The story of how a Ralph Rapson–designed cottage in Chanhassen, Minnesota, has endured as a midcentury jewel
By Joel Hoekstra
Shortly after Ralph Rapson arrived in the Twin Cities in 1954 to head up the architecture school at the University of Minnesota, a woman approached him to ask if he would design her a home. Attractive, wealthy, and persuasive, Betty Poole had recently inherited a wooded lot on Lotus Lake in rural Chanhassen and wished to put up a summer cottage. Her husband, a successful Wisconsin businessman, didn’t share his wife’s love of Minnesota, so the place didn’t need to be big—he had no plans to visit. The only design elements Poole insisted on were a studio where she could paint and a garage where she could park her white Thunderbird.
Rapson took the commission, producing a rectangular 40- by 60-foot glass-walled jewel box with stunning views of the trees and lake. The project, completed in 1958, didn’t bring the architect much fame or income, but Rapson must have sensed that his client respected his aesthetic approach, would allow him some latitude with the design, and would maintain the integrity of the place for as long as she owned it. What Rapson couldn’t have known was that the Poole House would become a lasting part of his legacy, meticulously cared for by a chain of owners who cherished his work.
Interestingly, the house that lies on Mohawk Drive at the west end of Lotus Lake today is not the house that Rapson originally envisioned. The first sketches of the Poole House, preserved on sheets of onion-skin drafting paper in the Northwest Architectural Archives at the University of Minnesota, suggest that the architect toyed with other possibilities: a cottage with sloped roofs, another that looked like geometric mushrooms with a cantilevered upper story that dwarfed the lower level.
Rapson eventually settled on a one-story, flat-roofed box. Bisected by a central corridor running north-south and a shorter breezeway running east-west, the plan resembled a long rectangle divided into four unequally sized parts: kitchen and living room, sleeping quarters, studio, and garage. Rapson wrapped the structure around a tree that stands sentinel, even today, outside the entry door.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the home is its transparency. Each room, with the exception of the bath, features a wall of glass—floor to ceiling and end to end. The central corridor is further daylit by a circular skylight. Even the fireplace has glass on two sides, giving the sense at night that the entire residence is gathered around a flickering campfire.
Contemporary visitors might take a look at the wood paneling in the family room, the terrazzo floors in the dining area, and the colorfully tiled sunken tub in the bathroom and conclude that the home has survived the decades without alteration. But they would be wrong: When Betty Poole died, in the early 1970s, her will designated Rapson as the home’s new custodian. The architect in turn sold it to one of his associates, Timothy Stone, who bought the house on the condition that he could make some changes in keeping with the original design. Rapson assented, and Stone, formerly one of Rapson’s students, enclosed part of the breezeway and converted the studio into a family room. He also built a new garage, transforming the old space into a bedroom.
The changes satisfied Rapson and made the house more livable for Stone, his wife, and their two young children. Stone, who sold the house in the late 1970s and now lives in Florida, recalls that the Poole House was a wonderful place in the summer and fall. But winters could be harsh, he says, as cold seeped through the glass. And the size of the house—even expanded to 2,000 square feet—was tight for a clan of four. “The house simply did not lend itself to family living,” says Stone. “We had to accommodate our living to suit the house.”
The Stones sold the residence to Peter and Hermine Lustig, a Dutch couple who inhabited the house for nearly three decades without making significant changes—with one exception. Peter, an artist, added several acrylic sculptures as design details. The Lustigs made a point of meeting with Rapson in an effort to understand the ideas that had gone into the design. When Hermine, widowed in the late 1990s, finally sold the home in 2003, she insisted that Rapson vet the new owners.
The Poole House is currently in the care of Matt and Liz Tibbetts, who have made small maintenance alterations to the house as necessary—replacing windows on the lake side and wood warped by steam from an indoor dryer—but otherwise have left it untouched. Former Minneapolis residents, they admit that swapping a 2,200-square-foot Tudor with a basement and an attic (the Poole House has neither) for Rapson’s Chanhassen cottage required some significant downsizing. “We had to edit our lifestyle quite a bit to move out here,” says Matt.
But adjustments aside, the couple remains charmed by the home’s simplicity, which they say now suits their lifestyle nearly perfectly. “We didn’t want a great room,” says Liz. “And the galley kitchen works for us just fine.” They’ve furnished the home with contemporary pieces that fit the midcentury environment. “We wanted a house that had a ‘style,’” says Matt. They, too, eventually met with and befriended Rapson before his death in 2008.
The Tibbettses put the house on the market in 2015, intending to move to a warmer climate for retirement. But like previous owners they worry about the future of the Poole House—that the next owner might want to add a second story or tear the place down altogether. They want to sell to a caretaker like the Stones, the Lustigs, or a modern-day Betty Poole. “When you purchase a house like this, you realize you’re not the owners,” says Matt. “You’re just the temporary caretaker. You need to pass it along to someone who values and respects it as much as you do.”
A SCHOLAR’S PERSPECTIVE
“The Poole house is one of Rapson’s cleanest, tightest designs. Yet even with limited square footage he managed to pack in all of the necessary elements. Bonus qualities include light, a feeling of openness, and great views, all courtesy of the glass expanses and the dominant axis of the center hall.
“Many of his later houses, especially the multilevel ones, featured more carving out of space—greater play of solids and voids, for example, and articulation of ceiling planes. But here he stuck to pure geometry and simple volumes.” —JANE KING HESSION
“Rapson designed the Poole House in Chanhassen and the similarly styled Shepherd House (1956) in St. Paul’s University Grove when he was new to Minnesota, just starting to build his reputation at the U—before he was known for such signature projects as the Guthrie Theater and the Pillsbury House.
“Through these and other early houses, he put his architectural skills and design preferences on display. It can be argued that these houses were the foundation of his growing reputation as a highly skilled modern architect.” —JANE KING HESSION