.”

And ahead of its time. The McMillans found out that the cabin’s original owner, George Marzolf Sr., was the engineer who invented deep-drawn stainless steel. He installed the no-seam, smoothed-edge steel on his kitchen countertops, a look that previewed today’s modern kitchen applications.

Even the dock on the St. Croix River was stainless steel, “which got really hot in the sun,” said Doug. The couple were charmed by the unique features — and tranquil setting — of the Marzolfs’ rustic summer place near Hudson, Wis.

White pines towered over the property, which boasted 220 feet of sandy shoreline along the river. It faced west with spectacular sunsets over St. Mary’s Point.

On the flip side, the basement had water damage, and the interiors were wedged inside a 1950s time capsule, and would require extensive updating. “But it was a fine solid box we could work with,” said Doug.

Ann fell for the rushing river below big picture windows inside the cabin. “The pines framed an enchanting view of the river,” she said. “It spoke to us.”

The couple bought the property and turned the 1,500-square-foot, two-bedroom cabin into their own summer getaway home, only 20 miles from their St. Paul Colonial. First they built a big wraparound deck to expand living space and create an outdoor spot for relaxing under the pines. Later, they added two small dormers in the unfinished attic to turn it into a fun sleeping loft for their four kids.

Other cosmetic improvements included replacing eyesore acoustic ceiling tile with pine beadboard, and worn linoleum floors with maple. “We wanted to bring warmth, and update the inside with natural materials,” said Doug.

Time for a change

For two decades, the McMillan kids had a blast boating, water skiing and fishing. But by 2012, the couple were empty nesters and ready to undertake major improvements on the cabin so they could stay there for longer periods into the fall and winter.

Ann and Doug decided that architect Mark Nelson and designer David Heide of David Heide Design Studio were right for the job; they’d already done some remodeling on the St. Paul house.

“They know how to preserve the original character, but add an element of elegance with detailed craftsmanship and quality materials,” said Ann.

And there was no doubt what was at the top of the list: a spacious master suite to replace the tiny bedroom, closet and cramped adjacent bathroom on the main floor. “But we didn’t know how to get a big master suite out of the kids’ bunkhouse,” said Ann.

First David Heide Design sought and received a variance, due to strict regulations on new construction within the St. Croix River District. Since the cabin’s original footprint couldn’t be altered, the firm’s design solution was to raise the roof 3 ½ feet and build four large shed dormers, creating usable space for a spacious bedroom and bathroom. “The dormers also add more windows, light and ventilation to the second floor,” said Nelson.

At the top of stairs, an autumn-themed art-glass skylight sets the tone for the finely crafted features throughout the upstairs bedroom suite. Pine bookshelves are built in below a wall of windows facing the river. Rough-hewn tree trunks support rustic ceiling beams, and “bring an organic quality to the architecture,” said Heide.

A local craftsman designed and built a free-standing bureau that doubles as a headboard and separates the dressing and sleeping areas. Woodcarvings inspired by tramp art, and branch-shaped bronze pulls decorate the piece. Rustic meets high-tech with an automatic lift that raises a TV from inside the bookcase — so that it doesn’t block the view.

A second art-glass skylight — this one depicting spring flowers and a dragonfly — draws light into the windowless new master bathroom. Dimmer-controlled LED lights illuminate the art glass at night.

The two pine vanities, heated floors and basketweave tile give the bathroom a vintage luxe feel, as well as providing lots of storage.

Ann picked a William Morris traditional floral wallpaper that was hung above white-painted wainscot. “He was a great textile designer from the Arts & Crafts period,” she said. “The wallpaper brings nature inside.”

As the project progressed, Doug and Ann decided to remodel all three levels of the cabin. “They recognized the benefits to creating a cohesive working home for their family,” said Nelson.

This involved rebuilding two stacked staircases, which widened the front entry and opened sightlines through the house and to the river beyond. “Sometimes just moving a staircase can be cheaper than an addition to gain space,” said Heide.

Although the ceilings are only 8 feet tall, the main-floor living areas feel airy and open. “And we’re no longer bumping our heads when we climb the stairs,” said Doug.

In the living room, the McMillans preserved the original knotty-pine paneling, while revamping the wood-burning fireplace with an Arts & Crafts-style green-tile surround. Finally, they installed energy-efficient picture windows that span the back wall overlooking the river.

Updating the kitchen

The quirky galley kitchen still showcases Marzolf’s innovative stainless-steel handiwork. Ann appreciates the timeworn steel work surface below a window where she can hear birds chirping.

But the McMillans decided the kitchen needed some upgrading with new appliances, and they also tore down a hallway wall in order to add a curved pine breakfast bar. “The peninsula opens up and connects the kitchen to the rest of the house,” added Heide.

Down in the basement, the couple remodeled a second “catering kitchen” for better functionality during holiday family gatherings, as well as refurbishing the rec room.

The renovation was such a success that the McMillans ultimately sold their St. Paul home so that they could live along the St. Croix year-round.

Although it feels like they’re in the North Woods, Doug is closer to his job, and it’s a short drive to the Twin Cities for Minnesota Twins games and to visit their adult children.

In honor of Marzolf, Doug lined the fire pit with a steel rim. It’s where they sit with a glass of wine and watch eagles soaring over the St. Croix. “George Marzolf is looking down on us with a smile on his face,” said Doug.