Tucked into the woods, at the end of a long, narrow road, sits a quaint house that would look at home in an alpine village.
The Swiss chalet-style architecture was inspired by a vintage music box. “I always thought how beautiful it looked,” said homeowner Konrad Kruger.
And the home’s rustic, handcrafted aesthetic is the real deal. Kruger built his house by hand, with help from family members and friends, using materials he salvaged from other buildings.
Reclaimed wood is trendy today, but Kruger has been finding new uses for old boards, beams and logs for almost three decades. “Reclaimed” is a little too fancy a term for what he sees as finding a use for what’s available.
“It’s wood. It’s used,” he said with a bemused smile. “Depression-era thinking.”
Inside, Kruger’s home has the nostalgic warmth and charm of an Old World European villa — filled with salvaged built-ins, antiques, walls of books and quirky vintage collectibles, including a windup Victrola that fills the house with tremulous tunes recorded long ago.
“It’s magical — like stepping back in time,” said friend Sue Hunter, an interior designer. “It’s the most calming place. I could have sat for hours.”
Other guests have had a strong emotional response to his home, Kruger noted.
“Some people sit and cry. People say they heal from conditions. One friend had migraines for 30 years, she came by a few times, and claimed they are gone.”
Kruger admits he’s “puzzled” by such reactions, but not entirely surprised.
“There’s so much energy here. I think it does exist,” he said. “People who are sensitive to it have a response.”
He attributes that energy to his home’s Tonka Bay setting, which is steeped in history and local lore. The land around Lake Minnetonka was holy ground to Dakota natives, and a longtime burial site.
Later, after white settlers arrived, the area near the lake was home to chautauquas, or gatherings of higher thought. By the late 19th century, the lake had become a recreational magnet.
Kruger’s parcel of land is the abandoned railway for the westernmost expanse of the trolley line that once ferried guests to a nearby hotel and amusement park, both now long gone.
“The land is an antique itself — a human corridor,” Kruger said.
A home for his dogs
Kruger, who grew up on nearby Christmas Lake, acquired the place by serendipity. It was 1991, and he had just returned to Minnesota from a lengthy road trip visiting national parks. Along the way, he picked up some stray, part-coyote dogs. One of them had six puppies, resulting in a pack of nine canines that Kruger didn’t want to break up. That was too much for his landlord, who evicted him.
Needing a home where he could keep all his dogs, Kruger found an odd house on an odd lot — a 50- by 2,000-foot ribbon of land, the old railway corridor.
The house, vacant for six years, was in foreclosure.
“It was just a mess,” he recalled. “No one wanted it. Even the fire department refused to burn it” because doing so would pose a risk to nearby houses.
But Kruger was drawn to the nature-filled site, alive with deer, owls and raccoons. So he bought the property and began making the place his own, keeping only the foundation of the house, which was built in the 1940s. (The railway had been abandoned decades earlier.)
Kruger, a professional photographer at the time, had some construction experience. He’d worked on various remodeling projects, and once helped build a log home. So he drew plans for his chalet-style house, and began hunting for materials.
The flooring and windows came from Lyman Lodge, the former YMCA camp in Excelsior. He got some logs from a farmer in Door County, Wis., where he had gone fishing, and doors salvaged from a house that had burned down.
“It was a slow, organic process,” he said of building and finishing the home, incorporating found treasures as he came across them. He got a lot of help from his four brothers, and from friends with particular skills, such as engineering.
One side of his living room is completely faced with Tennessee ledgestone.
“My friend had a fireplace store. Everyone does a stone fireplace, so I did a whole wall,” said Kruger, who hired a mason to work beside him on the project.
Kruger also added whimsical touches, such as a peephole in his shower, perfectly positioned to provide a view of the road approaching his house.
“It adds a playfulness, which is so important,” he said. “We’re all so serious. It’s fun to be open to the randomness of things.”
‘Depot’ for sculpting
Kruger’s most recent creation is a smaller building that resembles an old train station, a nod to his land’s history.
“I studied train depots and found a design that would fit that narrow space,” he said.
Outfitted with real train lights, a tin ceiling from a schoolhouse in New York Mills, Minn., and an old trolley bench, “the depot” can function as a garage, but Kruger uses it primarily as a sculpting studio.
“I still add to it,” he said of his home. “It feels like something you keep adding onto — like a piece of art. Da Vinci said, ‘Art is never finished, only abandoned.’ ... You have a lot of free time in the woods.”
When friends aren’t visiting, Kruger’s home is a place of solitude. He was briefly married, but that was almost 20 years ago.
“I’ve lived here mostly alone,” he said. “Sometimes with different girlfriends. People ask, ‘Aren’t you lonely, living in the woods?’ ” But books are good company, he’s found. “I have 1,200 — that’s the ideas of 1,200 people.”
And wild creatures are all around him.
“The deer are everywhere,” he said. “Owls land on the railings.”
Kruger loves his home, but is ready to spend less time tethered to it. He’s writing a book, and wants to do more traveling. “When I travel, I always buy a one-way ticket,” he said, “to be open to what I find.”
While away, he plans to rent out his distinctive home. (For more information, e-mail: Manitouway11@gmail.com.)
“This house was a gift from the dogs,” Kruger said. Creating it from others’ castoffs taught him that “you can make anything the way you want.” Everything about his home was once rejected by someone else, he noted. “From abandoned dogs, an abandoned railroad corridor, an abandoned house ... made of abandoned materials from abandoned buildings.”
For Kruger, laboring to create a deeply personal home has been well worth the effort.
“People say they go stay in a log house or cabin, and that they love it,” he said. “Why don’t you live in something like that all the time? Your house needs to hold your spirit. That’s what architecture should do, comfort the spirit.”