Legacy on the Lake

After more than a century of being in the family, a plot of land along the shores of Lake Superior finally receives a family home to match its beauty

Photos by Corey Gaffer

“The X House,” as its architects from Snow Kreilich refer to it, makes a clear yet unobtrusive presence on the coastline of Michigan, using materials such as stone, blackened wood, and glass to blend in with its rugged and beautiful surroundings.

Well over a century ago, Leigh Olson’s grandfather purchased 160 acres of wooded land on Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and built a log cabin. Her father and his siblings spent their summers there, and when Leigh’s turn came so many years later, none of the site’s magnificence had faded. “It had a raw beauty, with the rocky coastline and sandy beaches, and we spent hours boating to beautiful little islands to explore,” she says.

As an adult, Leigh brought her future husband, Cory Olson, to the property, and eventually the two brought their three daughters. This next generation also loved the land and fell into the same tradition of hiking along the rocks of an adjacent property owned by the local Catholic diocese, which featured an intriguing rock wall that curved out into Lake Superior. Leigh had always felt that the wall—which may have been the ruins of an unfinished building—looked like a castle, and eventually she and her family christened the spot it overlooked “Castle Cove.”

The Olsons ended up buying the diocese’s site in 2013, and shortly after they reached out to Julie Snow, founder of Snow Kreilich Architects in Minneapolis, to create a new home that better fit the land’s beauty. The sweeping views were dramatic enough to warrant their eldest daughter choosing the rock wall as her wedding site, but the Olsons wanted to make sure the house was understated enough to blend into the shoreline and forest, too.

Using concrete piers, steel framing, lumber, and plenty of engineering, the new house reaches out towards nature with a cantilevered design.

If the 12-foot floor-to-ceiling glass walls, floating rectangular forms, bedrock stone fireplaces, and unobtrusive roof planes look familiar, it’s because the Olsons discovered Snow after admiring two of her award-winning residential projects: the modern, structurally robust residence she designed on the rugged Bay of Fundy coastline in New Brunswick, and the glass-box weekend retreat she completed in the woods along Lake Superior in Minnesota.

“We tracked her down,” says Cory. “We didn’t have to explain the topography or the conditions. She understood the project from the get-go.” Moreover, the Olsons were committed to building a legacy project for a family who had already loved the land for multiple generations and would for countless to come. “Cory and I were making our own place together for our family, and for future generations of our family,” Leigh says.

Floor-to-ceiling windows grant sweeping views of the surrounding forest, lake, and rocky shoreline.

Snow’s studio, which also designs award-winning commercial buildings, called on its team of engineers to create something strong enough to handle Lake Superior’s craggy elements. “The first six or seven months of construction involved the team hand-scribing and building the steel piers onto the outcropping so the form looks like it’s emerging from the rock,” Cory recalls of the project, which was completed just last year.

Just as the home’s exterior is simple and sleek, so is the interior: A neutral color palette allows nature views to take precedence.

The one-level form itself is an X. Where the X intersects is the home’s main entrance and powder room. Running south to north, cantilevering out over the lake, is the kitchen, living, and dining wing, and its western side provides views of the old boathouse the family also renovated, the patio, castle wall, and Castle Cove. The other wing, encompassing the master suite and two guest rooms, overlooks the woods and a private sand beach. “It’s On Golden Pond versus the ocean,” says Cory, laughing.

Minimalist furniture and glass orb light fixtures add contemporary interest.

Double-pane, argon gas-filled windows and a durable wood siding add to the project’s energy-efficient robustness. In-floor heating below the limestone tiles and a high-velocity air system ensure the home is never cold, and gas fireplaces in the living room and master bedroom provide supplemental heat. “You’d think a house jutting into Lake Superior like a diving board would feel cold,” Snow explains, “but it’s tucked in, with an expansive and powerful connection to the lakescape, and is always comfortable inside.”

Natural materials such as split bluestone and wood provide subtle texture.

The vertical split bluestone of the fireplaces, along with the woods and water, was the base of the color palette, says Leigh, who designed the kitchen and interiors herself. “My inspiration was nature, to pull in greens from the moss on the rocks, and blacks, browns, grays, and neutrals from the woods. It was very easy—I just brought the outside in. It felt like the right thing to do.”

Expansive windows let in plenty of sunlight to brighten and warm up high-ceiling rooms.

The property also includes a 4,000-square-foot garage the Olsons built to house boats, snowmobiles, four-wheelers, and other toys. The “Garagemahal,” as it’s fondly dubbed, also contains a three-bedroom apartment above for friends and family members to stay when the house is full. Despite the size, the structure doesn’t interfere with the property’s views because of its proximity to the house, just one of the many decisions that marks Snow’s and the Olsons’ thoughtfulness throughout the process.

Multiple decks featuring glass railings offer plenty of space to rest, relax, and take in another tranquil North Woods sunset.

“Before we bought this property, the locals used [the land] for swimming and picnics,” Cory explains. “As we were building our new home, we felt their trepidation that a modern house might be an abomination. Now, they thank us for being so respectful of the shoreline and what Mother Nature made here. Julie’s design pays homage to the landscape, and the home has vastly exceeded our wildest expectations.”

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