Houses come in many shapes, from basic boxes to domes to intricate geometric forms. For Russ and Mary Horsch, the just-right shape for their new home’s floor plan turned out to be the letter H.
It’s their H initial, of course. But that’s not why architect David O’Brien Wagner chose it. The H shape makes the most of the Horsches’ special lot — a wedge-shaped slice of land overlooking Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis.
“They wanted a connection to what was happening out on the lake,” said Wagner, of SALA Architects. That led to the idea of two building elements, a pair of separate wings “wedged” apart, with one set at a slight angle to maximize views.
Each wing of the “Lake>City>House” is one room wide, offering panoramic views of the lake and its bustling parkway. Connecting the two wings is “the bridge,” a glassy, light-drenched center structure that contains the entry, dining room and central walkway.
The Horsches’ distinctive dwelling is a stark contrast to the mostly traditional older homes around it.
“A lot of the buildings around the lake are very formal; their presence doesn’t speak of welcoming,” Wagner said, while the Horsches’ home’s very structure “welcomes the landscape into the building, like two arms outstretched.”
Being inside the screened porch or the living room, both of which face the lake and the street, is almost like being part of the action outside, with its parade of pedestrians and cyclists.
“In the summer time, the porch is wonderful!” Mary enthused. “We have more interaction with neighbors.”
The Horsches’ deep attachment to their neighborhood is what led them to the home in the first place.
They’d lived near Lake of the Isles for more than 30 years, in one of those formal, traditional homes — “a typical south Minneapolis foursquare,” said Mary. “We raised our daughter there, and it was a wonderful house.” Now empty nesters, the couple decided that it was time to move to one-level living because of health issues. But they didn’t want to leave their beloved neighborhood.
So they found a midcentury split-level rambler, just a block away from their foursquare. In addition to its prime location facing the lake, it had a magnolia tree in the front yard that Mary had been noticing for years. “It’s the first tree to bloom in spring, with magnificent white flowers,” she said.
The house needed some updating, so the Horsches consulted with Wagner, whose work they had admired. But the soil conditions of the site and the rambler’s inadequate foundation made remodeling impractical. “It was cost-prohibitive,” Wagner said. “We moved on and started fresh,” tearing down the old house to make way for a new one.
A desire for separate spaces
That opened up the possibilities of truly making the most of the site and creating a home that expressed the Horsches’ taste and lifestyle. They wanted a house that was modern in style, with clean lines and square edges — but without the wide-open floor plan common in many of today’s contemporary homes.
“We didn’t want a great room; we wanted a separate living and dining room,” Mary said. “I love having large family gatherings, and I like the dining table to be in a separate room. I don’t want the mess of cooking in the same room.”
Also on their wish list: a first-floor owners’ suite, plus a first-floor TV/media room with plenty of separation, so that Mary could enjoy peace and quiet in their bedroom when Russ was watching sports. “There are only two of us in the house, and we have separate viewing habits,” she said.
When Wagner proposed the wedged-apart floor plan with the connecting bridge, the Horsches were all in. “We liked it immediately,” Mary said.
Because of the lot’s soil and drainage requirements, the new home sits on a raised slab, built on pilings, which gives it an elevated vantage point on its bustling lake setting. “The water table dictated where the slab could be,” Wager said. “It meant the main level of the house had to be sitting up out of the ground.”
One wing soars to two stories to accommodate a guest suite for the Horsches’ adult daughter. The room has a second-floor perch in the opposite wing from the couple’s own room, giving it plenty of privacy, plus its own bird’s-eye view of the activity around the lake from its large trapezoid windows.
The home’s style has Asian and Scandinavian influences. The post-and-beam construction, with structural wood brackets that support “the bridge,” evokes the Katsura Palace in Kyoto, considered a masterpiece of Japanese architecture.
“It was an influence for Frank Lloyd Wright 100 years ago,” Wagner noted. Panels of frosted glass throughout the home, reminiscent of shoji screens, filter in light while affording privacy.
Another distinctive architectural element are the slatted-wood screens, running vertically overhead on both sides of the dining room. Their flowing lines suggest movement between the wings, and also reinforce the activity seen along the parkway outside, Wagner said.
Natural wood, used throughout, adds organic character to the spaces. In the living room, the rifted white oak floorboards, fumed and stained to a faintly bluish hue, inspired other choices in wood species and wall coverings, Wagner said. “That was the starting point for the entire palette.”
The built-in buffet in the dining room is crafted in Douglas fir, which deepens in hue with exposure to the sun. “It develops a rich, warm red-orange color,” Wagner said.
Although the house has three levels, everything needed for daily living is on the main floor.
Not only are the Horsches enjoying one-level living, they finally have an attached garage.
“We never had an attached garage before,” said Russ, “so it’s like I died and went to heaven.”
The garage also has a stairway to Russ’ lower-level wood shop — “the most important room in the whole house,” he said with a smile.
The uniquely shaped house gives the Horsches the connection to their environment they were seeking. In the spring, they enjoy their living-room view of the white-flowered magnolia tree that Mary had noticed every year when passing by. “We had to design around the tree,” she said.
In the summer, their porch becomes almost part of the parkway. “People lay on the sidewalk to take pictures” of the house, Mary said. “So many people watched the construction and feel some ownership.”
Their house also remains an object of fascination to the couple themselves. “I look at the house a lot,” Mary said. “The house itself is a piece of art.”
At night, the play of light on their frosted-glass windows creates “marvelous patterns,” she said. “When a car comes down the parkway, the headlights hit the leaves and move across [the glass], making interesting shadows and silhouettes. We’ve actually woken each other up to say, ‘Look at this!’ ”