In 1969, when Mary Birrittella was 14, her parents, Sam and Barbara Blue, decided to relocate from St. Paul to Red Wing, purchasing a 200-acre apple orchard just outside of town.

"Neither of them had ever farmed, but my dad was a can-do kind of guy who read a lot and tapped into resources at the U of M horticulture department to teach himself," Birrittella said. "And my parents were a good team and worked hard together."

They also had a ready crew (three of their six children were still at home), so the orchard became a family enterprise where everyone pitched in with spraying, pruning, harvesting, washing and packing apples. And Birrittella loved it. Even after she moved away for college, married and settled in Wisconsin to raise her three kids, Birrittella returned often — for the harvest and many weekends until the orchard closed in 2017.

"I always longed to be here," she said.

Valley girl

So, it's not surprising that when life handed Birrittella the one-two punch of a divorce and COVID in 2020, she decided to return to the place that nourished her and build a home where she could age in place, host big family gatherings and visits from her adult children and begin a new chapter.

On a friend's recommendation, Birrittella contacted Shelter Architecture + Interior Design, initially wary about whether the award-winning firm was willing to design the modest house she envisioned. She needn't have worried. "They were really good at putting a lot of stuff in a compact footprint," Birrittella said.

So good that the project, called "Flower Valley Homestead," snagged a 2024-2025 Home of the Month win, a partnership between the Star Tribune and the Minnesota chapter of the American Institute of Architects that honors residential architecture.

Lead architect Beth Halstenson's first big decision was where to put the house. There was a lot of land and a handful of suitable sites. Birrittella's top priorities were capturing views, immersing her new house in the natural surroundings and locating it far enough away from the original farmhouse (where her younger brother, who eventually took over the farm, now lives) to ensure privacy.

They found the perfect spot on the plateau of a hill against a dense stand of trees, about a mile from the main road. "The elevation ensures views of the whole valley, the trees offer protection from strong winds and the slope allowed us to create a walkout level for guests," Halstenson explained.

Rooted in design

Halstenson's design evolved from Birrittella's wishes for a not-too-big footprint (2,400 square feet) with windows to frame the 360-degree views and one-level living that would feel cozy when it's just her and comfortable when she hosts. Birrittella also wanted it to look and function like a simple farmhouse.

At first glance, the house appears more modern than what many would expect to see on a farm, but the spirit is there. "It's not farmhouse in the traditional white, two-story, multiple-gable form. It's farmhouse in the modest approach to the landscape and trying not to detract from everything around it," Halstenson said.

The long single-gable structure, topped with a durable and low-maintenance standing-seam metal roof, sits quietly on the landscape, rising from a base of dolomitic limestone quarried in Winona, about 60 miles south.

On the interior, a gob-smacking view of the valley afforded by 13-foot windows has no competition in the open living/dining/kitchen area that makes up the bulk of the main level. In fact, it's hard for anything to hold a candle to the vistas in any room in the house.

Interior designer Lisa Antenucci, also of Shelter, said that was the point. "We used natural materials inside the house to reinforce the connection to the land, including wood from the property on the kitchen island."

The home also has a screened porch off the kitchen with views on three sides and a patio for grilling and dining.

Since this is Birrittella's forever home, accessibility was an important part of the design: wide doorways, zero thresholds and grab bars in the bathroom. In addition, most of the kitchen storage is under the counters and a downdraft range ensures that the ventilation is accessible without reaching up high. The lower level is for guests with a radiant concrete floor, built-in bunk beds and its own walkout patio.

Dinner is served … in the garage

Birrittella is one of six children, so family gatherings are large — having 30 for dinner isn't unusual, and she usually hosts because everyone wants to be home on the farm for the holidays. Her new house and attached garage have plenty of space for everyone.

"The garage is a big, clean, heated space where Mary can set up tables perfect for a Midwest holiday," Halstenson said.

In 2022, Birrittella and her younger brother decided to continue the property's legacy by planting a few acres of flowers and launching a pick-your-own flower farm: Flower Valley Orchards. "As a kid, I remember seeing people drive down from the cities and spend the day here smiling, relaxing and picking apples. I wanted to keep offering that experience; flowers are much more manageable than apples," she said.

Birrittella also extended that embrace to herself, building a home of solace and celebration in a place full of good memories.

"When my life changed drastically, I made a drastic change," she said. "Now I'm living my best life."

About this project

Designing firm: Shelter Architecture + Interiors.

Project team: Lead architect Beth Halstenson, AIA; Kurt Gough, Assoc. AIA; lead interior designer Lisa Antenucci, Allied ASID; Jackie Colpaert, Allied ASID; Jen Wojtysiak, Assoc. AIA.

Project partners: General contractor, Banitt Construction; structural engineer, Craig Schaper PE; surveyor, Johnson and Scofield Inc.

Laurie Junker is a Twin Cities-based writer specializing in home design and architecture.