As she started to think more about aging in place, Victoria Erhart debated whether her St. Paul midcentury could work as her forever home.
After all, her 1953 architect-designed, light-filled house with a fenced-in yard in the St. Anthony Park neighborhood sparked joy. And her dogs, Cooper and Peach, as well as the backyard chickens, seemed like happy campers.
"I wanted to age gracefully in a house but wondered how I would be able to do that here," said Erhart, who has lived in her abode for 27 years. "It was one big room and then two tiny bedrooms and allowed for no flexibility."
She also wanted to look into creating an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) in the basement should the need for a caretaker arise one day. The problem was, the city of St. Paul didn't have a zoning code in place at the time to allow for the same-lot, self-contained residential units.
While she was at it, Erhart wished to fix other things that irked her about the house — namely, a massive fireplace in the middle of the main gathering spaces that blocked views indoors and out. Then there was the front door.
"Nobody could ever find my front door. I've had people wandering around trying to figure out how to get in," she said. "I love my house, but it's very funky."
Erhart reached out to Albertsson Hansen Architecture, the Minneapolis firm that built her Madeline Island cottage a few years back. The project, an early adapter of an exterior insulation system, drew the attention of various publications and even an international podcast. The Lake Superior retreat also received a 2014-15 AIA Star Tribune Home of the Month award, a partnership with the American Institute of Architects Minnesota chapter that honors residential design.
"It was a lot of fun the first time," she said. "It was easy to say, 'Let's do this again.'"
With their latest project, dubbed St. Anthony Midcentury, now complete, it too has drawn attention for its design details. Lauded by judges for a transformation that preserved and enhanced its midcentury style, it was named a Home of the Month winner in the 2023-24 inductees.
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For architect Christine Albertsson, it was important to draw from timeless features such as the 12-foot sloped wood ceiling and clerestory windows.
In addition, "It was nicely set up with two bedrooms on one side and a relatively open kitchen-dining area on the other," Albertsson said. "So our job was to sort of figure out how we make this come forward in time, preserving the parts that really are special."
To open spaces even more, the original fireplace was removed and replaced with a contemporary one that now sits flush with a living room wall. Midcentury-inspired ribbed tiles frame the fireplace surround as well as a newly designed kitchen.
"It had this really beautiful scaling that we wanted to highlight," said Albertsson Hansen project manager Mark Tambornino. "It was honoring the original architecture and bringing it back alive again and into the 21st century."
The kitchen project also homed in on the idea that, like with an outfit, mixing pricier with modest pieces goes together if you style it right. Here, custom red birch cabinetry mingles with straight-from-the-box green Ikea cabinets.
"We did a high-low approach," Albertsson said. The birch cabinetry "is really quite simple, but has texture and detail and picks up on the beautiful ceiling and structure from the 1950s."
A multipronged approach
Adhering to the midcentury principle of function, multipurpose features can be spotted throughout.
Between the kitchen and an exterior door, a double-sided floating birch cabinet acts as a room divider. One side stores kitchen gadgets, while the other functions as a closet and storage system for a newly formed mudroom area. Erhart's furry friends also were kept in mind with built-in crates absent of front and back panels, giving Cooper and Peach multiple sightlines.
Replacing the undersized garage with a new one presented the opportunity to build additional living space — a primary suite, office and screen porch — above. Knowing her client well, Albertsson located the porch among the treetops.
"Another thing that resonated with me is Toria's love for birding, so we brought that idea to the project," said Albertsson. "The space is very small, but it doubles as a canopy, so it plays all these different roles for the house. For being modest, it really excels."
When Erhart was looking to build an accessory dwelling unit, the city didn't have a provision in its zoning code. However, she was involved in a grass-roots effort, and a pilot study was underway.
"The neighborhood was pushing for ADUs," Erhart said. "I really believe in accessory dwelling units to create more urban density instead of sprawl and show that ADUs can be beautiful."
Albertsson Hansen put together a design for Erhart's property and presented it to the city, which resulted in the first permit-issued ADU in St. Paul.
"It wasn't just us," Albertsson noted. "There were several architects and homeowners that were a part of that grass-roots effort."
In establishing an ADU in the basement, they created a separate entrance off the new garage, soundproofed and separated mechanicals. From there, salvaged items such as cabinets from the remodeled upstairs kitchen were reused.
"The existing space in the basement was already kind of set up nicely. There was already a bedroom with an egress window," Tambornino noted. "We took advantage of the existing [features] that were there and organized the kitchen and the bathroom and such in an efficient way."
As for that problematic hard-to-find main entrance? Learning how people entered the home brought things to light. The house is set deep back in the lot and closer to the alley.
"It's kind of an unusual situation. If you are coming from the street, you go through a walkway in the middle of her garden that feels like you're coming in through the backyard," Albertsson said.
As a result, guests would continue along the walkway and enter through a door on the side of the house. The solution: Create a new main doorway in the area where guests naturally gravitated. A courtyard leading up to it drives home the point to enter there.
Ask Erhart her favorite thing about her remodeled house, and she'll tell you it's difficult to choose. For one, she loves that she can enjoy views indoors and out now that the fireplace has been removed. "I can be sitting anywhere in the house and see the garden," she said.
Erhart also finds herself spending ample time on her new porch, where she likes to read, with birds perching just beyond.
"I love everything about it," she said. "It's a wonderful house."
About this project
An architect-designed midcentury home in St. Paul is reinvented for modern-day living while preserving and enhancing its timeless qualities. In addition, a basement conversion holds the spot as the first permitted accessory dwelling unit in St. Paul.
Designing firm: Albertsson Hansen Architecture.
Project team: Project manager Mark Tambornino, AIA, CID, NCARB; lead architect Christine Albertsson, AIA, CID, NCARB; project architect Katie Loecken, AIA; interior designer Sarah Hughes, Allied ASID.
Project partners: Willie Anderson, general contractor, The Crown Construction Co.