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Scandinavian Light Trick: Time-Tested Design Solutions Find Modern Expression in a St. Paul House

Elizabeth and Winston Close. Ralph Rapson. Robert Cerny. Richard Hammel and Curt Green. Not only in Minneapolis and St. Paul, but internationally, these local mid-century architects put MSP on the design map as a hotbed of modernist architecture—then and now. Within their practices, residential architecture was a focus. Many of these architects’ signature homes were built in the mid-20th century in University Grove, an enclave of architect-designed homes in the North St. Anthony Park neighborhood of St. Paul, near the University of Minnesota.
In the 1920s, U administrators set the area aside for homes designed by architects, to be purchased by university professors and staff. The architects that were commissioned, and their styles, varied. But in time University Grove became a laboratory for modernist architects like the Closes, Rapson and others to showcase their work. In 1989, a New York Times article declared the neighborhood “an architectural time capsule of modern America.”
“As soon as the avant-garde was accepted, it was seen here,” Tom Martinson, co-author with David Gebhard of A Guide to the Architecture of Minnesota, told the New York Times. “In University Grove, you have a case study of unrestrained regional modernism.”
Over the years, modern architecture in the St. Anthony Park neighborhood hasn’t remained confined to University Grove. And this fall, about a half mile away, architect John Dwyer, principal of the Minneapolis firm Dwyer Oglesbay, or D/O, and chair of the architecture program at the Dunwoody College of Technology, completed a home that just won an American Institute of Architects-Minnesota Honor Award for its design—Dwyer’s first. And it wasn’t easy.
Tiny lot, big design challenges
The 1750-square-foot, two-story home, which Dwyer designed for an empty-nester couple, sits on a tiny lot at a busy intersection across from Luther Seminary. “The property has an interesting story,” Dwyer says. Once attached to a neighboring house and yard, the lot was a hot property when it became for sale. (Houses sell quickly in St. Anthony Park and empty lots are almost non-existent.) “The size of the lot made it virtually unbuildable,” he continues. “Even so, there was a competitive bidding situation from day one.”
Dwyer’s clients asked him to come up with a buildable design in two days. “They were eager to put in an offer, but their offer was contingent on whether they could build on the lot.” Adding to the challenge was a grove of majestic mature oak trees on the west side, which everyone was determined to keep. Moreover, the site has “a lot of topography” as it slopes from front to back and on one side.
“We really had to squeeze a lot in,” he sighs.
Dwyer’s solution—virtually the same as his initial design—was to set the house back from the corner, give it a wedge shape that points to a big oak at the front of the property, and sink the house three feet below grade to lower its profile “and keep it quiet on the site and in the neighborhood,” Dwyer explains.
The house’s simple box form and flat roof were “driven by economy,” he adds. “We needed to design a two-story house as low to the ground as possible, and a pitched roof would have screamed its presence. We tried to be thoughtful in how we positioned the house on the site and the materials we used.”
The exterior is clad in black HardiPanel and clear unfinished cedar (locally sourced and milled) “that’s meant to age,” he continues. “I didn’t want to design a modern house with a bunch of exclamation points. I really tried to channel my Zen side to make this a soft, quiet house…to give it a sense of silence on the site. It’s still a big house at an intersection, but as time goes by we hope it will fade into the landscape even more.”
Evolving modernism
In part, the house’s unique interior layout determined the window placement. The clients asked that the main living area be located on the second floor; it also connects to a roof deck on the garage. “The clients really wanted to live up in the air, with views of the oaks and the Minneapolis skyline,” Dwyer explains.
In addition to windows in the living area, a large band of windows in the master bedroom provides views to a grove of trees at the seminary. The guest bedroom also has horizontal windows.
On the lower level, the kitchen sits in the center and has an outdoor sunken sitting room surrounded by tall prairie grasses for privacy. A sitting area at the front of the house is tucked into the site, with a band of windows for light and views. Dwyer was also sure to “focus a lot of glass to the east and the south, so we get the most intense sunlight in the winter to warm the interior.”
He then deployed what he calls “a very old Scandinavian light trick for space.” In the winter, when the landscape is covered with snow, “the light outside is diffuse and blue,” Dwyer explains. “So the trick is to warm the first two bounces of light inside the house with soothing materials on the floor and ceiling—in this case, white oak—and then keep everything else in the space white, so the light bounces around as much as possible.”
Being able to use oak inside the house, while enjoying the mature oaks outside, adds to the house’s synergy. “I love studying old agrarian buildings and Scandinavian architecture to see how people solved simple problems,” Dwyer says, “and then I like to bring those solutions into the modern world. I believe in continuing to evolve modernism, and appreciate architects who look back into their roots to find their version of what modernism can be.”
Dwyer admits when the modern house first went up in the largely traditional neighborhood, “we heard some harsh words.” But during this fall’s Homes by Architects Tour, “all the neighbors showed up! And we didn’t hear a single bad comment.”
“I got the sense that the attitude in the community changed once the cedar went onto the house’s exterior,” he adds. “That natural material helped the house fit in.” But it’s important to remember, he adds, that modern architecture isn’t new to the neighborhood. “We not that far from University Grove,” he says. “It’s just up the street!”
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