Victoria Erhart's first life-changing Madeline Island experience was in 1978. She had just moved to Minnesota, and her mother's friend invited Erhart to her cabin on the island, part of the Apostle chain.
"She told me we would drive to Bayfield [Wis.] and then catch a ferry," recalled Erhart. "When we approached the island, and I saw the quaint little village, it felt like I had come home."
To Erhart, who is from New York and spent summers as a girl at both of her grandmothers' homes in rural Maine, Madeline Island felt familiar. "The northern water, rocks, trees — and not very many people — reminded me of Maine," she said.
From that moment, Erhart was enamored of the charmingly remote island surrounded by the vastness of Lake Superior — a beautiful substitute for the Atlantic Ocean. "I knew I wanted to keep coming back," she said.
Nearly 35 years later, Erhart has traveled on the Bayfield ferry more than 500 times, going to and from Madeline, where she now owns a cottage along the white-sand shoreline.
Like most seasonal visitors, Erhart first started by renting a cabin each summer. By 1994, she had bought a small, rustic two-bedroom beach house with no electricity.
Then in 2009, she jumped on an opportunity of a lifetime. A good friend had decided to sell part of her 80 acres of land. Erhart bought 9 acres with 500 feet of shoreline to build a new cottage on the remote end of the island, far from the ferry landing, inns, tourist shops and the popular Tom's Burned Down Cafe. It was ideal for Erhart, who prefers nature and solitude to the island's social scene. "I really love the remote feeling at the end of the island," said Erhart, an avid kayaker. But building new "was scary and exciting at the same time."
Erhart had envisioned a small cottage reminiscent of "Lucia's Little Houses," which are modest home designs by Maine architect Robert W. Knight. "I wanted it simple, relaxed, with nothing kitschy," she said.
Minneapolis architect Christine Albertsson, who grew up in Vermont, was up to the task of giving Erhart's retreat a New England sensibility, using practical, durable materials.
"We were able to use a high-performance building envelope that still feels like a light shelter with soul," said Albertsson.
Before the start of construction, workers felled an acre of dense forest to create an open meadow to surround the house, where Erhart could plant colorful native wildflowers, including bee balm, black-eye Susans, daisies, lupine and grasses. Erhart and Albertsson consulted with a neighbor on creating the thoughtfully designed landscape. "The meadow gives it a rural feeling," said Erhart. "I love to hear the wind blowing on the grasses."
For the structure, Albertsson designed a 1½-story cottage with two bedrooms, a sleeping loft and one bathroom, all in just 1,100 square feet. Erhart wanted to keep the house comfortably "right-sized" for herself and her daughter, rather than having a "giant house waiting for guests," she said. "I only need one bathroom — people can share" (or they can use an outdoor shower, a popular feature on the island).
On the exterior, Albertsson combined cedar shake siding with durable metal roofing over the screened porch and front entry porch. She also added a rural-look "barn" — clad in fiber cement and painted Scandinavian red — to provide more sleeping space on the property. The barn and main house were positioned at a 90-degree angle to create a courtyard and to define the front entry.
The barn's main floor is used for storage, including Erhart's pottery wheel; a second-floor dormer bedroom offers four single beds for guests. The barn is unheated, and a vessel and water spigot near the red outhouse serve as a bathroom.
Inside the bright and light-filled main house, the walls are a combination of stained open studs and tongue-and-groove paneling. The flooring is made of reclaimed barn wood, for a historical element. "The open studs make it feel like an old uninsulated cabin," said Erhart, who had nixed wallboard. "It gives it soul — and places to set things."
The open living spaces, including the kitchen and dining area, are centered around the fireplace, as well as a wall of windows facing Lake Superior. Erhart chose a stone-clad wood-burning fireplace that heats the rooms like a wood stove. "It has the look of a cabin fireplace but also provides heat," said Erhart, who splits all her own wood.
The kitchen boasts a vintage vibe with Shaker-style cabinets, butcher block-topped peninsula and Erhart's 1930s Magic Chef range. The tongue-and-groove ceiling is painted periwinkle blue. "It mimics the sky," said Albertsson. "You see it in beautiful old farmhouses in Vermont." The kitchen window faces the meadow instead of the expected lake. "You have to capitalize on the full experience of the site — not just the money shot," said Albertsson.
The upper floor is an open loft framed by a railing of white flat wood panels with 3-inch openings. "It's a detail you see on homes all around Lake Superior," said Albertsson. "It ties it to the Scandinavian history of the region." The loft holds one bedroom, a seating areas for watching movies and a sewing nook "all tucked under the eaves to keep the small house under control, scale-wise," said Albertsson.
Erhart also chose to integrate several green features, such as energy-conserving SIPs (structural insulated panels) painted white in the ceiling and roof structure. They have a high insulation value and are an efficient use of roof space.
The red barn roof facing south is covered with photovoltaic panels to generate electricity for the two buildings. "The payback takes awhile — but it feels like I'm not taking so much of the Earth's resources," said Erhart.
Erhart, who recently retired as a Twin Cities family practice physician, now can spend "big chunks of time" with her daughter, two dogs and two cats at her island retreat, a short drive from where the ferry dropped her off so many years ago.
"It's a rich house in a humble way," she said. "I love to sit on the porch with a cup of tea and watch the butterflies and dragonflies in the meadow."