Nancy Edwards’ cottage home has been in her family 54 years, ever since she was a teenager. Her father crafted many of its features by hand, including cabinets, wood paneling and decorative trim.
But Edwards knows that she’s most likely the end of the line for the little house. After she dies, she figures it will be demolished within months. Not because it’s in poor condition, but because of its prime location on Lake Minnetonka’s Crystal Bay.
Strangers knock on her door, wondering if she’ll consider selling. She always says no. “They’re going to have to take me out of here feet first,” she said.
All around Lake Minnetonka, the Twin Cities’ largest lake, homes of all sizes, from tiny cabins to massive estates, are being torn down. The multimillion-dollar mansion teardowns make headlines, the loss of modest homes rarely do. But together, their elimination is dramatically changing the character of the lake.
“We’re losing the architectural history of the lake,” said Bette Hammel, author of “Legendary Homes of Lake Minnetonka.” Ferndale, in Wayzata, in particular, is “being transformed by teardowns,” she said. And as an architectural journalist, she laments much of what is replacing the historic houses. “It’s the rise of the McMansions — houses that are overly gabled and extremely huge on the site.”
Arlyn Anderson, who owns a small 1950s cottage on Cook’s Bay that her parents built by hand, notices the changes when she goes sailing. “I see what’s replacing the cottages, these giant mansions. Sometimes they don’t put any trees in front and they stick out like a sore thumb.”
Modest Lake Minnetonka cottages are now “an endangered species,” according to Jon Monson, president and founder of the Landschute Group, an Excelsior design-build firm. “All are in jeopardy because of the value of the property. It’s civic vandalism.”
Monson is a realist, not a purist. “I’ve torn down more than my share,” he said. “I’m not impugning anyone who tears something down. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense to save. But more properties are being torn down than need to be.” He said more thought should be devoted to evaluating old houses and the options for preserving them, from moving them to another site to restoring them in place.
In recent years, Monson’s company has forged a niche restoring lake homes and helping homeowners evaluate whether a house is worth saving. “We want to apply deliberate, rational appraisal for determining when to save and when to start from scratch,” he said. “This is a free country, but I’d much rather respect the past as we go to the future.”
Mark Gaylord, mayor of Excelsior, also is trying to pump the brakes on teardowns. He’s restored two old houses in Excelsior for himself and also builds and renovates houses as owner of Dwell Development.
“It’s pretty obvious cottages are endangered,” he said. “Once you tear it down you’ve lost all the history. There are such interesting stories behind each one.” Often restoring an old house is no more expensive than building from scratch, he said. “It just takes a lot more thought.”
His city is currently considering measures to encourage preservation and restoration over summoning the wrecking ball. “We are looking at revising our ordinances to give homeowners credit for keeping a house, credit on permitting fees, or a penalty for a teardown,” he said.
Classic Arts and Crafts
Some of the old cottages facing teardown have architectural and historical significance. Keith Wilcock recently sold his century-old house on St. Alban’s Bay that the new owners plan to live in for now — while they build their dream home.
Wilcock and his wife, who lived in the house for 43 years and raised their three sons there, had hoped to hand over the keys to someone who appreciated its vintage qualities enough to keep it.
The house — about 3,000 square feet, plus a studio and a boathouse at water’s edge — is Craftsman in style, with a wraparound front porch, beamed ceilings, pocket doors and rare cat’s eye oak woodwork. “It’s a beautiful old classic Arts and Crafts house,” said Wilcock.
“We were hoping we could find somebody who loved old places,” he said, but he’s resigned to its fate. “I don’t have a lot of nostalgia. Once I sell, it’s up to the owners to do what they wish.”
Edwards’ cottage isn’t important architecture. It’s modest in size, about 1,800 square feet, and has been remodeled substantially over the years. Originally built in 1865, “it was probably just a fishing shack,” she said.
Her parents bought the place in 1962. “It was their dream to get on the lake,” she said. Over the years, her parents and, later, Edwards lavished care on the house. She’s remodeled the kitchen and a bathroom, and recently converted the porch into a first-floor master bedroom, at the urging of her three grown children.
The property is now valued at about 25 times what her parents paid for it, with almost all the value in the lot. To cover her property taxes, which have increased to almost $11,000 a year, and living expenses, the semiretired psychotherapist has had to take out a reverse mortgage.
She keeps a little shrine to her father in the corner of her kitchen: a photo of him, surrounded by fishing lures, a pole and a fishing hat. “Every day, he’d get up at 6 a.m., go out on the bay and catch northern pike,” she said.
For now she’s savoring her remaining time in the house and on the lake. She’s a regular at the Narrows, a neighborhood watering hole where she’s known as “the dancing grandma.” And she loves the view from her cozy family room, with its beamed ceilings, bookshelves built by her father and big windows overlooking the lake. “It’s magical to sit in here at night with a fire and a glass of wine,” she said.
“Think how sad this will be when it’s leveled,” she added. “It’s a piece of history.”
Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784