With the longest shoreline of any lake in the state, 365 islands and Superior National Forest surroundings, Lake Vermilion in northeastern Minnesota has long been a destination for cabin, resort and camp goers.
Now, one of the most famous abodes along the 290-mile lake, a midcentury modern cabin designed by influential and award-winning modernist architect Elizabeth "Lisl" Close, has been listed for the first time.
The property, called Thunderhead, sits on a peninsula, affording it 3,000 feet of shoreline. Listing agent Karen Rue said the cabin, built in 1957, marries midcentury modern and "classic cabin life."
"The significance of this property really has to do with the impeccable architectural integrity of the entire property. It is still exactly as it was intended and being used as it was intended on that 46 acres of pure pristine land," Rue said. "A cabin to beat all cabin cultures — it's all been left in place."
In addition, the Cook, Minn., property comes with a smaller log cabin, workshop and boathouse. Curated furnishings from well-known designers of the era and a vintage collection of rare books are included in the listing. Originally the workshop was used as a beach house and still has two bunk beds for extra sleeping space and could be converted back, Rue said.
"We clearly think it could be a great beach house," she said. "That space has options for the next owner."
Built on friendship
Thunderhead is also significant in that it houses the first cabin Close's firm designed in Minnesota — as well as the only privately commissioned project the pioneering architect worked on during World War II, said Jane Hession, architectural historian and author of "Elizabeth Scheu Close: A Life in Modern Architecture."
Jerry Hill, who taught in the General College at the University of Minnesota, tapped Lisl and her husband, Winston "Win" Close, to design the cabin. As one of three university faculty members who previously commissioned the Closes' firm to design the Faulkner House, Minneapolis' first International Style-influenced home, built in 1938, Hill had a friendship with the couple. And as the co-author of the scholarly art book "Art Today," Hill had a strong interest in fine and functional design and art.
"Hill had definite ideas about what he wanted ... and was well-informed about the challenges of designing a habitable structure that could withstand the harsh conditions and weather extremes on a [peninsula] in northern Minnesota," Hession said.
The Closes closed their office between 1942 and 1946, when Win served in the U.S. Navy. But because Hill was a friend, Lisl took on his cabin project and designed it during the war years, Hession said.
The L-shaped cabin features two wood-burning fireplaces, angled and vaulted ceilings as well as redwood throughout. Corner-to-corner windows invite natural light and panoramic lake vistas from gathering spaces as well as the sleeping quarters of the five-bedroom, one-bath cabin.
John Boelter, who owns the property along with his three siblings (their parents purchased the property in-house in 1968), remembers heading to the Lake Vermilion getaway ever since he was a child. The 1940s log cabin, which also sits on the site, was resurrected by his aunt and uncle.
"It was built in stages. My uncle Richard Conrad would take logs right out of the forest," Boelter said. "Later on, they doubled the size of the cabin. My aunt had a contractor come in and add a large kitchen and add a little more space."
Boelter said his uncle and Hill knew each other, and that's how they ended up having their cabins on the same property.
"Jerry and our uncle were very good friends going back to their time together at the U of M in the 1940s — and thereafter through their lives," he said.
A design for the ages
After Boelter's parents purchased Thunderhead, the family spent extended periods there.
"We'd all pile into the station wagon and head up [from Arlington, Minn.] and stay there as long as we could," Boelter said. "Back then there weren't the distractions of the internet and cellphones."
His appreciation for the larger cabin's design and its lead architect — one of the first women in Minnesota to have an architectural license — grew from there. Boelter became a self-appointed researcher in the architect's works and believes the cabin is arguably Lisl's "finest hour" in her L-shape designs in the way it invited in natural light, cross breezes and its peninsula surroundings.
"And every turn of a corner, you have some different type of view of the lake," he said. "There is a breezeway where the screen goes from the floor all the way up to the ceiling that gives you a true feeling of being outdoors. The breeze will come through from the lake. It's just a really nice environment."
Lisl's design included furniture — a confluence of her modernist style and Hill's affection for efficient use of spaces and materials.
A dining area maximizes space with a long-cushioned bench on an exterior wall. Imported Danish furniture — from the France & Daverkosen drop-leaf teak table for 10 to fireside lounge chairs by Torben Strandgaard — is woven into the spaces. Game table chairs in a wishbone design are from designer Hans Wegner, then little known but later referred to as the "King of Chairs."
Among Boelter's favorite rooms is the library, with an extensive collection of classic books lining the built-in shelves, strong evidence that an educator once lived there. Just outside the library, a deck extends over the bay.
"There's so much function in each room, and each room is its own special environment," Boelter said.
These days, Boelter and his siblings live in various parts of Minnesota and out of state, so they decided to sell.
"It just wasn't being used," he said. "My hope is that it goes to someone who appreciates midcentury architecture and what the Closes did and be good stewards of the place."
Boelter said spending time at the property takes planning. If you're headed from the Twin Cities area, it's about a 3½- to four-hour drive. Thunderhead isn't near a road, so they would park their car at one of the resorts (Ludlow's Island), load their boat parked there and shoot across to Thunderhead.
"It's probably a five-minute trip," he said. In winter, they traveled by snowmobile or car (when there was little or hard-packed snow) or hiked approximately three-quarters of a mile with supplies in tow.
Once there, Boelter found spending time on the lake, one of the entry points into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, to be well worth it. Eagles and osprey fly over regularly. Folks have fallen asleep under the aurora borealis, he said, its soft colors lighting up the largest International Dark Sky Sanctuary in the world.
Then there are the priceless memories created with his loved ones.
"Boating and swimming were great fun. We would play cards and board games deep into the night," Boelter said. "It was wonderful being able to sit around the fire and talk. It was really fulfilling to have built those relationships with your family and friends."
Given that the history of the property — and its cabins — were built on friendships, seems the spirit of Thunderhead is still very much alive.