An ‘East Meets South’ St. Paul Colonial

He’s a Southerner with the slow drawl to prove it; she’s a first-generation American whose parents fled China during the Cultural Revolution. The newly renovated home that Jim and Angela share with their two young daughters on a quiet street in St. Paul offers a master class in how to find common ground between people who seem, at first glance, worlds apart.

The job fell to architect Meghan Kell Cornell, a born-and-raised Minnesotan. Cornell left SALA Architects to launch her own firm in 2010. Named Kell Architects in honor of her architect dad, her firm is already earning kudos: Cornell was recognized with the American Institute of Architects Minnesota Young Architect Award for 2013, and she was deemed Emerging Talent in 2011 by AIA Minnesota and Midwest Home magazine. Her design philosophy boils down to this: Pay close attention to what your clients tell you and how they live.

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Cornell quickly discovered that these two clients had much more in common than met the eye. The wife is a petite woman with shiny black hair, while her blond husband has the build of a long-distance runner. Look again and you’ll see that Angela is no couch potato. She’s as lean as Jim is lanky. Turns out they’re both fitness junkies.

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Calm, fastidious, practical, private, patient, and hyper-organized describe some of the other ways that Jim and Angela are alike. When they asked Cornell to think about how they might reorganize the spaces in their vintage Colonial-style home, they handed her an extensive wish list. The first item focused on the first thing they do when they get up in the morning. Which is exercise.

A discussion ensued about the challenges of this when you have two young daughters who are trying to sleep. Cornell’s suggestion: Why not put the studio in the garage? The old garage was a tuck-under with a tandem-style design—i.e., when both cars were put away at night, one of them got parked in. It took up half the basement.

“Garage” doesn’t do justice to its replacement. The detached two-story structure is beautiful, blending “old Charleston” touches (Angela’s term), such as wood shutters that open and close, with a roof that gently swoops upward at the eaves, pagoda style. The latter feature both softens the garage and ties it visually to a pair of bay windows on the main house whose zinc roofs have similar lines.

The garage is more than ample for two cars, and the whole building is climate-controlled. The upstairs studio holds a treadmill, an elliptical, barbells, a TV, and a big storage closet—everything but a bathroom, which they reluctantly cut for zoning reasons. The former tuck-under garage space is now used for storage and a family room.

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In short, phase one of Jim and Angela’s remodeling adventure offered a tantalizing glimpse of what the whole property could become. Another plus was that its construction had resolved some thorny engineering issues because the house is perched on the side of a steep slope. Cornell had to design massive retaining walls behind the new structure and a driveway that forms a canyon-like rear entry as the elevation climbs.

This potential eyesore she transformed with broad stone stairs and lush plantings. There are hydrangeas of Japanese descent as well as native grasses and the bright colors of an English-garden staple, the dahlia. A tidy Korean lilac stands sentry at the entrance to the exercise studio, its canopy pruned to a perfect sphere.

Beyond an ornate Asian-inspired gate spreads an English garden, designed by Gray Gardens in Excelsior. An explicitly Chinese water feature (water spouts from the mouth of a dragon)  punctuates the formality of the garden, a hallmark of design in the Far East as well as the antebellum South. A checkerboard-style terrace leads to a spacious patio furnished with comfy chairs, and just around the corner is a second water feature, this one a classical tiered fountain. The stone retaining wall extends the full width of the house, making the garden visible from every room—most importantly the new sunroom at the far end that is part of phase two of the remodel.

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In 2010, Jim and Angela were ready to tackle more items on their wish list. By then, family routine had grown more complicated. There were school art projects, homework, and music lessons. “Doing the garage first gave us a chance to live with it awhile,” Angela says, “and figure out exactly how to make the house work for our family.”

Jim points to another issue: “We both dislike additions that feel tacked on and out of sync with the original architecture. We wanted new spaces that were up-to-date, but we also wanted them to feel like they’d always been there.”

Cornell excels at this. She is respectful of old houses without being reverential. Families don’t use their homes in quite the same way from one generation to the next. For many of her clients these days, it’s the kitchen that drives the makeover because that’s where everyone ends up.  But this family was different: They wanted to enlarge the footprint of the screened porch and to create a year-round space and accommodate a large master bath on the second floor.

Now they all end up in the new sunroom, which is really an extension of the living room, but less formal and more inviting.  The sunroom features warm colors and lots of windows, a radiant-heated wood floor, a beadboard ceiling, and soft rugs.

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The second-floor master bath, identical in size and shape, is just the opposite.

Glamorous and ultra chic, the bath is all about cool colors and sleek, shiny surfaces. An inlaid rug of white penny-round tiles complements the white marble floors (fitted with radiant heat, like the sunroom’s wood floors). There’s a large walk-in shower, a private cube just for the high-tech Toto toilet (Jim’s splurge), and a pair of sinks surrounded by cabinets that blend into the millwork of the multi-paned half-round window above them. “It’s a medicine cabinet and makeup vanity, and also produces a ledge for plants and sculpture,” Cornell says.

The two-story addition also took care of another common old-house complaint: Lack of storage. “The original house had no storage—none,” Angela says. The new master bath added wall-to-ceiling linen closets. In the living room, a window seat now fills a sunny bay where Angela and her daughters curl up and read together, and then return the books to the drawers tucked underneath the seat when reading hour is over. Small touches like these aren’t flashy, but they make life easier for a family.

Indeed, Cornell relishes demolishing the stereotype of architects as aloof aesthetes who wear “tiny eyeglasses and a dark shirt buttoned all the way up.” She prefers jeans and flip-flops. She also has two boys the same age as Jim and Angela’s daughters and lives on the same street, just a few doors down.

“She totally gets us,” Angela says. “It’s her ease with people that makes her special. She just really listens.”

Architect: Meghan Kell Cornell, Kell Architects

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