Photos by Spacecrafting
“Sprawling, open, and warm,” is how architect James McNeal describes his recent build, a 9,400-square-foot Tuscan-style villa that, while located in Chanhassen, was designed to make guests feel as though they’ve been transported to the sun-soaked shores of Italy.
“The idea was, ‘Let’s get away from Minnesota and go on vacation!’” explains McNeal, whose Minneapolis-based architecture firm JMAD headed the design. “We wanted it to have the appearance of an Italian villa with the animation of different buildings merging together to create a complex—something symbolic of bringing a little bit of another world here to ours.”
Although the stately residence might appear brand new, its owner, Bill McNeely, actually bought the house—then a 2,600-square-foot, box-style rambler—back in 2005. He quickly took the home down to its bones and connected with McNeal to create a spacious media room that added another 1,500 square feet. Over the years, the exterior of the home slowly evolved to take on more and more Mediterranean characteristics, until McNeely decided it was time for another renovation—this time, one truly dedicated to authentic, old-world Italian architecture and details.
“I had a home in California that first got me interested in the style,” McNeely says, “and I had an enormous number of photos of Mediterranean architecture and design I had taken during my own travels through Europe.”
The renovation was top-to-bottom, with another 5,000 square feet added and a new foundation installed. The existing roof was torn off to allow for higher, 14-foot flat ceilings throughout. With a new clay tile roof, stone and stucco exterior, and plenty of arched doorways and windows, the exterior now features a mix of authentic Spanish Colonial and Tuscan styles.
The interior, however, takes on a more contemporary interpretation of Mediterranean style, with an open floor plan, glass walls, and a color and material palette thoughtfully chosen to create cohesiveness throughout.
“It’s not dark and heavy like you see in a lot of Tuscan homes. It’s very airy, and almost a little monochromatic in terms of materials we used,” says McNeely, who also acted as the project’s design coordinator. He selected all the interior finishes and furnishings, from custom gas lighting to carefully curated collections of artifacts and luxury furniture pieces. “Everything has a matte-type finish; there’s no gloss,” he continues. “All the stone is honed, the wood flooring hand-scraped and wire-brushed, and the ironwork is all custom-made black iron.”
In addition to the existing media room from the previous remodel, the expansive main level now claims nearly 6,000 square feet and includes the master suite, vaulted study, kitchen (with a second scullery-style one tucked behind for easy entertaining), formal dining room with a hand-cut, carved stone fireplace, and an exquisitely detailed powder bath.
Due to the open layout of the home and relative lack of supporting walls and pillars, the main challenge for the design-build team was figuring out how to accommodate and support the enormous amount of weight in the main level, especially in the kitchen and dining room where elaborate stonework and a 6,000-pound light fixture (designed by JMAD principal designer Angela Liesmaki-DeCoux) forced the team to get creative.
“The structural aspects of the home were very challenging,” says Stephen Longman, whose eponymous Eden Prairie company served as the project’s builder. “High ceilings with long beams and heavily concentrated loads needed to be tied into the existing structure, as well as the new structure and its foundation. Steel beams had to be inserted in several areas to carry roof loads and also in the floor systems to carry the weight of the kitchen and fireplace stonework.”
The ceiling beams, which create a beautifully intertwined system of woodwork that unites all the spaces on the main level together, were a favorite element of both architect and client. Though cosmetic, the team firmly adhered to a rule that the beams had to look as if they were actually supporting the roof structure and holding up the house on their own, and be laid out to connect and intersect accordingly.
“I was most interested in seeing that system of beams come to life,” says McNeal. “I had to be out at the job site multiple times during the process because it’s difficult to communicate all the layers through drawings alone, but that was actually really fun—getting to work, design, and coordinate things in real time, and to see it evolve and turn out like an actual art piece.”
Built on 5 acres of rolling hills and lush wooded valleys, the home was also designed to take full advantage of the views—the outdoor cabana area and elaborate infinity pool situated on the edge of a bluff being just a few examples—and to flood the interiors with an abundance of natural light, thanks to floor-to-ceiling glass walls and a 20-foot-tall, European-atrium-style glass ceiling in the kitchen that subtly adjusts with the intensity of available sunlight.
“Bill wanted the kitchen to be internal to the space, and the main problem with that, naturally, was it was going to be dark,” explains McNeal. “We ended up putting in that massive skylight over the whole thing, and it created a much more interesting space.”
While the interior may be more modern in layout, traditional elements abound, from elaborately carved millwork and deep recessed moldings to forged ironwork and ornate steel details. Walnut flooring is laid out in an elegant herringbone pattern, Spanish tiles adorn stair risers, and honed Bianco Carrara marble adds rich touches of luxury to backsplashes and countertops.
“Nothing was purchased off the shelf,” says Longman. “Intricate ceiling beams, custom doors and millwork, cabinetry engraving, and old-world stone cutting were all to exact tolerances.”
“I’m not proud of it, but there were 230 change orders throughout the process,” McNeely adds wryly. “That’s not great, but we had to get it just right. It wasn’t always easy to find vendors and craftsmen up here who could do what we needed for the home to be authentic. We often had to go out of state and even out of country for some things. Plus, I had been gathering ideas and inspiration for years. I just kept adding things.”
A turret staircase that spirals up 20 feet to the peak of the interiors, a guest suite situated above the five-stall garage, and a lower level complete with two extra bedrooms, a recreation room, and an indoor hockey shooting rink finish off the home, which is now truly a villa in every sense of the word.
“At this point, it really is a new build,” says McNeal. “It was a complete makeover of the old into the new, yet it doesn’t stick out like it shouldn’t be here. It’s situated so naturally on the property and perfectly complements the old-world European landscape design by Keenan & Sveiven.”