A studio-residence designed by modern master Ralph Rapson is revamped nearly a half-century later by one of Rapson’s students

By Joel Hoekstra

Many years ago, architect Charles Stinson, AIA, was invited to the architect-designed home of sculptor Gloria Tew for lunch with Tew and Charles Biederman, an artist famous for his cubist constructions. The conversation was lively and opinionated, Stinson recalls: “It was the sort of afternoon you never forget—lots of reflections on artistic endeavors and creative explorations.”

Tew and her husband—Stinson’s neighbors at the time—had commissioned Ralph Rapson, the architect of midcentury landmarks, including the original Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, to design a studio-residence on a wooded lot in Minnetonka. The house had been completed in 1977, and Stinson, who studied architecture at the University of Minnesota, where Rapson served as chair of the architecture department, had seen sketches and photographs of the project. But the lunch was the first time he’d ever been inside the Tews’ home.

Stinson was therefore delighted to get a call a few years ago from Alex and Matt Crnobrna, who had recently purchased the Tews’ house. The 2,600-square-foot home was significantly smaller than the couple’s previous residence in Eden Prairie, but the modernist style had been impossible to resist. What’s more, Alex and her mother owned a photography business and saw the home’s studio as a place where they could do occasional shoots. “It just has this amazing light, no matter what the weather or time of year,” says Alex. “It’s really an amazing place.”

Despite its age, the home was in remarkably good shape. The flat roof didn’t leak, nor did several skylights or the light scoop at the center of the house. The wood exterior needed a fresh coat of paint but was rot-free except for a few boards. Mostly, the Crnobrnas wanted brighter finishes, a better kitchen—the original was a tiny Pullman-style affair—and, if possible, a wee bit more square footage. They felt that Stinson, who’d had Rapson as a thesis adviser, would approach such alterations with the kind of sensitivity the project required.

Stinson admired the overall geometry of the home. “It’s clear that there was reflection and thought behind it,” he says. “It’s not large; it’s designed like a really nice sailboat rather than a barge.”

Eyeing ways to expand the home’s livable square footage without expanding the overall footprint, Stinson recommended remaking several small porch spaces into interior spaces and adding a large deck. The original glass atrium was preserved and several windows were added to create a greater sense of openness. An interior wall that separated the kitchen and living room was removed and replaced with an island that now serves as a focal point and gathering space when the Crnobrnas entertain friends and family. A raft of new windows overlooks the new deck and the woods beyond. When darkness falls, a gas-burning fireplace takes center stage.

Kitchen cabinetry and appliances were upgraded and white penny tile in the bathroom was replaced with white subway tile; otherwise, most of the original details were retained or mirrored. Round skylights throughout the home were cleaned and resealed, and a new matching skylight was integrated into the kitchen design. “We kept asking ourselves, ‘How do you preserve the essence of what Rapson did while updating the design for modern living?’” says Stinson.

In the studio, soundproofing was added to the upper walls, and cork and metallic wallcovering was added as potential photography backdrop. Ceiling fans help circulate the air, and updated track lighting supplements the natural light that flows in through the skylights and large windows. Motorized shades allow the spaces to be fully open or closed as desired.

“It’s definitely not a big house,” says Alex Crnobrna. “But it’s perfect. It’s all we need.”

Location: Minnetonka, Minnesota
Clients: Alex and Matt Crnobrna
Architect: Charles R. Stinson Architects
Landscape architect: Urban Ecosystems, Inc.
General contractor: Stinson Builders, Inc.
Size: 2,600 square feet
Completion: Fall 2019
Photographer: Paul Crosby