On a private spur off Edgecumbe Road in Highland Park is a wooded pocket of St. Paul cultural and architectural history. It’s the former grounds of the Pierce Butler Jr. estate. Here Butler, the lawyer son of one of St. Paul’s most prominent citizens, and his wife, Hilda, built a home in which they raised four children, including another Pierce. Much later, in the 1960s, the estate would turn into an enclave of ambitious architecture, a small local showplace for modernist styles in home design.
And one particular midcentury-modern house in the enclave, owned by University of Minnesota career professional Heather Fredrickson and her husband, Brent, has recently been updated, 21st-century style — which is to say, in a green manner that’s also deeply respectful of mid-mod values. The update, spurred by the need to alter a truly strange bathroom but evolving into many other changes, is the latest episode in a story with deep roots in St. Paul’s, and domestic architecture’s, past.
First, the wooded estate, which belonged to Pierce Butler II, son of the first Supreme Court justice from Minnesota. Pierce junior was a partner in the law firm his famous father had cofounded, Doherty, Rumble and Butler, and Pierce III would also join it.
The elder Butler wasn’t the only luminary associated with the firm, by the way. According to Linda Hoeschler, whose husband, Jack, joined the firm in 1968 and who lives on the property in a house designed by Ralph Rapson in the 1960s, “Charles Flandrau (who led the defense of New Ulm in the Sioux Uprising) and Homer Clark (founder of West Publishing) were two of the many historic figures who worked in this august establishment, [which] was dissolved 10 years ago.”
The enclave’s self-described historian, Hoeschler has written an article about the estate, describing how it turned into a mini-showcase of modern architecture.
In the early 1960s, “Andrew Scott, a Saint Paul native and Doherty partner, told Hilda [Butler] he and his wife Kathleen were looking for a new home site. Hilda suggested they consider the land south of her home, along the dirt road to their stable.” This was the kernel of a land development scheme that would create a neighborhood of ambitious modernist houses.
“Andy, delighted with the prospect, worked with his partner, Pierce III, on the land development scheme,” Hoeschler writes. “Each home, located on lots about ¾ acre, was to be designed by an architect and approved by the Butlers. The eight original lots were primarily sold to friends and family. Although the homes were not subject to setback rules, since it was a private driveway, nothing could be built — from houses to a fence to a tool shed — without Butler approval. This rule lasted until 1986 when Pierce, then living in California, sold the remainder of his mother’s land.”
A mid-mod gem — and a bad bathroom
The Scotts’ own house was the one that the Fredricksons eventually bought. The Scotts chose a lot with views of downtown St. Paul, and Ron Hancock, a young English architect at Hammel, Green and Abrahamson, as their designer. Hoeschler describes the 1962 design as a “Bauhaus-style house.” In 1969, Hancock added a “wrap-around expansion.” Joe and Molly Culligan later bought the house, which they lived in for 25 years, renovating in 1982.
One of those renovations included a “twenty-one-by-eight-foot-wide bathroom — all done in white tile,” says Heather Fredrickson, who lives there with Brent and their two teenagers. “It was like a bowling alley. And according to legend, a guest at a dinner party once drank too much and helped himself to a bubble bath in the nice big, deep tub.”
A few months after moving in, the Fredricksons called their friend and architect Kevin Flynn, founder of the sustainable-design firm EcoDeep, for help.
Updating a classic
“It’s a classic mid-century modern house,” says Flynn of the Fredrickson home. And paralleling the modernists’ approach to residential design, which prioritized simplicity in form and an “honest” use of materials, “I have a pretty practical approach to design,” Flynn adds. “I like modern, and come up with modern solutions for people today. And I like an honest representation of materials, which means a piece of wood should be a piece of wood. I’m not doing gymnastics with materials.”
Heather Fredrickson was no stranger to modern architecture, either. “I grew up in Iowa City in a house very much like this one,” she says. Her father trained as an architect, but went into the family lumber business. Her uncle is James Nagle, a well-known Chicago architect, now retired. (Nagle sketched out some renovation ideas for Heather, but decided not to take on the project.)
With Flynn, Fredrickson found an architect friendly to the modernist tradition. “Kevin was a great resource for helping us select door knobs, light fixtures and other details that would tie in the existing style of house.” She also welcomed his recommendations for sustainable design, as well. The eco part of design isn’t an add-on with Flynn. He explains: “Sustainability automatically comes with me.”
The bulk of the project involved gutting the “bowling alley” bathroom and the master bedroom, and reconfiguring them both. The sleek new bathroom now includes cabinetry constructed by Nest Woodworking in Dennison from core material with recycled content and no urea-formaldehyde. The cabinets also include low-VOC adhesives and FSC-certified wood products. Flynn carefully reconfigured the bathroom and entry hall to take advantage of the existing skylights for maximum light and minimal heat gain.
The master bedroom entrance was moved to a more private spot down the hall, and two walk-in closets were added off the bedroom, along with a small laundry area. The bedroom was also refitted with new windows (the former windows had been hand-made). Made by Serious Windows, the floor-to-ceiling window wall has a narrow profile befitting the modern house. They’re also double glazed with a suspended-film inside between the two panes for triple-glazing performance.
The roof and ceilings over both areas of the house were reinsulated and re-air-sealed for better energy performance.
“Kevin did a great job of introducing into the product eco-friendly materials and ideas, which he does so well,” says Fredrickson. “He’s also contracts with top-notch people. And we’d throw out an idea to him, and he’d make it materialize. It was really cool.”
The house’s exterior received new decks on either end of the house, made of locally harvested FSC-certified red cedar, and steel rails with recycled content. After a paint job, a new basement door, and native landscaping by the St. Paul-based EnergyScapes that reinvigorated the yard, the project was complete.
As a career professional, Fredrickson says, “I work with the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, and with the College of Design. One the majors I work with is environment science and sustainability. I’m starting to see areas in which Kevin’s approach is becoming second nature. And with his work on our house, my professional and home life are not more in synch from the sustainability perspective.”
She’s also thrilled with the newly renovated spaces in the house. “I love the clean lines, the big windows, how even if a cloudy day it’s still light in here.”
The Butlers, no doubt, would be pleased.
This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy.