Albertsson Hansen Architecture melds modern and traditional in a cozy shoreline cottage

By Joel Hoekstra

Victoria Erhart has made the trip more than 500 times: a four-hour drive from the Twin Cities to Bayfield, Wisconsin, followed by a 25-minute ferry ride across the sometimes choppy waters of Lake Superior, and then a few minutes’ traverse along a forested two-lane road. Once Erhart is on Madeline Island, though, minutes and hours cease to matter. The island is a timeless kind of place.

Erhart, a retired physician, first visited the island in 1978, shortly after she moved to the Midwest from New York. The water, rocks, and coves of Madeline reminded her of childhood summers spent in Maine. “I instantly fell in love with the place,” says Erhart. She rented a cabin on the island for years, and in 1994 she purchased a rustic beach house without electricity. In 2009, she purchased nine acres with 500 feet of sandy shoreline at the far northeastern end of the island. She intended to build a place of her own.

Following a friend’s advice, she hired Christine Albertsson, AIA, of Minneapolis-based Albertsson Hansen Architecture to design a cottage that she hoped would be simple, small, and cozy. Albertsson’s firm had designed several residences for clients who vacationed on the island. Her Scandinavian sensibility—Albertsson is a dual citizen of the U.S. and Sweden—seemed to match the island’s Northwoods vibe. What’s more, says Erhart, the architect had grown up in Vermont and appreciated the beauty of New England–style cottages. It was an influence Erhart hoped would shape her cottage’s design.

“Victoria wanted to re-create the magic of a place filled with special memories,” says Albertsson. “For me, that’s the ultimate project—to create a place that has real magical power.”

Albertsson talked with her client, walked the land, strolled the beach, and responded with a design that’s just 1,500 square feet, with two bedrooms, a sleeping loft, and one bathroom. A small screened-in porch provides additional space for sleeping when the weather is warm, and there’s a small red barn a few steps away that provides storage space and houses Erhart’s pottery studio. “We didn’t want it to be big and fancy,” says Albertsson. “We wanted it to be beautiful—which in some ways is the most sustainable long-term. We wanted to build something that would be cherished for generations.”

Cedar shakes and a metal-clad chimney give the cottage a visual charm akin to the buildings you’d find in a mining camp. The vertical board-and-batten, fiber-cement siding on the barn has a rustic appeal. And white trim around the doors and rows of windows gives added pop, making the residence seem simultaneously contemporary and classic.

Indoors, Albertsson instructed the builder, Leafblad Construction, to leave the wall studs and even elements like electrical conduits exposed. “We put all of the insulation on the outside, so the interior has a much less formal, more shack-like feel,” says the architect. “Fortunately, we had a builder who was willing to look at every stud and select it for its quality and character. Without that, the interior might have looked a little shoddy. Leafblad executed it with thought.”

The interior spaces are spacious and bright and revolve around a large stone hearth. The ceiling and the loft’s railing panels are painted white to reflect additional light into the living area. Extensive use of wood—including a floor made of reclaimed barn lumber—gives the cottage a traditional feel.

Erhart says she can’t wait to return to her retreat every summer. The bee balm and lupine are in bloom. There’s a cooling breeze off the lake. “My favorite place might be the screened-in porch,” says Erhart. “I could live out there all summer—it’s the best of being indoors and being outdoors.”

Location: Madeline Island, Wisconsin
Client: Victoria Erhart
Architect: Albertsson Hansen Architecture
Principal-in-charge: Christine Albertsson, AIA
Project lead designer: Mark Tambornino, Assoc. AIA
General contractor: Leafblad Construction
Size: 1,509 square feet (total conditioned space)
Completion: December 2012
Photographer: Pete Sieger