There's nothing ordinary about Matt Kelly's Macalester-Groveland home.
For starters, it used to be a Lutheran church. Then it was the home of acclaimed Ojibwe modernist George Morrison and his wife, artist Hazel Belvo, who converted the church into their private residence and studio. And now, with the addition of a new garage/pool house, it's an inviting and tranquil retreat for a busy family in a busy city neighborhood.
"I pretend the traffic sounds are ocean waves," Kelly joked.
Built in 1924, the sturdy brick church had much to offer as a family home, including high ceilings on three spacious levels and expansive arched windows. Plus, it was on a half-acre corner lot with a big yard.
Kelly and his former wife, Jennifer Bawcom, had the property on their radar for years before it went on the market. Fans of old buildings, they went through the open house when it was listed in 2007, but the price was outside their budget. Still, the house stayed on their minds — and on the market. When the price dropped in 2009, they made an offer and got it.
When Morrison and Belvo lived there in the 1970s, they did much of the work to create functional living space within the church. Subsequent owners made additional renovations.
As a result, the house was in great shape when the family, including daughter Beela and son Shep, moved in. The exception was the original windows in the former worship space and lower level, which needed to be replaced. "The most amount of money I've spent with the least amount of gratification," Kelly said.
The existing garage was also in rough shape. Built by Morrison, the cedar-clad structure had deteriorated over the years and was unusable. But plans to replace it were put on hold when 2-year-old Shep was found to have leukemia a few years after moving in.
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All of Kelly and Bawcom's energy went into his treatment and recovery for the next four years, shuttling between doctor and chemotherapy appointments.
"Nothing will slow you down faster in life than childhood cancer. Everything stopped except taking care of Shep," Kelly said.
When their son was well, the Kelly and Bawcom had the bandwidth to think about a new garage and decided to expand the scope and create a vacation spot at home — their version of a cabin.
They reasoned that as the kids got older, their activities would ramp up and make it difficult to trek north on weekends. Plus it would allow Kelly, who owns an experiential marketing agency, to spend more time with the family during his company's busy summer months.
Kelly and Bawcom love design and shared ideas about the project with a friend, builder Chris Marsden. Marsden connected the two with Gabriel Keller and Andrew Edwins of PKA Architecture and they immediately clicked.
"Gabe and Andrew enhanced every single aspect of the project and evolved everything we brought to them," Kelly said.
Taking cues from the shape and materials of the main house, Keller and Edwins designed a smaller-scale, modern interpretation for the pool house with a three-car garage, bonus room, balcony and a covered patio next to the new pool.
"We have options," Kelly said. "Protected poolside space for shade and rainy days, a deck if we want sun and views and an indoor area all year round."
The upper-level bonus room is an airy cocoon with walls of furniture-grade birch plywood, a material well suited to the four-season space.
"The wood adds warmth, and because it's plywood, it's more durable and able to handle temperature swings better than other materials. It is a great marriage of aesthetics and practicality," Edwins said.
Large windows provide cross ventilation during warmer months, and a sleek gas stove offers heat in the winter. A giant dormer visually connects with the main house and boosts headroom and natural light. It's a tranquil place for Beela, now 16, to do yoga, and both kids host gatherings of friends in what must be the neighborhood's coolest hangout spot.
Harmonize, don't copy
Marsden Building & Remodeling executed Keller and Edwin's clean, precise design that left little room for error.
"Simple can be more challenging. There's no place to hide anything," said owner Chris Marsden, noting that lining up the channels in the plywood (used to hide the seams between panels) with windows and lights was a meticulous process. "I spent a lot of time up there with my hand on my chin trying to figure out how to do it."
While the property doesn't have a historic designation, it does have a unique history, which Keller and Edwins wanted to honor. They strove to create visual harmony between the original building and the new garage/pool house, but not a carbon copy.
For example, the main house has a gable and four small hipped dormers; the pool house has a gable and one large flat dormer. The brick and natural slate roof on the original are complemented by slightly darker and thinner brick and a synthetic slate roof on the new pool house.
"We don't want to create false history," Edwins said. "We didn't need to try to find the exact same materials or match it exactly and fail."
The next chapter
George Morrison died in 2000, but his son, Briand Morrison, stopped by a few years ago. Kelly gave him a tour and Briand shared details and memories about his time in the house.
The two have stayed in touch via email. Last year, Kelly attended the dedication ceremony for the new U.S. Postal Service stamps featuring five of George Morrison's abstract landscapes.
Although Kelly and Bawcom divorced in 2020, they're proud of this project and remain friends and devoted co-parents.
Kelly considers himself the current custodian of the house — contributing his family's chapter. He plans on it being a long one. "This is where my kids have grown up. It's home."
Laurie Junker is a Twin Cities-based writer specializing in home design and architecture.