Since its completion, the Mississippi River Bluff Home in Mendota, Minnesota has won numerous local and national awards for its architecture, been the site of private showings for architects wishing to demonstrate fine form and detailing to their employees, and hosted public house tours. Still, nobody lives in the 7,500-square-foot, five-bedroom house. Overlooking both the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, as well as the skylines of Minneapolis and St. Paul, the Bluff Home is one of five on a 6-acre subdivided lot planned by builder Millerville Inc. (two others are built, with two more in the pipeline). The other completed houses have already sold, and offers have come in for the two that are as yet unbuilt. “The house’s contemporary style was quite a departure for the builders,” says Todd Hansen, AIA, the partner-in-charge of the Minneapolis-based firm Albertsson Hansen Architecture that designed all five homes. “This home will take a unique client. But there are many houses both old and new for families with a large number of children, nannies, and live-in extended family for which a house this size works well,” he says. “Still, I agree that it is unique to see a speculative house of this scale.”
The house’s footprint was predetermined by the 60s rambler that used to occupy the 1.14-acre site. After razing the house, the team built on top of the large, rectangular foundation. Hansen based the simple, gabled exterior forms on vernacular midwestern farm-style houses and barns. He used recycled Douglas fir for the post-and-beam structure, which varies in height along the length of the home. Stained cedar shingle cladding, and pitched fiberglass shingle and metal standing-seam roofs lend the exterior a traditional look.
Sleek and minimal, the generous interior spaces, on the other hand, were designed to express warmth as well as Modernism. The two-story house has a 1,911-square-foot finished basement level, which houses a bedroom and a stepped, circular conversation pit and black-brick fireplace salvaged and reconstructed from the existing house. The main floor has a 1,047-square-foot open area containing the kitchen, dining, and living spaces. Organized along the bluff line, those spaces contain service areas “hidden in plain sight” behind a wall of cabinets and a large mirror (“an homage to Adolph Loos,” says Hansen about the mirror). Along with the abundant windows on the house’s north side, a “light monitor”—more windowed cupola than skylight—illuminates the space. The 660-square-foot master suite is also located on the main floor, as is a guest bedroom, with the remaining two bedrooms on the second floor.
Throughout the house, the natural color of the woods used—such as cherry for stair railings, reclaimed Jarrah (an Australian hardwood) for the majority of the floors, and the cork flooring used in the family room—brings warmth to the large open spaces. Slatted barnlike interior millwork on ceilings and walls provides texture. Lighting is soft and low, and in the living areas especially, where lighting was mounted on wires strung across the space, an intimate feel belies the large expanses.
“Although this was very much a collaboration, my partner really wanted this one house to be more modern than what I usually go for,” says Ray Miller, Millerville’s owner. “We were able to inject more of a serene, Scandinavian look into this home than in the others on the lot,” agrees Hansen. Examples can be found in rooms such as the master bathroom, where the architects used back-painted, sand-blasted sheet glass in lieu of tile. “Some visitors have commented that they see an Asian influence, as well,” he says. “We tried to make each space warm and inviting, while sticking to the goals of using the existing footprint and taking advantage of the site.”
“I pulled the reins back on the other homes, which are more traditional, with more painted millwork, color, enamel, tile, etc. Still, this is the one that gets such an incredible response. But there’s always a risk in this business,” he says. “There’s just a smaller population that’s interested in something this contemporary. A buyer will come.”