Five years ago, when father and son Jeff and Bruce McPheeters set out on an evening canoe ride near their family cabin on Wood Lake in Northern Wisconsin, they paddled by a site for sale that sparked an idea. What if they built a vacation rental along the tree-lined river to share the landscape with others?
"The conversation snowballed, and all of a sudden, we were writing letters to farmers," Jeff said. "We didn’t have a grand idea in the beginning—it started with tiny houses, which changed with practicality and minimum zoning requirements."
After nearly two years of surveying the county property map, the McPheeters found the perfect place to break ground on what would become Nordlys Lodging Co: a 140-acre plot of rural land in Frederic, Wisconsin, 90 miles northeast of Minneapolis. "The property has a great mixture of biomes," says Jeff, who describes hills, meadows, a pond, deciduous woods, and unique granite outcroppings. "Then there are little chunks that are piny forest," he adds. "In 140 acres, you get all the regions of Wisconsin."
As fans of Pacific Northwest architecture, the McPheeters dreamed of nestling micro-structures of wood, glass, and metal within the landscape, but they worried about the aesthetic’s ability to withstand harsh winters. "The style works in Puget Sound, but if you tried to mimic it in the Midwest, you’d have icicles on the inside of your steel beams in January," Jeff laughs.
Fatefully, while they were back home in Minneapolis, a dwelling designed by architect David Wagner on Lake of the Isles caught their attention. Wagner, a Washington native who worked for several Seattle-area firms before moving to Minnesota, has spent the last 20 years living in St. Paul and practicing architecture throughout the region as a principal for Sala Architects. "Unlike people in the Pacific Northwest, he understands our weather," Jeff says. "He was able to adapt the aesthetic to our much more demanding climate."
To kick things off, Wagner visited the property to scout siting options. "Right away, [Jeff and Bruce] were talking about multiple cabins, each with a unique setting that would respond differently and have a sense of seclusion and solitude," he says.
The first to be completed and available for guests to book, Metal Lark Tower is a two-story, 820-square-foot cabin on a sloping hillside, resting against a dividing line of trees. "Now that it’s done, it’s really magical," Bruce says. "It’s interesting to experience the ‘aha’ moment of walking in and having it all open up the meadow and the lake," Wagner says. "There is a certain poetry of that particular spot."
Throughout the year, leaves on the nearby oak trees play a role in temperature management. "In the summertime, they provide shade, then the leaves fall, and the building is open to passive solar warmth in the winter," Wagner says. Solar panels and natural heat insulated by the triple-paned windows add to the structure’s efficiency. "If you were to turn the furnace off on a sunny January day, it could still be 60 degrees inside by 11 a.m.," says Jeff.
In the coldest months, winds rage from the northwest, so Wagner created a "steel overcoat" of sorts that wraps the exterior in corrugated, Cor-Ten steel. "It’s packed with insulation and acts as a down winter jacket," Wagner says. Just below a roof with deep overhangs, a narrow clerestory ushers in daylight and extends the ceiling upward.
Inside, expansive glass trimmed in Douglas fir from Winnipeg-based window manufacturer Loewen keeps the structure weathertight. Throughout the cabin, Douglas fir appears as wall paneling, trim, and on ceiling beams, resulting in a sleek and uncomplicated palette. Wide-plank engineered flooring with a Nordic whitewashed oak finish stays warm with radiant heat.
Metal Lark offers guests a comfortable king bed and luxe bathroom wrapped in immersive landscape views, plus hidden Murphy bunk beds in the upstairs living space. Furnishings, primarily purchased from Minneapolis-headquartered Room & Board, add to the contemporary, Scandinavian-inspired aesthetic.
Down the gravel road from Metal Lark lies the property’s newest build, a cabin aptly named Long House, a linear two-bedroom, two-bath dwelling with rejuvenating lake views. "We stretched it out along the hillside," Wagner says. "We didn’t do another tower because we wanted it to be accessible, and there were a lot of interesting views up and down the lake."
Wagner maximized the scenery with floor-to-ceiling corner windows in bedrooms and living spaces. Outside, a boardwalk leads to the satellite screen shelter primed for yoga, al fresco dining, or reading a book. "It’s a nice place to have a cup of coffee. Guests can choose to use it as an open-air pavilion or bring down the insect screens," he says.
As is the case in Metal Lark, Douglas fir features heavily on trim, paneling, cabinetry, and windows. "From the palette standpoint, it’s very harmonious," Wagner says. "The roof and layout are different—it’s intended to be a different experience. The location is what largely supports that, as it’s 50 feet from the lakeshore."
Nordlys, pronounced nord-lüs, is Danish and Norwegian for the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights. "Given our northern location and our family’s Scandinavian heritage, the name suits us well," say the McPheeters, who have realized their goal of offering an unparalleled experience of architecture augmenting nature.
Ecological efforts, such as restoring 25-30 acres of wildflower meadows and installing high-tech solar panels, help support the vision. Should you need to charge your electric car for the trip home, a 240-volt electric charging station is available, too. "You can almost have a net-zero vacation if you're from Minneapolis, driving up here with the right car," Jeff says.
To fully experience the property, traverse the hiking trails, light a bonfire, or man a paddleboat on the lake. Guests have many ways to spend their time away, though all activities are silent and promote peace and reflection, Bruce says: "This winter, we’ll have snow shoes so guests can go for a walk through the woods. We hope to have a nordic ski trail, too. The goal is quiet sports. The quiet lets you really hear the birds and wildlife."
Driving home, Wagner hopes visitors feel a renewed appreciation for the outdoors. "Hopefully what people take away from this is a connection to the landscape, to nature, to the world around them, and the experiences that it can provide," Wagner says. "A sense of truly being surrounded—to have this experience of being immersed in a way that few people get the opportunity to."
Construction: One Cut Construction
Engineering: Kirk Davis and MBJ Engineering
Metal Fabrication: North Shore Steel
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