When Janet and Pete Steinhagen built their house in St. Paul, they were looking to simplify.
That’s apparent in every inch — from the clean lines and uncluttered spaces to the low-maintenance landscaping.
“It’s what we like,” said Pete of their spare modern home, with its unfussy finishes and materials and minimal detailing.
When the couple hosted their first Christmas gathering there, one visiting family member even asked, “Where’s your furniture?” “We’re not getting much more,” was Janet’s reply.
The couple’s less-is-more aesthetic evolved over time.
Their previous house was fairly traditional, but after losing elderly parents and having to sort through their stuff, they were determined to pare down their possessions. “That experience pushed us,” said Janet.
Now that their two children were grown, they also were ready for a simpler lifestyle.
Before they built their current home, the Steinhagens, who both work at 3M, had been dividing their time between a lake house in Alexandria, Minn., and an apartment in downtown St. Paul. But the weekend commuting was getting old.
“We decided, ‘Let’s have one house down here,’ ” said Janet. “We like the cities. We didn’t want to do the suburb thing.”
They looked at houses, but couldn’t find the right one.
“The houses were too old and needed too much work, or bigger than we needed, or not in a neighborhood we wanted to live in,” she said.
One day while biking, she noticed a lot for sale in St. Paul’s popular St. Anthony Park neighborhood, and decided to come back with Pete to take a look.
“We liked it right away,” she said. The lot, however, had been shaved off an adjoining property and had a “weird shape” — a wedge that tapered to just 9 feet on the alley.
Still, they decided to make an offer — contingent on their architect, John Dwyer of D/O, being able to fit a house on the unusual lot.
“It didn’t look buildable,” Dwyer said. “But I knew we could come up with something.”
That something including sinking the house slightly into the site.
“The driveway and garage were a big concern,” said Dwyer, given that the rear of the lot was so narrow. “Sinking the house made the driveway work.”
Fortunately, the Steinhagens weren’t looking for a lot of square footage. They were fine with a small house, as long as it had a lot of natural light.
They were trying for a modern vibe, but not a “glossy industrial look,” according to Janet. Instead, they wanted a Scandinavian feeling, with natural wood and a lot of white surfaces.
They also wanted to preserve as many of the site’s mature oak trees as they could. The lot they bought is part of one of the last remnants of oak savanna in that part of St. Paul, noted Colin Oglesbay, lead designer and managing principal at D/O.
“It was important to keep it, for the character of the site,” he said. Plus, the tree canopy would help keep the house cool in summer.
On the exterior, the house has a soft, understated presence, clad in unfinished cedar to weather naturally. “It turns gray over time and will blend into the landscape,” said Dwyer.
“We wanted it to be very quiet,” said Oglesbay, to moderate its “aggressively modern” style in its established older neighborhood. “There’s a strong reaction whenever you take out open space.”
“Some [neighbors] were worried it would be a big monster,” said Janet.
Instead, the two-story house is a compact 1,750 square feet, with lots of big windows designed to capture light and make it feel spacious and airy inside. Solar shades add privacy, while still allowing the couple to see outside.
The main level has an open floor plan with an open staircase and a stairwell made of polycarbonate, a slightly translucent material with no visible fasteners, for a clean, uncluttered look. The combined effect make the spaces seem larger than they are.
“An open staircase makes a little house feel more grand and open,” said Oglesbay.
Built-in benches in the living room and dining area minimize the need for furniture. And instead of a fireplace, there’s a small, modern wood-burning stove, a Norwegian Jøtul unit, at one end of the living room.
The floor and ceiling are finished with white oak in a whitewashed finish, which took more than a dozen tries to get the right effect.
“It’s very Scandinavian,” said Oglesbay. The 10 percent whitewash allows the wood to reflect more light and warms up the bluish natural light that streams in through the windows in wintertime.
Gather round the ‘hearth’
The all-white kitchen is oriented around an 11-foot island that includes seating for casual dining as well as lots of storage below.
“I love islands,” said Dwyer. “It’s the way we live today — they’re the new hearth.”
The couple have taken to storing their dishes in deep drawers below the island instead of cabinets above, a change that Janet said she likes.
Outdoor spaces were another priority for the couple.
“I wanted a little patio, like a front porch, for us to sit out and wave to people,” said Janet.
There’s also a rooftop deck above the garage, with a view of the downtown Minneapolis skyline.
“Land is limited,” said Oglesby, so “the deck became the backyard.”
The landscaping, mostly native plants and grasses, continues the minimalist theme.
“All plants were selected to be low-maintenance, disease-resistant and drought-resistant,” said Oglesby.
The couple’s low-mow lawn requires cutting only once or twice a year. They use a push mower that they borrow from a neighbor. “We share tools — it’s a farm economy,” said Janet.
They’ve even been able to downsize to one shared car.
“It’s a great neighborhood for walkability,” said Pete.
The Steinhagens are enjoying the nearby bike trails and other destinations in their urban setting.
“We go to a lot of Gopher basketball and volleyball games,” said Janet. “We can bike there — or the bus comes right in front of our house.”
Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784