Peter O'Toole's diminutive home in St. Paul is nearly lost between the two unremarkable apartment buildings hugging it on either side. But this seemingly out-of-place abode is an exquisite ode to craftsmanship that was the signature of one of Minnesota's most prolific and least-recognized architects, Edwin Lundie.

"It's simple, it's elegant," said O'Toole, showing off details of the historic Cape Cod, with its double-hung Dutch door entry, original cabinetry and a Lundie-designed bedroom door handle. "Lundie paid such attention to details, he sometimes used a different species of wood in each room."

During a 50-year career that lasted until his death in 1972 at age 85, Lundie designed scores of homes around the Twin Cities as well as sprawling country estates and waterfront retreats for the well-to-do.

He also created a handful of public spaces — most notably Lutsen Resort on the North Shore of Lake Superior and the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chanhassen — whose artisanship remains more highly acclaimed than the architect behind them.

Lundie was born in Sioux Falls, S.D., and worked his entire career in downtown St. Paul. Yet his contribution to Minnesota's architectural history has been largely overshadowed by others, including Cass Gilbert, who designed the Minnesota State Capitol and who was one of his influences.

In sharp contrast to the Modernists who were getting much of the attention during the height of his career, Lundie gravitated toward the classical. His work was inspired both by the opulence of the French Beaux-Arts movement and the practicality of the Colonial Revivalists — homes with even proportions, shutters and a cottage style that evoked a feeling of rural England or the French countryside. Lundie's trademark became taking basic elements of the home and turning them into discrete works of art.

A Lundie home often had dormers, muscular chimneys and lots of wood, stone or brick. In elaborate sketches, he might fashion a showy entrance light or a fanciful wrought-iron door hinge with a leaping deer. His cabins had a heavy Scandinavian influence, with bold geometric patterns cut into hulking wood beams and elaborate wood carvings.

Shutters were a millworker's dream, with cutouts of urns or candles. Atop an ordinary fence post, Lundie might place a pointed finial.

"Carpenters said that pieces of his cabins went together like those of a fine piece of furniture," said Minneapolis architect Dale Mulfinger, who recognized Lundie's then-neglected career in a 1995 book.

"Unlike Frank Lloyd Wright, where you can look at it and see a common style, Lundie had a consummate sense of craft, through detail and embellishment, right down to the door handles and hardware."

Big-name clients

During the 1920s, Lundie developed a cadre of well-heeled clients, including some with well-known names, such as Griggs and Weyerhaeuser, who helped him withstand the lean years of the Depression, according to an essay by architectural historian Eileen Michels.

He drew up plans for homes built on the St. Croix River, Sunfish Lake, Turtle Lake and White Bear Lake and as far away as southern France, Michels said. An annual tour of Lundie-designed cabins along Lake Superior's North Shore, both humble and massive, has become a popular fundraiser for the Schroeder Area Historical Society for more than a decade.

Though he reveled in designing sprawling structures in natural settings, Lundie believed architecture flowed from ideas and not money. As he put it in a 1969 interview with Northwest Architect magazine, his clients represented "an aristocracy of good taste."

"These are people who I think have an awareness and appreciation for fine things," Lundie said, "and they want things done for them in the spirit of fine things within what they can afford to do."

Just five rooms

That was certainly the case for O'Toole's cottage-style home, completed in 1938 on a busy thoroughfare in St. Paul's Highland Park neighborhood.

Lundie designed the home for Katherine L. Spink, a single woman who could hop the nearby trolley to her job at the First National Bank in downtown St. Paul.

The home is small — just five rooms — but it is classic Lundie.

A double-hung Dutch door opens to a living room aglow in chestnut hues. Knotty pine covers the walls of the large room. A built-in desk, surrounded by simple library shelves, looks out a large front window. Tavern plank floors with wooden pegs are buffed to perfection.

At center stage is a commanding brick fireplace with insets to hang ash buckets or other tools. Other Lundie details are there — wrought-iron butterfly hinges dress up the library cabinets, and a simple, delicately crafted heart-shaped door handle adorns a downstairs bedroom.

O'Toole and his spouse bought the home in 2003, becoming its fifth owners.

As O'Toole set out to restore parts of the home, he dug through architectural archives at the University of Minnesota, which includes hundreds of Lundie's renderings, working drawings, scrapbooks, diaries and photographs. Using Lundie's original specifications, O'Toole was able to match the existing stain and complete a second-story stairway that Lundie designed but had never been finished.

In the process of his room-by-room research, O'Toole became a student of the long arc of Lundie's career, and expects to publish an artist's book on Lundie's sketches and drawings later this year.

Support of  'strong women'

O'Toole credits a network of "strong and independent-minded women" for launching Lundie's early career. Among them were Harriet Weyerhaeuser, wife of the timber mogul, Friedrich; and Anne Thome, from a family of well-known builders who hired Lundie to design "spec homes."

Lundie solicited their work directly or indirectly by speaking to home-economics classes and women's clubs.

"They had the moxie and strong character to hire him to do custom homes," O'Toole said. "I really believe that without this artistic freedom, he would not have succeeded as well as he did."

Though Katherine Spink didn't have the wealth of the wives of doctors, lawyers and business tycoons who sought out Lundie's talents, O'Toole counts her among those vital clients.

He keeps a framed black-and-white photograph of her on a shelf in the library. She is wearing a corsage, and appears to be sitting by the fireplace.

"Kay wasn't wealthy," O'Toole said, "but she went with the extras. She appreciated the quality only Lundie could bring."

Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335