House hunters April Mueller and Steve Yernberg had not even seen the inside of the North Oaks listing when they decided they had to have it. The thick tree coverage, the ravine and other topographical features of the property spoke deeply to Mueller.
"We were on the driveway and it felt like it was meant to be," Mueller said. "I grew up in the Driftless Area near Lanesboro [Minn.], entertaining myself in the woods. My parents' home was unique in that it was on a fairly large piece of land with hardwoods and prairie and wetlands. Finding something like that in the city with trees — that was my bucket list."
Once they got inside the house, Mueller and her husband realized that it needed work — lots of work. The 1962 split-level rambler had had only one owner and had not been updated. An architectural time capsule, it was dark with small, divided rooms and cabinets and door handles that were falling apart.
"The tile, the grout — you could clean and clean and it never felt clean," Mueller said. "The bedrooms were drafty and dank. There was a three-season porch that was a total disaster. Nothing was pleasurable to use. But it was less about how the house felt or functioned. It was more about the space. And the trees were gorgeous."
The family — they have a grade-schooler — signed a purchase agreement on Memorial Day weekend 2019 and closed on it around Labor Day. "There were contingencies, septic systems and wells that had to be taken care of," Mueller said. They knew that it had to be remodeled.
Going on a friend's referral, the couple invited an architectural team from CityDeskStudio to have a look.
"Every project is a design opportunity to heighten the ordinary in our lives," said architect Ben Awes, founder of the firm. "We aim to create spaces that celebrate not just the high moments — the births, deaths, weddings — but the ordinary ones like bathing and drinking coffee or reading a book."
A match made in the trees
The visions of the owners and architects were in sync. Of course, that doesn't always mean that the remodeling is going to be easy.
"Because it's an existing building, it might not want to conform or re-conform to your vision," Awes said. "There's always a balance of shaping the space to be cohesive and clear within the constraints. How do we not change every wall in the house?"
"We did not want to just wipe out what's there, but accentuate the best things there," added Mueller, who works in front-end development for a home and personal fragrance company and did interior design for the home.
Built on a hillside, the house's entrance was, and remains, on the basement level. The main living area is mid-level — in the trees.
"This house feels like you're up in a treehouse," Awes said. "It's heavily wooded, so opening up the walls to let the view out and in, there was not a risk of losing any significant privacy."
To the delight of the new owners, Awes and his company aimed to make it feel like a bird's nest. It was a way to appreciate the home's place in the natural environment and accentuate that connection.
The owners and architect also wanted to respect the house's place in history, taking redesign cues from the structure.
"Let's maintain the strength of the home, which was the existing organization of spaces, and let's highlight the primary direction of each space," Awes said. "All the public spaces of the main floor — the living room, dining room, kitchen, porch — all opened up, as were the rooms on the lower level, like the entry and family room."
Structural and philosophical challenges
Still, because the house was built in 1962, it presented both structural and philosophical challenges.
"It was coming out of the '50s and '40s, when homes were much more fragmented," Awes said. "We started to be interested in homes that were a little bigger and more open in the floor plan. The kitchen, while still utilitarian, was starting to become a little more public. And houses began to have movement."
Homes from this period also were places of protection, not just against other people, but also the outdoors, something the new owners wanted to undo.
"Some of the modernists, like Frank Lloyd Wright, were greatly connected to nature," Awes said. "This house was starting to be connected to nature, but it was still bogged down in compartmentalization ideas from that time."
While the Mueller-Yernberg purchase had bigger windows than many homes of the '50s and '40s, "it still had interior walls separating kitchen, dining room, porch, entry," Awes said. "Then it was all paneled with dark wood. A lot of times you walk into a home like this and say, 'Wow, look at the character.' It's totally vintage and was well thought-out but still embedded in a time period where you divided up spaces. No light made it to the center of the home."
Letting the light in
To open it up and let in more light, Awes and his team added more and bigger windows. The house went from having four windows at ground level to 10, and from 10 at the main level to about 30, according to Mueller.
"This is a narrow home — every room is along an exterior wall and the house is only two rooms deep," Awes said. "To accentuate the light and sense of reaching outward, the windows were made larger and dropped down to the floor. You didn't have a barrier at the floor line, and that dramatically brought light in and dramatically increased the sense of movement."
But the cherry on top is a 25-foot skylight at the center of the house that accentuates the sense of movement. It also reflects the seasons, drawing in the world outside.
"It's in the treetops, so it has this slight, beautiful green glow," Mueller said. "And it picks up the crispness of a winter day or the softness of dusk."
Mueller said that she appreciates the dance of light at different times of the day and how the home feels like a part of nature.
The family lived in it until January 2020, then moved to a three-bedroom apartment nearby while the renovation was being done.
"We moved back in in October, so this will be our first summer," Mueller said.
A summer when they can experience the dance of light from a home in the trees.
A light transformation
Designing firm: CityDeskStudio.
Project team: Ben Awes, AIA; Nate Dodge, project manager; Perri Kinsman, design team; Chris Bach, design team.
General contractor: Erik Olson, president, Telos.
Interior design: April Mueller, vice president – creative, Illume.