Owners with a passion for land restoration build a site-sensitive modern cabin on Lake Superior

By Amy Goetzman

First they found the perfect piece of land—five acres on a rocky peninsula on the south shore of Lake Superior. “The day we went out to look at it, everything seemed to conspire to show off its perfection,” says Gail Amundson, who, with husband Peter Rothe, had long dreamed about building a cabin up north. “The day was beautiful; there were eagles flying overhead.”

After taking down an existing dwelling on the property, the couple renovated a log sauna into a one-room cabin, built an outhouse, and began the painstaking process of regenerating the forest, planting new trees and pulling out invasive grasses to make a place for the native plants and wildlife that disappeared when the area was logged a century ago. Then they looked for an architect who would understand their vision for a retreat that would stand in harmony with the landscape.

“We wanted something simple, low-impact, and easy to live in,” says Rothe. “No Sheetrock, fussy details, or ornamentation,” adds Amundson. “Just a clean, modern style.”

It’s no surprise, then, that the pair chose to work with Duluth architect David Salmela, FAIA, whose modern designs have made a deep impression on Northwoods residential architecture over the past several decades. Salmela’s work resonates with a regional culture shaped by the rugged landscape and the Scandinavians who settled there.

“When you consider the needs of the land and nature, the design becomes secondary and the site becomes primary,” says Salmela. The two-bedroom cabin and two outbuildings that he designed for Rothe and Amundson live quietly in the woods along the granite shoreline. The three new structures are resolutely modern, but with their durable black Richlite cladding they recede into the forest shadows. “They don’t try to upstage nature’s colors or the character of the original cabin,” Salmela explains. “They bring attention to and even magnify the things that were already there.”

The influence of Scandinavian modernists—Alvar Aalto, in particular—on Salmela’s aesthetic can be seen in the cabin’s use of borrowed lights (large interior windows) and in the vertical-cedar-slat enclosure Salmela designed for the second-level deck. “[The enclosure] is porous and becomes transparent for those on the deck because there isn’t a cap or a sill, just evenly spaced vertical forms,” says the architect. “That’s an Aalto-esque detail, which he probably got from the Japanese use of screens on windows.” The owners use the balcony as a blind for bow hunting; their land management philosophy includes harvesting deer.

“Everything we did was pragmatic; even the more dramatic design elements like the cantilevered roof over the entry serve a functional purpose: You have a place to sit outside when it’s raining, a place to take your boots off, a place to put your firewood,” says Salmela.

If the black, largely maintenance-free exterior is pragmatic, the interiors are warm and bright. Ceilings and walls are all locally milled aspen, and expansive windows lining the open main-level living space look out to the deck and the lake on one side and, on the other, to the outbuildings up the hill. The staircase to the second-level bedroom is painted a bright red—a nod to the adjacent log cabin’s red-metal roof—adding a pop of color and playfulness to the mix. The owners selected furnishings by regional designers; several of the pieces double as art in a dwelling with little wall space to adorn.

“The architecture really makes the outdoors the focus; the landscape is present in every room,” says Amundson. “You never feel cooped up if the weather isn’t good. At night, the stars are absolutely unbelievable. It’s why we are here.”

“‘Understated funkiness’ is the term we came up with for this cabin. The project has a strong, even quirky, design personality, but it takes its cues from the site. The black shell sits well in the shadowy forest setting, while the wood-lined interior offers a sense of warm enclosure, even with all that glass looking out to the lake.”

Location: Cornucopia, Wisconsin
Clients: Gail Amundson; Peter Rothe
Architect: Salmela Architect    
General contractor: Tworek Construction
Size: 1,369 square feet
Cost: $436,593
Completion: June 2018
Photographer: Paul Crosby