It took several months for Brooklyn-based designer Gunnar Larson to find a contractor in rural Minnesota willing to work with a tractor trailer full of scrap wood. Most prospective partners took a peek inside and immediately deemed it all worthless, Gunnar recalls, but he couldn’t bear to part with one of his parents’ last projects: salvaging timber, chalkboard, and other materials from a school built in 1919 before it was demolished.
“My parents, Karen and Glenn, really loved working together and repurposing and reclaiming what others have tossed away,” says Gunnar; the pair had been tearing down old barns and buildings since the ’70s. Even the house Gunnar grew up in was a result of his mom and dad’s handiwork (the doors were sourced from a local hotel; the staircase saved from an old convent). His father had plans to take the same approach for his next endeavor—a Wild West–style ranch on the prairie in Buffalo Ridge—when he was unexpectedly diagnosed with cancer in 2015.
When Glenn passed away 13 months later, Gunnar knew he had inherited much more than his father’s collections of old machinery, antiques, and family heirlooms; he now had Glenn’s dream to complete.
At the time, the house was roughly halfway done; the only real clues left behind were a pine timber frame and the plumbing for two kitchens (one upstairs and one downstairs). Gunnar’s mother and two sisters may not have been able to see the final picture, but he could. “Gunnar and his dad had this language that no one else could understand,” explains Gunnar’s wife, Sara; she has fond memories of the two chatting away about the house every chance they got. “It was like a world only they could see.”
Waiting for the right contractor to come along was not only nonnegotiable but would eventually pay off. Karen and Glenn’s $30 school haul was later transformed by Aaric Geihl of Geihl Construction into some of the doors, handrails, baseboard, and trim of the now complete 4,200-square-foot family lodge. Geihl even found a use for the old chalkboard: peep it behind the stove range and on the floor of the entryway.
The bulk of the work happened in 2020. The Larsons had been traveling back and forth between New York and Minnesota, but when the pandemic hit, they took it as a sign to stay and finish. “It had been on my mind for the past five years, and we were all emotionally ready to complete it,” says Gunnar. The group—Karen, Gunnar and Sara, and their two children (ages 2 and 8)—spent six months (five without any doors) hunkered down in the basement Glenn had excavated. “He had joked he dug it a little too deep,” says Gunnar, laughing. Doing so created a bit of a drainage problem when it came to installing a geothermal heating and cooling system (Gunnar and Geihl quickly took care of that), but it also came with the benefit of 9-foot-tall ceilings that make the space feel more like a second home.
“It was a house that my dad was building for the whole family to use,” says Gunnar, pointing out that the downstairs is complete with a kitchen, bathroom, three bedrooms, and a sauna, while his mother now lives on the main floor.
Although undeniably spacious, every corner is cozy. “The whole point of this new build was to have that authentic farmhouse feel but in a new, updated way,” explains Gunnar. Up the stairs, fashioned from old church pews, shades of pink are reminiscent of the nearby Jasper stone quarries, and floral wallpaper mimics the 60 acres of native and restored prairie land that can be seen from every window—it was the land that had drawn Glenn to the location in the first place.
Karen more or less gave her son free rein when it came to making design decisions, although the family was on the same page more often than not. Take the jewel-toned chinoiserie wall covering in the sunroom. “I remember showing my family the swatch and being prepared for everyone to say, ‘No, that is too bold,’” recalls Gunnar. He quickly discovered his fears were for naught—they all loved it: “The jade color is a perfect fit for the reclaimed beadboard and camel-colored velvet chairs.”
Each feature, from the oak floors to the walnut kitchen cabinets to the cedar siding, was done with the intention of growing old with the property. “We could have selected cheaper options, but we want these things to last the life of the house, not just after 20 years of wear and tear,” stresses Gunnar. Now, much like the 280 Minnesota acres that have been in the family for decades, the lodge will still be there for many generations of Larsons to come—just as Glenn intended.
Gunnar shares his sourcebook.
Best source for reclaimed finds: My grandfather’s barn and my great-grandparents’ home. My father took off my great-grandparents’ porch and reused it for part of our wraparound porch, and we used this old glass globe for a light fixture in the powder room. We also have an old pantry cabinet that my great-great-uncle Knut made when he first moved from Norway back in the mid-1800s. It was made out of an old shoe crate and was in their sod house. Now we use it for housing games and table linens.
Biggest splurge: The 78-inch, extra-wide hammered copper tub from Signature Hardware. Being 6-feet-3 and a lover of water, I jumped on the chance to add a huge tub. I wanted the loft bedroom to feel like a little cabin, with its windows overlooking the lake and prairie from the second floor. It’s a getaway within a getaway.
This pattern is so me: Aimée Wilder’s Herbario Terra wallpaper! The moment I saw it at the A&D show, in March 2018, I knew I had to have it for the lodge. I have used almost every colorway in other projects. That is how much I love it.
Who to Know
Contractor down to try anything: Geihl Construction wasn’t the closest in proximity to the house, but they were up for some of the more interesting challenges. Their answer was always, “We can figure it out.”
Plumber who’s like family: Scott Wood first worked for my dad years ago when I was a little kid and my parents owned a plumbing and heating company. My dad trained and mentored him, so when we would work together on the plumbing, it was like a little bit of my dad was there with me.
Cabinet builder extraordinaire: My father met Mike at Minnesota Cabinets before his passing and wanted him to build out the kitchen. We both learned from each other, as I would push the bounds of a typical Southwest Minnesota kitchen. It really became a fun group of us working on the house; we were all completing my dad’s dream and working together to make something beautiful.
Effortless upholstery service: Just down the street from my apartment in Brooklyn is an amazing upholstery shop, Stitchroom. It created the sphere pillows around the house, as well as custom bolsters and an ottoman I designed using deer hides that family members had from years of hunting on the land.