Salmela Architect employs geometry and color to masterful effect in a Northern Minnesota cabin

By Linda Mack

This is a Minnesota story.

For years, Shelley and Jon Hyytinen had spent summer vacations at Ludlow’s Island Resort on Lake Vermilion, near the Canadian border. But then they started thinking about a place of their own. Out in the fishing boat one summer day, they spotted a for-sale sign on a lot with 250 feet of lakeshore, a dilapidated fishing cabin, and a cinderblock sauna. They bought it and, with a nod to their Finnish heritage, hired Duluth architect David Salmela, FAIA, to design a simple cabin for themselves, their twin daughters, and their daughters’ future families. The meticulously detailed but unpretentious retreat won a 2017 AIA Minnesota Honor Award.

Drawn to Salmela’s crisp aesthetic, the Hyytinens also brought their own ideas to the design. “Jon loves Pacific Northwest longhouses, which you enter in the middle of the long side,” says Shelley, who was a vice president for Target for 32 years. “I wanted a screen porch.” And they needed enough space for family.

With the old cabin gone, the sauna became the anchor point for siting the new structure, a 20-foot-wide black box stretching its long side to the south to gather the sun. Smack in the middle, the front door faces the red door of the sauna, which Jon resuscitated. The second floor—another black bar—is rotated 90 degrees, cantilevering almost precariously at one end. (“A cantilever should never exceed half the length of the supporting structure, but 10 feet didn’t feel right,” says Salmela. “We did 12. Your eye notices the difference.”)

Shelley didn’t get her screen porch, but the large south-facing deck provides plenty of space for relaxing and entertaining, and the cabin itself is like a tree house. “With the windows all open, it’s like being outside,” she says.

The layout is spare and efficient. The kitchen and the dining and living space occupy the glass-walled end of the cabin facing the lake. A guest bath and a master bedroom and bath cozy into the other end. Stairs lead up to the two guest rooms, which have views to the forest and the lake. The south one is cantilevered. Thanks to the site’s slope toward the lake, Jon enjoys a workshop below the main level that has an outdoor space covered by the deck.

Inside and out, sophisticated details enhance the straightforward design. Inside, trim has been added to the windows so they literally frame the view. The trim, in turn, supports high built-in shelves that recall high shelves in old Norwegian houses—safe places to keep memorabilia, says Salmela.

Outside is a play of color and texture. Finnish blue surrounds the white-framed windows and washes the soffit of the cantilever and the section of wall below it, magically creating the sense of an outdoor room. Red Loll Adirondack chairs complement the blue. Salmela designed the sturdy and weather-resistant white Loll table and benches on the deck.

The Richlite—a pressed-paper product—covering the end of the cantilever extends to the sides so the cedar lap siding butts into it. The siding was supposed to gray, but it wasn’t meeting expectations, so Salmela suggested staining it with black tar-like creosote. “Subtle details enhance the purity of it,” he says.

The black stain also helps the cabin disappear. “We wanted something unobtrusive,” says Shelley. “From the water, all you see is glass.”

Bluestone steps and a path to the lake help ground the cabin, as do the old sauna and shed. And Salmela’s signature white “un-chimney” warms the Hyytinens on chillier days. They go up both in the balm of summer and in the depths of winter. “It’s an incredible place to stay in any season,” says Shelley.

Location: St. Louis County, Minnesota
Clients: Shelley and Jon Hyytinen
Architect: Salmela Architect
Principal-in-charge: David Salmela, FAIA
Project lead designer: David Salmela, FAIA
Project architect: Malini Srivastava, AIA
General contractor: Rod & Sons Carpentry
Size: 2,144 square feet
Completion: June 2012
Photographer: Paul Crosby

“A lake cabin seems like something you all do here, and this one is done very, very well. I love the simple, stacked volumes, with the lower level oriented to the lake and the fireplace. And the use of color, too. It’s such a beautiful small project.”
—Wendell Burnette, FAIA