New Life for a Midcentury Boathouse on White Bear Lake

The midcentury boathouse peeking from tangled underbrush and tall oaks along the sandy shore of White Bear Lake caught the eye of avid sailor and architect Sean Wagner. “During the 2005 racing season, we kept sailing past this boarded-up boathouse that had large windows overlooking the water,” he says. That’s about all that was visible. But it was enough. “We could see the potential of the building and the matching 1950s home set back from it, and we wanted to get in there. It was like the place was calling us.”

It had been a long time since anyone had been so drawn to the clean lines and distinctive midcentury design of the buildings. But the property wasn’t for sale.

More than a decade later, Sean and his wife Melissa Martyr, who own NewStudio Architecture in White Bear Lake, met the owners of the Manitou Island property. They intended to sell the property as a teardown, until they discovered Sean and Melissa were committed to renovating it. “I think they understood that we’d fallen in love with the boathouse and their lakeshore, and that we’d work to preserve the place’s legacy on the island,” Melissa says. “I think that was the tipping point.”

The boathouse cantilevers over the lake to showcase the stunning lake view.
The boathouse cantilevers over the lake to showcase the stunning lake view. (Adam Jarvi)

Melissa and Sean certainly weren’t the first to admire the lakefront property. “We like to think that F. Scott Fitzgerald enjoyed looking at this cove from across the lake when he stayed on White Bear Lake in the summer of 1921,” says Sean. “Some historians think it inspired him when he began working on The Great Gatsby. It’s that kind of place.”

Once it was theirs, Sean and Melissa first focused on renovating the unused 525-square-foot boathouse (the main house did turn out to be a teardown; the rebuild is still in progress). “From the start, we knew this property would be a long-term project for us, and we wanted to have fun along the way. We have two teenagers who love boats and watersports like we do,” Melissa says. “The boathouse was a priority.”

A gif showing the before and after of a renovated boathouse.
A cramped space shows green carpet and outdated tables and chairs (Before). The screened pavilion features midcentury style and colors (After). (Russell Photo Studio)

NewStudio’s interior designer Coco Dugan Early collaborated with the couple to enhance the structure’s midcentury design and incorporate nautical details to reflect the family’s passion for sailing. The renovation provides a three-season living and kitchen space, a private changing and shower room, and a separate bathroom. A screened pavilion on the main level cantilevers over the beach, capitalizing on the stunning waterfront views. Sail-like rigging raises and lowers the natural canvas storm shades.

Extra sails from the family’s boats were repurposed as wallpaper in the living area and private spaces. One section of canvas used on the door features the Wagners’ racing number, W23, while another serves as a shower curtain. Lacquered cedar floorboards from an antique sailboat were repurposed as the backdrop for a row of towel hooks in the changing room.

A gif of an outdated '50s-era galley kitchen before and after a renovation.
An outdated ’50s-era galley kitchen (Before). The updated galley kitchen retains its midcentury flair, though porcelain tiles replaced green AstroTurf on the floor (After). (Russell Photo Studio)

Builder Mark E. Hansen Construction in Forest Lake updated and expanded the ’50s-era galley kitchen for casual gatherings. Stainless-steel cleats used as door handles on the cabinets echo the boating theme. Masonite ceilings and walls painted charcoal and cream set off the midcentury color palette: aqua, orange, and yellow. Textured porcelain tiles replaced the late 1960s AstroTurf floor covering.

Stainless-steel cleats used as door handles reinforce the boating theme.
Stainless-steel cleats used as door handles reinforce the boating theme. (Russell Photo Studio)

Furnishings came from around the property and local antiques shops as well. “We found authentic Frederick Weinberg bar stools when we opened up the place,” Sean says. “We refurbished and recovered them. Those hairpin legs are midcentury signatures.” The NewStudio interior design team also refurbished a Russell Woodard wrought iron and wood dining set to complement the character of the space.

Canvas from boat sails—this section includes the Wagners’ racing number—was put to new uses.
Canvas from boat sails—this section includes the Wagners’ racing number—was put to new uses. (Russell Photo Studio)

Below the main living space, the renovated boat garage—one of the last fully functional garages of its kind on the lake—now serves as a sail loft, locker room, workshop, and storage for the family’s sailing and watersports equipment. “We salvaged the original winch and railcar used to haul wooden powerboats from the lake,” Sean says. “This place is coming back to life without forgetting its past.” Now clearly visible to the many boats passing by, the updated boathouse looks ready for another 60 years of memorable lakeside living.

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