Every year, sisters Pamela and Debra Hovland look forward to their family’s summer get-together at a Minnesota lake.
“We’ve all made the commitment to spend holidays and summer together,” said Pamela, who lives in Connecticut. “Our family is a strong unit.”
Back in the 1980s, they usually rented a cabin. But as the family expanded and the number of family-owned resorts dwindled, finding the right rental wasn’t easy.
“Our group was growing, and it started to become harder to find a place to accommodate everybody,” said Pamela.
So in 1990, the sisters decided to buy a cabin.
The timing wasn’t ideal. Both were in their 20s and preparing to start graduate school, a master’s degree for Pamela, a graphic designer, and a law degree for Debra, an attorney who lives in Minneapolis.
“We were both facing yet more student loan debt, but for some reason we decided to go real estate shopping,” Pamela recalled.
They found a place near Pelican Rapids, Minn., where they had grown up on a dairy farm, and made an offer on a 700-square-foot cabin. It had a rare double lot, was across from a state park and on a lake the sisters knew — South Lake Lida, which was just a mile from their father’s childhood home and one of his favorite fishing spots.
The price was reasonable, but still they made a lowball offer. The real estate agent told them the offer was too low, then called back to say the sellers would accept it — and include everything inside, including homemade furniture and macramé wall hangings. “The cabin was full of brown macramé owls,” Pamela recalled.
The little Scandinavian-inspired cabin, built in the 1960s, had no running water. The water servicing the kitchen and bathrooms came directly from the lake, through a pipe with a piece of pantyhose attached to the end to keep minnows out.
To get financing, the sisters had to agree to put in a well immediately. So they dubbed their cabin All’s Well.
For more than 20 years, the little cabin was their family’s summer gathering spot. The sisters put on a porch, built by their brother-in-law, to expand their space, and used the empty lot for croquet, badminton and the overflow of tents and campers as their extended family grew to include husbands, children, stepchildren, grandchildren and several dogs.
The sisters dreamed of building side-by-side cabins on the double lot, and often sketched cabin designs on napkins.
“We always assumed over time we would do something different, that eventually we could each build,” said Debra, but finding a time when both of them could finance a new cabin was tricky.
The old cabin forced their hand. Its concrete block foundation developed large cracks and needed major repair.
“We knew we’d have structural problems pretty soon,” said Pamela. So they decided to say goodbye to the old cabin and build two new “sister cabins.”
Their husbands, Steven Lawrence and Doug Dorow, were on board. “Our husbands are huge fans of this place,” said Pamela.
While everyone in the extended family was excited about the project and contributed to brainstorming ideas, each sister designed her own cabin. “We wanted them to be very similar and work together, as companions, with a shared aesthetic that was respectful of what was here originally,” said Pamela. “We’re both drawn to modest, Scandinavian-inspired summer stugas.”
Each cabin is about 1,800 square feet including a sleeping loft. An architect friend of Pamela’s from New York, Richard Vail, helped them with the plans, and a friend from Fergus Falls, Minn., Cory Reinertson, Reinertson Construction, was their builder.
The two cabins share many of the same materials, but are as different as the two sisters.
Pamela’s cabin, All’s Well, on the same basic footprint as the original cabin, is set parallel to the waterfront, while Debra’s, Ends Well, is perpendicular.
“This orientation made sense to us from the beginning,” said Pamela. As an artist, she looks at the world “sideways,” influenced by inspiration and emotion. “I feel more comfortable on the edge,” she said. Her sister is a rational thinker. “She looks at the world straight on,” said Pamela. “The placement of our cabins speaks to who we are as individuals. And they fit the topography well.”
Inside, the cabins also go their own ways. “They both have different personalities,” said Debra. “Mine is more woodsy inside, more cabin-y. It’s simpler.”
Pamela said her cabin “takes more risks and is less traditional.” That includes an unusual staircase to the loft, with an alternating-tread design that takes up less space than a traditional staircase. “It’s definitely a point of conversation.”
Both sisters furnished their cabins with secondhand pieces and collectibles. “Debra and I and our family are big fans of flea markets and thrift shops,” said Pamela.
Different skill sets
The sisters played complementary roles during the design and construction process. “We have very different skill sets,” said Debra. “I was an accountant before I was a lawyer. I did research on floor plans.” Pamela is more interested in design details. Together, “we make a decent team.”
The two families share a boat, a dock and water toys, which they store in Pamela’s basement; Debra’s cabin doesn’t have one. They also share yard maintenance, and are in the process of restoring the land between the cabins and the lake to natural prairie, to protect the lake and its water clarity.
“We back each other up. It is a lot of work. Since we share that work, it’s less stressful,” said Debra.
When they’re together in the summer, they enjoy the lake and play games on the front porches. Debra and Doug also use their cabin in the winter, when they go snowshoeing or ice-fishing or just enjoy the coziness.
“It’s really great to sit there with a fire going and look at the vast white landscape,” Debra said.
The sister cabins, like the original cabin before it, help their families stay close.
“The best thing for me is the connection we’re able to keep with my family,” said Debra. “I think of my dad every time I’m up there.” Their father died in 2015.
The cabins also help them spend time with their mother and older sister, who both live in the area. And the cabins create memories and new traditions with their three sons, who are close in age.
When her son graduated from college, Pamela made him a video with photos from the family archives, including many of him in Minnesota enjoying time with his cousins, aunts and uncles.
“That’s priceless,” she said. “You have to make that happen. We are all pretty much in love with this place. It’s a gift we’ve been able to give them that will keep on giving.”