The final part of the trip to the cabin is a walk across a 50-foot span. The bridge, made of wood beams and composite decking, suggests that it may lead to a castle, as often is the case in Old World fairy tales. But the destination is distinctly Minnesotan: Casa Loon, a former fishing shack on Lake Ossawinnamakee in Crow Wing County that has been converted into an award-winning lakefront hideaway.
It's modest, with 1,800 square feet, but what Casa Loon lacks in size, it makes up for in allure.
"It's our little piece of heaven on Earth," said owner Silvia Perez. The cabin "is one with the lake, the greenery and nature, and it has total peacefulness. Marcelo was so successful in capturing and embracing nature that you become part of it."
Marcelo would be architect Marcelo Valdes, her husband, who worked meticulously with Perez to make their family retreat a jewel, where all facets are well considered and finely polished.
"I always say, as a client, I have the best architect, since he's available 24/7," Perez said. "He says I'm the worst client."
"The only one you never get a break from," he said, laughing. "In reality, it was a great experience because we work well as a team."
The 'not so big' cabin
Conscientious and respectful of the environment, the couple are fans of Sarah Susanka's "The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live." Valdes worked with her at SALA Architects.
"She has a great philosophy that really resonated with me," Valdes said. "You don't need huge spaces to have comfortable spaces. The key to a not-so-big house is good design."
Susanka's ideas comport with like-minded design enthusiasts gleaned from their Uruguayan backgrounds. Valdes grew up in Montevideo, the South American country's capital, while Perez came of age in Curitiba, Brazil, where her family migrated.
The couple moved to Minnesota 24 years ago following Perez's work; she's a senior executive at 3M.
"Our family joke is that we became U.S. citizens eight years after we arrived in the U.S. but then we became Minnesota citizens once we bought a little shack," Valdes said.
"We know it's a privilege to have a cabin, and not everyone has one," Perez added. "We are grateful."
They acquired the 2-acre lake property in 2008. The then-700-square-foot fishing shack had been designated a teardown by the developer, who parceled out waterfront acreage into 10 lots.
Built only 10 feet from the water, the cabin had been abandoned. It was noteworthy for mice carcasses, creepy-crawlies and a pronounced stench emanating from the yellow carpet. While most people may not have gotten past the rot and odor, Valdes saw potential.
"Most of the problems were superficial — the structure was well built," Valdes said. "So, for the price of land, we may get a cabin."
Cleanup defined the first phase as the couple set about making the place habitable again. They furnished the place from secondhand stores and auctions to give it a cabin feel that allowed them to fully enjoy the Up North experience, which they did with gusto.
That initial exploration of the property had a purpose.
"If you're going to remodel, it helps to live on the property before you remodel," Perez said. "There are things that you can only understand after you've lived in the house and see the flow. A place has its own rhythms and needs and you've got to figure those out before you start making changes."
They considered erecting a bigger place, but that would have taken them away from the water to meet current code.
"We had the option of building a normal house, a normal cabin, far away from the lake, but we went for this challenge," Valdes said.
'Designing inside a sailboat'
In summer 2019, they embarked on their major renovation, this time with a 1,100-square-foot expansion.
The challenges include access. The cabin sits below a steep bluff and is most easily reached by walking along the shore on property that now belonged to others, or else accessible from the water. They had to build a temporary road to get materials to the site.
They also liked the thought of being environmentally responsible and wanted to keep the area as undisturbed as possible.
"Animals lived there and had rights to that area before we came along," Perez said.
And they worked within the existing footprint of the cabin.
"You don't want to modify the environment, so we used the existing perimeter of the home," Valdes said. "That imposed an extreme design challenge. It was like designing on the inside of a sailboat — the space is very tight."
The place was to have four bedrooms and three baths. But most things in the renovated cabin would have dual functions. The switchback stair going to the lower level also functions as the pantry, just seven steps away from the kitchen. There's flexible space that's converted from living room to dining room and back.
"If you have separate dining and living rooms, then you need a bigger home," Valdes said. "We switch them easily depending on the occasion or season."
The family furnished Casa Loon with furniture and fixtures found at secondhand shops, garage sales or auctions. Many are repurposed. There's an industrial cart that they stripped and sanded and rebuilt with recovered wood for a bar on wheels. They bought an old grocer's scale that hangs from the ceiling, full of fruit.
"It's very convenient but also very pretty," Perez said. "We're not going to find the next plastic thing but instead find new life for beautiful objects."
And they found an old traveling library that they use as a cabinet in the living/dining room. Perez said that it reminds her "of the first version of a Kindle." Back when people had polio, a traveling library, which included a wooden box to hold books, was made available for patients.
'Everything has a place'
"Everything has a place and there's a place for everything," Perez said.
In the lower level, the family didn't have enough space for a pool table. But Perez found a Victorian-era pool table that was intended for women to play. It is a smaller size with smaller balls.
"It's sexist, yes, but we brought it home and restored it and we got all the manuals and rules and put them in frames on the walls," Valdes said. "We get to play pool like ladies in the 1890s."
Valdes added a few Brazilian touches to honor his wife. In many Brazilian homes, there's a small, lidded countertop trash container, called a lixinho, used for contents that are later dumped into a bigger bin. He got one of those, an offering to their partnership in building their version of a fairy-tale castle, minus the size.
The project was completed in August 2020. The couple and their three children, two of whom are launched, have all stayed there, as have over a dozen family members during one spell.
"We're South American, so family is important to us, and we like to be together," Valdes said.
They've spent Christmas holidays at the cabin with the kids snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Valdes also cut ice from the frozen lake to create an ice bar at night. The way the family describes what happened next makes it sound like something from a thriller, although what happened was more magical than strange.
"People would just emerge out of the darkness and show up at the bar," Perez said, recalling the faces of neighbors lit by an elevated bonfire under the stars. "This was during [COVID-19] when we couldn't gather so we were super-happy and proud to be outside getting to meet people we knew and [also meet] new people."
The Valdes-Perez clan is planning a big get-together next year. They have a son who is getting married, which means lots of family coming from Uruguay and Brazil, and an opportunity to show them a slice of Minnesota life.
"We'll take them to the cabin — it's going to be absolutely full," Valdes said.
About this project
What: Abandoned fishing cabin turned family lake retreat.
Year purchased: 2008. Renovation: 2020.
Size: Originally 700 square feet, with a 1,100-square-foot addition for a total of 1,800 square feet. M. Valdes Architects PLC, Marcelo Valdes, AIA.
Design: M. Valdes Architects PLC, Marcelo Valdes, AIA.
Contractor: Stephen Genereux, Genereux Homes.
Project team: Marcelo Valdes, AIA.
Landscape: Central Lakes Landscape, Kevin Wessman.