Off the Beaten Path
A dramatic departure from your typical cabin on the lake, this unique retreat adds shades of black to a tiny island awash with local color.
Architect David Salmela describes the “Two Black Sheds” he designed for Bruce Golob and Jean Freeman as a pair of frisky, barking dogs that “want you to go up and pet them.” The analogy is not only charming but apt. The sheds—really a bifurcated cabin centered on a plinth—come off as coy one minute and impish the next, but constantly radiate contentment.
Golob and Freeman, whose primary residence is in Minneapolis, chose to build their vacation cabin on Madeline Island, a few miles off the coast of Wisconsin. The pair made a trip there “by accident” one summer, says Golob. “As soon as we stepped off the ferry, we found ourselves in another world.” The tiny island, one of many in Lake Superior, has a year-round population of 200, which swells to 4,000 in the summer months. “It’s never going to be Martha’s Vineyard,” Golob says, implying that this is all to the good.
The couple—he’s a retired schoolteacher, and she’s a consultant—had been looking for some time for a place to build a small retreat. And on Madeline Island, they found it: four and a half acres of forest and meadows overlooking the lake. Back in Minneapolis, Freeman sought out the Duluth-based Salmela, whom she knew by reputation. But scheduling the initial meeting wasn’t easy. The self-taught architect, who says he’ll take on any commission that strikes him as interesting, was busy with other projects, but once they finally met, it was serendipitous. “That first time, we spent four hours with him, at the end of which Jean had tears in her eyes,” says Golob, to which Freeman adds, “We adore David.”
At that first meeting, Golob and Freeman had expressed a desire for a house that was simple and didn’t involve a lot of work. “Another priority was having a space where everything worked together,” says Salmela, “so that when you’re cooking, you can visit just as well as if you’re sitting down and talking to someone. That’s a modern idea, but it’s also a very old one. Primitive buildings were usually single rooms to which other rooms were added.”
For his materials, Salmela used concrete-block foundation walls with frost (a poetic name for a foundational component that extends below the frost line so that when the harsh cold impacts the land through the freezing and thawing of soil moisture, it doesn’t damage the structure); concrete-block chimneys; two-by-six-inch wood-frame walls; glued-laminated roof beams; and high R-rated structural insulated panels (SIPs). He clad the outside walls in one-by-four-inch, beveled lap cedar siding. Inside, he chose concrete for the floors and local tongue-and-groove, flush-joint pine for the walls. The larger of the two units (which contains the kitchen, dining area, lounge, master bedroom, bath, and screen porch) is 900 square feet, and the smaller (where the guest room and bath, office area, and mechanical room are located) measures 360 square feet. The house, which was finished in 2003, cost $295,000 to build.
Local color played a near-equal role to building materials in the creation of this place. In addition to the year-rounders—loggers and fishermen, for the most part—Madeline Island plays host to a small artists’ colony and what Golob and Freeman call “the friendly wackos.” At one Fourth of July party the pair attended, a group decided to field a drill team. Not a precision drill team, as it happened. This team strode down the island’s main street bearing, of all things, electric drills.
This eccentricity, though, is the charm of the place, says Salmela. “Here, it’s out of character to be in character. It’s topsy-turvy land. It defies the logic of other places. Which is why I was able to do the Two Black Sheds.” (The clients’ name for the house derives from Salmela’s decision to paint the cabins not white—the modernist’s color of choice—but black.)
The island community’s free-spiritedness didn’t always work in the architect’s favor, however: When it came time to install a curving driveway leading up to the sheds, for example, Salmela hired a local man to do the work. But things went awry. Despite being provided with the necessary plans, the man, without consulting anyone, decided that he didn’t like curves and instead installed a path of his own devising that was as straight as an arrow.
Originally, the couple had planned to clad the cabin in natural wood, Freeman says, but once Salmela had persuaded them to paint the exterior black and the ceiling ochre, they decided to fall in line with his bolder vision. Interior walls may be white but the cabinetry is colored a deep violet. “Most of the colors came from David,” Freeman continues, “but every one of them was a separate decision.” The next problem was the concrete floors. Various colors were suggested, but despite hours of brainstorming, nothing came to mind. Then Freeman glanced across the room and spotted her vivid vermilion handbag. And with that, the impasse was broken.
Salmela’s work is often characterized by a bold use of color, but his signature stylistic statement is the chimney—or, as he would have it, the “unchimney.” As he explains, “Some years back, I visited a state park in the Copper Harbor area of Michigan, where there was a fort. Most of the log cabins had burnt down, and only the chimneys were left, but they struck me as being very dynamic.” And so the unchimney—really an outdoor fireplace—was born. These structures are not real chimneys, Salmela explains. For one thing, they don’t have a flue, but there is a grate, and one can build a fire. “The flames leave a sooty residue on the masonry,” he says, “and the next time you see the soot, it triggers a memory of warmth.”
Golob and Freeman’s only regret is the fact that they’re unable to spend more time here. The last time they paid a visit, 20 inches of snow fell, and the sound froze over. To return to the mainland, they had no choice but to drive their car over pack ice. Did it bother them at all? “Definitely not,” they say. “We can’t wait to get back.”