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Two years before they hired an architect to design and build on a prized lakefront site that they bought in northern Minnesota, owners J.R. and Jane Spalj weren't sure about what the final structure would look like. But they were clear about what they wanted.

"A summer home, not a summer cabin," said J.R., a native of Deerwood, Minn., who retired from the construction business. "A place with some formality that drew the lake into the structure. We love the water, and so we wanted something that made you feel like you were living on the water, not just viewing it."

J.R. and Jane agreed that their home should be "timeless, not trendy."

"For me, it was to be a place where our three adult daughters wanted to come home to — a second home that was quiet and peaceful where we could gather and have good family time," said Jane, a retired nurse from Elko New Market.

The couple, who winter in Arizona, met with several architectural firms. They were most impressed by Leffert Tigelaar and his team at TEA2 Architects in Minneapolis.

"They interviewed us at length and took extensive notes," J.R. said. "Initially, they said they would present us with three designs, but after our interview, we offered enough clarity and detail that they came up with just one design. And that initial plan had 80% or more of what we have in our home today."

There's no one architectural style to the four-bedroom house, although it draws aesthetic ideas from the Arts and Crafts movement, including an open floor plan, the use of natural materials and the prizing of natural light.

Interpreting the dream

"It was clear they didn't want a rustic North Woods lodge look or a retreat as their primary residence in Minnesota," said Tigelaar.

The TEA2 team limited the design palette to four elements: stone, plaster, glass and wood.

"We used all those materials but in a restrained way," Tigelaar said. "Instead of rough stone, it's a cut stone facade. There's more order and sophistication in that than you would typically associate with a cabin."

The Spaljes, who are voracious readers, enjoy getting lost in a book while glancing up occasionally to look at the water. They also like boating and water-skiing. They value their second home as a place of play and peace. The architect's choice of materials helped with the latter.

"The interior is traditional plaster finish, not the painted wall," Tigelaar continued. "Having limited materials plus the order of design and circulation — those are the elements that create a sense of tranquility in the house."

The plaster adds a distinct character. "Plaster has a depth that paint doesn't," Tigelaar said. "It's less dynamic than paint, absorbing the light more, as opposed to reflecting it. That makes it more calming."

Plaster also is a nice balance to open glass, said Tigelaar, "so you feel protected in something that's quite open in all directions."

Sourcing the materials

All the stone in the house was sourced in the United States, including Kasota stone mined from a quarry in Mankato and Mesabi black granite from Ely, Minn. The marble, the same type used in the Lincoln Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, comes from a quarry north of Aspen, Colo.

But the mahogany, which is used to warm up the stone, came by boat from Honduras. That had its own adventure.

"The first shipment of the mahogany got caught up in a hurricane in the Carolinas, and was damaged," J.R. said. "That cost us a month."

Wood was used to soften other aspects of the design.

"We've got some brackets that come up to meet the roof edge," said TEA2 senior project manager Charlie Witzke. "Two arcs come out of the stone. The arc motif is repeated in the living room. There's a bit of curve, that same arc that comes up and supports some of the beams. The fireplace, also, has a bit of a curve up to the mantel. These very subtle, restrained details help to make it a cohesive whole."

And, oh, the family loves natural light.

"The TEA2 folks knew where the light would be at various times of day and months of the year," J.R. said. "They could tell us where and when the sun is shining. So in the outdoor seating area, 'OK, your morning sun will be such and such.' "

The site posed one design dilemma.

"The lake side is on the north side of the property," Tigelaar said. "Of course, the clients and we wanted to take advantage of the views of the lake and open the house up to that direction. The problem is that we get natural light but not the play of sunlight moving around during the day. So, there are reasons why, when you drive up to the house, you see through it. One, they wanted to open the front door, and see the lake right away. And we could have had a glass front door and be done with it. But we expanded the glass on the entry side. That way we could get more sunlight into the house. And the use of dormers above the front door allows the light to come in higher and deeper," Tigelaar said.

The family tapped Damon Farber Landscape Architects to tie everything together.

"To me, you build a house, and the house is like a picture," J.R. said. "But the picture needs a frame. And that's the landscaping, the trees, the bushes, the walls down by the lake."

Although not strictly symmetrical, the home has a symmetry associated with classical architecture, said Tigelaar. "Those stone gables are almost like bookends filled in with glass and wood."

Because of the pandemic, the Spaljes have not been to the home for eight months, and they're hankering to be there, especially in August. That's when they celebrate 39 years of marriage.

"Often when people build a house, they get in and go, "Oh, I don't like that wall there, or that switch there,' " J.R. said. "But TEA2 showed us a design tool that allowed us to walk into a house and literally see where everything was ... there wasn't a single surprise."

Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390

About this project

What: A timeless, modern home in cabin country.

Size: About 5,900 square feet.

Builder: L. Cramer Builders

Building consultant: Construction Advocates

Interior design: Sue Weldon of Harris Weldon Interiors

Landscape architects: Damon Farber

Design: Architect Leffert Tigelaar (left), associate principal, Charlie Witzke, senior project manager, TEA2 Architects

Scott Walker/Lakelight Photography

Waterfront Wood and Glass, TEA2