A Cabin Story

Written on 18 Apr 2016 by  / Published in Blog

Story by Molly Hoeg, / Photos by Jack Rendulich

“Wanna come up to the cabin?” It was a phrase I always wanted to hear from my friend Kay when we were kids growing up in Duluth.

I loved doing the Minnesota thing, going up to her family cabin north of the city for a weekend or a week. That cabin stayed in my memories, even as time and distance separated Kay and me.

Little did I know, 50 years later when our friendship was rekindled, those same words would still thrill me.

Much has changed, of course, in the intervening years. The cabin I remember was built in 1960 by Kay Harris’ grandparents, Gertrude and Norman Johnston, as a family retreat. 

A plain pre-fabricated structure, the main level contained all the basic living spaces, very serviceable for cooking, eating, sleeping and hanging out in rainy weather. The cavernous, unfinished walkout basement was where the kids ruled.

One of Kay’s favorite spots was the “dormitory” (as they called it). “There were at least four beds in there,” she laughs, “and when we could get away with it, we would jump from bed to bed.”

Kay’s family did what many Northland folks did back then and “moved to the cabin” each summer. Three generations shared that rectangular pre-fab perched high on the hill above the lake.

The real draw was the secluded lake. “What I remember most is that I would spend all day in the water. We would sail, canoe, swamp the canoe and swim in it and talk under it.”

Kay and I share great memories of fights in the small blue boats and paddling the round “whirlybird” raft. “My mom used to bring lunch down to the beach house, where we would eat on the screen porch so we would not have to put our clothes back on to eat.”

The cabin eventually passed down to Kay’s parents, Winifred and John Harris. It acquired, somehow, the name “Winigo” from what Winifred Gertrude called herself as child. Win and John continued to spend summers there and remodeled some in 2000. They bought the adjoining lots, bringing the total property to 9 acres with 1,200 feet of lake frontage.

Although Kay and her siblings all moved out of the area after graduation, the cabin continued to draw the family. Wanting to preserve this family treasure, Kay bought the cabin in 2013. “I felt it would be easier if one person owned it all, rather than jointly. But I want everyone to feel they can go there. I just happen to own it.”

Soon Kay dreamed about remodeling. Living in White Bear Lake, she envisioned long visits to the northwoods cabin in all seasons. “My goal was to create a more useful and livable space, to update it and winterize it.”

A grand scheme emerged- renovate the main cabin and build a guesthouse and a boathouse. Kay turned to Progressive Architecture, just half a mile down the road from their White Bear Lake home, to develop the plans. She opted to build the guesthouse first to accommodate family.

The plan started simple. “We should have a little spa hut with a hot tub and a screen porch.” Soon a sauna was added to the hot tub and the spa hut became a fully equipped guesthouse.

Kay engaged Bill Ericson of Ericson Builders in Duluth. It became a collaborative effort. “There were a lot of ‘Aha!’ moments,” Bill recalls, with multiple plan changes. “There was a lot of stuff I didn’t know, but Kay knew it. I only knew it when the time came.” (I have to admit, I’m relieved it worked out.

Bill built our Duluth house, and I had recommended him to Kay.

Kay had top-of-the line visions. She sought material sources, helped by her husband, Tom Keyser. “It was fun to seek out different suppliers in the area,” Kay says. “As much as possible, we tried to use suppliers in the Duluth-Superior area and buy locally.”

A perfect little getaway for two, the guesthouse features a soaring vaulted ceiling above a spacious yet cozy sitting area. Enormous windows overlook a deck and patio furnished with Adirondack chairs and a commanding view of the lake.

Across from the sitting area, a handy kitchen with just enough appliances and roomy eating space enables guests to be self-sufficient. The Corian countertops blend with the dark cabinets- fashioned from piles of old growth white pine boards Kay found in a small storage building on the property. “We think they were floor joists for a building torn down in Duluth years ago.” Brucklemyer Brothers milled the wood, created the cabinets and returned a coffee can full of spikes and nails removed from the reclaimed lumber.

The centerpiece- literally- of the guesthouse is a fireplace that divides the living and kitchen spaces. It stretches to the full height of the vaulted ceiling. Kay and Tom selected limestone from Great Lakes Stone in Duluth for the fireplace and columns on the front of the buildings. Mike Route of Red Iron Studio made the metal mantelpiece. “We knew the fireplace and vaulted ceiling would be dramatic, and it is,” says Kay.

Kay and Tom quickly fell in love with the guesthouse, which they named “The Birches” for the ubiquitous birch trees Kay remembers on the land. Most are gone now, replaced by thriving pine. Able to stay in the lovely new spa house, they retained Bill Ericson to renovate the main cabin.

“The cabin was already in Kay’s brain, but it was being done in phases,” Bill says. “We clicked well, so we continued on together.”

Renovation became a complete overhaul. “Because the original structure was a pre-fab building, there were no load-bearing walls internally,” Kay says. “So we could move any walls we wanted.”

Two small bedrooms were combined to create a proper master bedroom with a walk-in closet. A new patio door accessed the enlarged deck wrapped around two sides of the cabin facing the lake.

The original main entrance was actually a back door. “It opened right into the stairs to the basement and the bathroom door.” Kay wanted a proper entryway for dirty boots and flip-flops. When they added the welcoming entry and mudroom, they also added a special touch.

“We came up with the idea of pictographs like in the BWCAW.” Glenwood Signs and Awards in Duluth sandblasted their designs of a canoe, fish, turtle and moose into slate tiles for the mudroom floor.

The porch on the side of the cabin was extended four feet. The room had doubled as a sitting room/bedroom for Kay’s parents. Intended as a carport, her grandparents had it enclosed, but one wall retained its aluminum siding and the door into the kitchen was an exterior metal door. In another tribute to the birch trees, Kay wanted birch tongue-and-groove paneling in that room. Lester River Sawmill got local birch lumber. The final touch was a new gas fireplace, using the same limestone as in the guesthouse.

Since Kay and Tom are avid cooks, it’s little surprise that the cabin’s kitchen received great attention. “It still had the original 1959 stove,” Kay says. The 2000 remodel had included new cabinets, and Rob’s Custom Cabinetry came back to build additional cabinets and a peninsula. New granite countertops, fresh paint and GE Café Series appliances finished the makeover.

A dishwasher was welcomed, despite nostalgic pre-dishwasher memories. “As kids, we’d spend hours washing and drying the dishes. I’d sing camp songs with my sisters.”

Kay’s favorite new feature is a drying cupboard popular in Europe; she first saw one when she lived in Italy. “The cabinet holds a stainless steel dish drainer. It is out of sight and drains into the sink.”

When it came to the basement, Kay admits, “My memories influenced the remodel.” The layout remains much the same, and “the dormitory” has been preserved as a bedroom, though the interior walls and ceilings were finished to create a cozier space. A full bathroom was added. New heating and air conditioning make the space year-round ready.

As Kay had hoped, the cabin was completed in time for a family reunion last summer. Winifred, now 93, returned to see the transformation. “It means a lot to my mom that someone wanted the cabin and has done wonderful things with it. My mom says that when she dreams, it’s always about the cabin and the view.”

As for Kay and Tom, the lake still remains the focus. Tom’s first visit to the cabin was to teach Kay how to fly fish shortly after they met. Things clicked, and within a week they began dating. The cabin added that memory to all the others it holds.

“As a kid,” Kay reminisces, “I felt like, ‘Oh yeah, this again’ because it was so close. Now, when we go it means something.”

Originally Published in Lake Superior Magazine FEBRUARY / MARCH 2016

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