A new retreat by Rehkamp Larson Architects is the Minnesota cabin at its most sophisticated

By Linda Mack

Going to the lake is a Minnesota tradition, and summer places that have been in the family for generations have a certain charisma. The paths to the dock are well worn, the sunset views familiar, the smell of cedar and pine evocative.

Building a new house in such a setting requires a sensitive hand, which Minneapolis’ Rehkamp Larson Architects supplied in spades when they replaced a defunct structure at a family retreat in northern Minnesota. It’s clear that the new gable-roofed, log-and-stone cabin isn’t old, but its stately presence and location on the footprint of the previous house ground it.

To create a house that feels like it grew over time, Jean Rehkamp Larson, AIA, and Amanda Kay started with a long gable form clad in logs and added wings of classic Minnesota fieldstone to break up the masses. The central form houses the kitchen, dining area, and den on the first floor and bedrooms above. A soaring living room extends to the north, where the house is closest to the lake, and a guest room tacks onto the den.

A charming entry on the south wing is covered in stone both outside and in; it welcomes guests with a rustic wood door and a wide mudroom that shares an elegant tile with the dining room and kitchen. “We wanted to get up close and personal with the stone,” says Rehkamp Larson.

Building on the footprint of the earlier cabin limited the size of the new house, and the scale was set as well: “The family wanted a log cabin, and that wish lends itself to a scale of a story and a half,” says Rehkamp Larson. Another given was the terrace tucked into the northwest corner: “They knew this is where they wanted to be at sunset,” she adds. Anchored by a large-stone fireplace and topped with a log trellis, the outdoor room conjures images of cool, late-summer nights when a fire feels good and the crickets are calling.

Inside, the balance and symmetry of the exterior carry through. In the 20-foot-high living room, for example, a stacked-boulder fireplace sits across from a stone-clad game niche. Windows dominate three of the walls, and logs are stained dark. Elsewhere, an Italian lime wash applied by specialty-finish artist Darryl Otto lightens the interior. “We wanted it to feel organic and rustic but also sophisticated,” says Rehkamp Larson.

The second floor is comfortably zoned for three generations of the family. The master suite, with its roomy closets and a bathroom with windows on three sides, occupies one side of the stairway. Two bedrooms, one with birch-bark bunk beds that sleeps six, share a dormered bathroom on the other side. The design team enlarged the upstairs hallway at one end by angling off a corner of both a bedroom and a hideaway Lego room; the move creates a getaway space with a couch for reading or napping and a window seat overlooking the living room.

“It’s a house to be discovered,” says Rehkamp Larson. “There are lots of intimate spaces assembled, each with its own heavy dose of charm.” How do you create charm? “It’s the way the light comes in, the room is shaped, the materials are used,” she says.

From the kitchen to the bedrooms, the rooms are generous but not oversized. “They are tailored to the way they will be used,” says Rehkamp Larson. And every space has windows on at least two sides. From the watery views to the rustic materials, “there’s no questioning that you’re at the cabin,” she notes.

How does an architect plumb the depths of a client’s life so completely that she knows that the grandchildren would like a little room for playing with Legos, and a drinking fountain on the back stoop? “Conversation,” Rehkamp Larson explains. “We meet with the clients for two to three hours every two to three weeks over six to nine months.”

“It’s like taking a road trip,” she adds. “First you understand the main direction, and then you get into particulars like where you’re going to stop for lunch. We ask a lot of questions and let the answers percolate. There’s no shortcut to good design.”

The payoff in this case is a place where generations can come together, enjoy the water and the woods and each other, and return to their separate lives refreshed. “The owners say they can’t keep their kids away,” Rehkamp Larson reports. “I think that these summer retreats have a cultural impact on creating strong families. Perhaps our 10,000 lakes are more than just a place to jump in the water on a hot day.”

Location: Northern Minnesota
Architect: Rehkamp Larson Architects
Principal-in-charge: Jean Rehkamp Larson, AIA
Project manager: Amanda Kay
Interior designer: Alecia Stevens Interiors
Structural engineer: Bunkers & Associates
General contractor: Nor-Son
Photographer: Scott Amundson