Driving through the Pamela Park neighborhood of Edina, you can't help but notice the sparkling white houses with gable roofs, front porches and black-clad windows that pop up like proud sentries among the 1950s-era ramblers and story-and-a-half homes that once dominated the area. And although these newcomers have an unmistakably modern look, their basic form is instantly recognizable as classic American farmhouse, a style that's been growing in popularity both nationally and in the Twin Cities.
Minneapolis architect Jean Rehkamp Larson is well versed on farmhouses, past and present. Her 2004 book, "The Farmhouse: New Inspiration for the Classic American Home," explores the principles and evolution of the style, and her eponymous firm, Rehkamp Larson, has designed lots of them, though none for real working farms.
"It's ironic but actual farms are now more likely to have rambler-type homes, which are more practical for aging farmers," she observed. "Sometimes they share the land with the old farmhouse that's no longer used."
Those old farmhouses, hallmarks of the rural landscape at the turn of the century, were born of practicality and pride of place. Roofs were pitched to easily shed water and snow, porches to offer shade from the hot summer sun and provide a transitional space between the messy barnyard and the more civilized house. Board-and-batten or clapboard siding made use of abundant wood cleared from the land, and white paint provided a crisp clean counterpunch to the often dirty work of field and barn.
Actual farmers might have moved on from the style, but custom home builders and city dwellers have picked up on it, increasingly in established neighborhoods, where residents are often wary of new infill construction. Rehkamp Larson believes the appeal is partly nostalgic, a longing for a slower pace and simpler way of life, and partly aesthetic.
'Honest and authentic'
"Life is so busy and people seem to be gravitating to homes that are honest and authentic—with a modern look that's not cold," she said. "A farmhouse, even one with modern details, can feel a little more settled in its context than a boxy, flat-roofed modern house, so it's a good neighbor."
Edina builder Refined Custom Homes built their first contemporary farmhouse in 2011. The style now accounts for about half of all their new builds, according to managing partner Eric Nelson. "We were on the forefront of the style, and it's become really popular over the past five years. About 80 percent of new clients who walk in the door show us some kind of a farmhouse," he said. And while the look remains popular, he thinks the market might be starting to edge toward another style, perhaps something slightly more elegant.
Tiffany and Kyle Graalum found the perfect spot to build their new house next to the ballfields, ice rinks and wetlands of Pamela Park. They were leaning toward either coastal or farmhouse style, but after looking at online sites and driving around the area they settled on farmhouse.
"It just looked so inviting from the curb," Kyle said. "I think the era of shiplap hit us hard, too. Once we started putting that on the walls, there was no turning back. We fell in love with it."
And while the couple originally planned to create a rustic feel inside, they found that as building progressed, they were drawn to more refined, modern touches — in light fixtures, tile and on the wood floors. Their finished home looks charmingly compact from the street and belies its 4,000 square feet — a fact that earned them compliments and a warm welcome from the neighbors.
Empty nesters Colleen Carey and Pam Endean bought their new four-bedroom farmhouse, designed by architect Joy Martin, after seeing it online last year. A walk-through confirmed that it was not only the right space for them but also a respectful presence on its established block in southwest Minneapolis. "We were looking for something contemporary with lots of natural light and a front porch, " Carey said.
"But we didn't want a house that stuck out and felt wrong for the block," Endean said. They've noticed more homes popping up in the same style, and while they're not crazy about being part of a trend, they also think the homes are differentiated enough to not look cookie-cutter.
The style's ability to blend in with the existing architecture of older neighborhoods can be attributed to the inherent modesty and scalability of a farmhouse, especially when compared with other previously popular housing styles, such as Mediterranean, French Country or Craftsman. The flexibility of the form means it can be interpreted in different ways — traditional, rustic, minimal, modern — and in different sizes and still retain its wholesome appeal.
Key architectural features of today's farmhouse interpretations include a simple roofline with a somewhat steeply pitched gable, black-clad windows and siding in horizontal (classic) or vertical (modern) board-and-batten or clapboard. Bright white paint is favored for its fresh, crisp look and ability to highlight the subtle details and textures of the uncomplicated design, including the small shadows cast by overlapping siding. A metal or gray shingle roof offers clean contrast, and a covered porch is nostalgic and provides a welcoming threshold and spot to connect with neighbors. What modern farmhouses don't have is a lot of ornamentation — shutters, corbels, detailed porch columns and the like.
On the inside, the contemporary sensibility continues with a casual, open floor plan, white or light gray color palette, wood floors in a lighter stain, simple moldings, modern light fixtures and a wall or two of shiplap—a nod to farmhouse patron saints Chip and Joanna Gaines of "Fixer Upper" fame. Other country touches such as apron sinks, barn doors and unfinished wood beams are becoming somewhat less prevalent.
Mark Parrish of Lakes Sotheby's Realty agreed that the style has taken off in recent years. "Buyers are drawn to houses with clean, modern lines and more open, functional space," he said. "These houses have that, but they also have a timeless quality that looks like it could adapt over time."
Nick Smaby of Choice Wood Design Build has seen a lot of housing trends over his 35 years in the business, and he has a theory as to why farmhouses are hot. "I think people are sick of McMansions, and these houses have a nice modesty about them," he said. "Plus, we're not that far removed from being a bunch of farms ourselves so maybe it just feels right."
Laurie Junker is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.