At first, it was just talk. Tom and Linda Van Bruggen wouldn’t commit to adding a much-needed bedroom or bathroom to their weekend lakeside ranch home. Instead, “we talked about someday tearing it down and building a new house,” said Linda.
But not until 35 years later, after their three grown children moved out of their family home in Wadena, did the couple decide to fulfill their life-changing dream. Tom, a surgeon at the Wadena hospital, was prepared to make the longer daily drive to a year-round lake home. “It was time,” said Linda. “We wanted to get it done before we were 60.”
But who would they hire to design a restful retreat on their beloved acreage along the shores of Big Sand Lake in northern Minnesota? For years, Linda had been driving to the Twin Cities to gather ideas at the Parade of Homes tour. Architect Charles Stinson’s creations really resonated with her. “I’ve looked at hundreds of houses, but Charles’ designs spoke to me,” she said. “They have this Zen-like feeling.”
Stinson has made a name for himself locally and internationally with his trademark warm modern aesthetic, defined by sleek horizontal lines, flat rooflines and expanses of glass. His homes are oriented to draw in lots of light and maximize a connection to the outdoor setting.
The Van Bruggens chose Stinson for their extensive project because they weren’t remotely interested in a traditional log cabin or gabled lake home. They were fans of Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie-style architecture and wanted to mix restrained minimalism with warm craftsman qualities.
They enlisted Stinson and his firm, Charles R. Stinson Architecture + Design, to craft a peaceful light-filled getaway that would meld with the lake and woods and not “stick out like a sore thumb,” said Tom. “Up here, there are some fancy North Woods type of homes,” he said. “Our house is a jewel in the woods sitting on the hillside. It fits in with the surroundings, yet it’s very unique.”
Stinson drove Up North and walked the secluded point, surrounded by Big Sand Lake on three sides, to explore the interaction of the light, views and terrain.
“We took a boat out on the lake to see how his design would fit in,” said Tom. “He’s a master at that.”
Stinson perched the home on a hill, which gently slopes down to the lake. The structure’s land-hugging horizontal planes echo the lake and shoreline. A tower encased in glass soars above the flat rooflines, drawing in daylight and moonlight and framing views of the treetops.
“The design is a composition of forms that work in harmony to give you a sense of shelter,” said Stinson. “But the home keeps connected to the bigger openness and the outdoor views so the spirit can soar.”
Through bands of high clerestory windows, Tom and Linda can watch clouds floating across the sky and incoming weather. The home, situated on the widest part of the lake, has walls of glass that reflect both the sunrise and sunset. Almost every room has sliding doors opening to an expansive terrace where the couple can sit and gaze at the water.
“It’s like camping in a beautiful tent,” said Linda. “The trees, the lake and the green grass — that’s the draw,”
Stinson agreed. “There’s no way we can compete with the beauty of nature. So we keep the architecture simple,” he said. “It’s just there to frame the views and get out of the way.”
Inside, the L-shaped open floor plan flows from a sunroom on one end to the private master suite on the other. The master bathroom boasts one of the most spectacular views in the house. Stinson cantilevered the spa-like tub room and wrapped it in glass on three sides. It’s so private that no shades are needed. The attached master bedroom is Tom’s sanctuary, overlooking the reedy part of the lake. “The sun comes up between my toes when I’m in bed,” he said.
The kitchen, which is inside the “tower,” is “command central like Captain Kirk [of ‘Star Trek’],” said Stinson. When the Van Bruggens’ children and grandchildren visit, everyone gathers around the quartz-topped island. Linda looks forward to a daily visit by a doe and her fawns outside the kitchen window. “They come for the corn I feed them,” she said.
In the adjoining great room, Stinson introduced vertical forms such as a dramatic floor-to-ceiling fireplace wrapped in limestone, and pillars made of burnished concrete blocks. “The fireplace form is more like a sculpture,” said Stinson. “We left it open in the middle so you can see into other rooms.”
But it wasn’t a slam dunk picking the right concrete blocks with earthtone flecks to add depth and character to the interior and exterior. “We had them build a couple of walls to look at before we decided which one we liked,” said Tom.
To make the wide-open spaces feel warm and homey, the firm’s designer, Nicole Norris, used a mix of woods, including anigre cabinets, maple floors and fir window trim. The centerpiece custom-designed walnut dining-room table is used for big holiday gatherings. “We mixed different materials and textures to create visually interesting layers and depth,” said Norris. “And added pops of color with artwork on the white walls.”
Linda chose leather for many of the furnishings because the material doesn’t aggravate her allergies. “It’s a hard house, but it feels soft because of the way they designed the interiors,” she said.
The couple rave about the views and the craftsmanship, but on cold days, they really appreciate the in-floor heat provided by the geothermal system they had installed. “If building new, why not be as Earth-friendly and energy-efficient as possible?” asked Tom. “And the government had rebates to promote it.” Their old ranch house didn’t end up in a landfill, either. They donated most of the structure’s materials, as well as appliances, to Habitat for Humanity.
It took four years, from the initial design discussions to the last light fixture being hung in the completed home, but for Linda and Tom, it was worth the wait. “Every day is like being on vacation,” said Tom. “It’s so peaceful.” Every morning, Linda basks in the tranquil qualities of their Zen-like home and the land surrounding it. “I throw down my mat and do yoga on the lawn when the sun is rising,” she said. “It feels very spiritual.”