Abby and Ben Leber are as Midwestern as buttered ears of corn. Abby was raised in Concordia, Kansas, (pop. 5,395), the daughter of an electrician/plumber. Ben hails from Vermillion, South Dakota (pop. 10,571), where he was the local football star and his dad was the high school principal.
The two met at Kansas State University, where locals “bleed Wildcat purple” and the students swig beer in a part of town called Aggieville. The pair might have been the most typical of college sweethearts if not for Ben Leber’s intimidating physique and impressive skills on the football field. Even when he was a 19-year-old sophomore going on his first shy date with Abby (to see Rounders at the local multiplex), Ben was 6-foot, 3-inches tall, weighed 244 pounds, and was a breakout linebacker on the K-State team. And even at the beginning of their relationship, Ben and Abby knew there was a chance—maybe even a good chance—that Ben would be among the rare 1.7 percent of college football players who actually get drafted into the NFL.
By the time the Lebers arrived in the Twin Cities in 2006, by now three years married, Ben had already had a robust four-year starting career with the San Diego Chargers and was gearing up to play for another team in purple, the Minnesota Vikings. After getting accustomed to the Twin Cities, they decided to build new in northeast Edina, hiring a young building company, Great Neighborhood Homes, and bringing in Carrie Kirby-Rodman, the veteran interior designer at Martha O’Hara Interiors.
They liked their new, custom-built house—Abby went for a cottage-y look with lots of beachy, San Diego influences. But it wasn’t long before they heard that a rare double lot was going on the market in Edina. “I know it sounds crazy to build a new house and then build another new house two years later just four blocks away, but Ben really liked the idea of having a pool and a big yard, and I was nuts about the idea of helping to design another house,” says Abby, who has a degree in textile design and apparel marketing and a love of interior decorating.
This house, Abby decided, was going to be something special, a true reflection of her evolving style. (Abby devours shelter magazines and named her daughter ‘Ames’ after seeing Ames Ingham, the L.A. interior designer, on the cover of House Beautiful.) This new house would be a custom sanctuary for their growing family—they welcomed Ames in 2008 and their son, Witten, in 2011—as well as their two massive blue merle Great Danes, Belle and Moose, one of whom had been with Abby and Ben since their days at K-State. “We tried to hide Moose in our college apartment,” she recalls, “but I don’t think we fooled anybody, much less our landlord.”
To make her dream a reality, Abby re-assembled her team, including architect Ben Nelson, principal at Nelson Residential Design, plus Great Neighborhood Homes (GNH) and Kirby-Rodman. GNH owners Scott and Margaret Busyn dubbed the exterior “Storybook Tudor,” a catchy name for what is really a very classic Edina mix of brick and stone with cedar shingles and copper accents. What is unusual is the massive geothermal system that heats the house. “It’s by far the largest geothermal we’ve done, with 18, 180-foot-deep wells in the front yard,” says Scott Busyn.
For the Great Danes, Nelson designed a pullout cubby in the kitchen for the (giant) dog dishes, a full-service dog wash in the garage, and a people-sized elevator to ferry the two elderly dogs to the three levels of the house. The wide-plank hickory floors were chosen to stand up to eight enormous paws. “Before he passed away last year, Moose would just stand in front his elevator and wait for someone to open the door so he could go up and go to bed,” says Abby.
Unlike the first house she cultivated with Kirby-Rodman, the one done in safe beiges with coastal touches, this new house is all about pushing boundaries and getting a little girly. “I think maybe it’s where I am as a person right now,” Abby says. “I’m really interested in joyful spaces that have a little sparkle and bling.” It doesn’t hurt that 3-and-a-half year old Ames practically lives in her extensive collection of tutus and owns enough pairs of sparkly shoes to strike envy in the heart of any dazzle-loving preschooler. “You can follow Ames’ movements around the house by the trail of glitter,” Abby jokes.
Abby’s bold style is perhaps best showcased by the owner’s suite with its “Grand Duchy” bed by Stewart Furniture upholstered in 16 yards of vivacious flora-patterned linen. Two mirror-fronted chests and a couple of shapely lamps from Arteriors counter-balance the strong-lined custom millwork on the bedroom wall behind. The owner’s bath ratchets the concept up one notch higher. An ultra-feminine vanity with tapered legs sits across from an oversized soaking tub and the walls are papered in a swirling, slightly metallic floral paper from Designers Guild.
Just outside the suite is a “day room” where Ames likes to take naps and watch movies. Here capiz shell lighting and a plump tufted sofa from Lillian August plays off a modern window valance in pure linen fabric by Romo, and inspired by elegant ladies’ dresses of the 1930s.
Being a man who makes his living on his toughness, Ben wasn’t naturally drawn to all of Abby’s frilly decorating choices. “I certainly put up a fight about a few things,” he admits. But he says he wasn’t concerned by the bedroom décor. “Honestly, after the whole building process, I was kind of beat down.” And the couple has made peace with their diverging opinions about the dog-print wallpaper in the guest bathroom. “[Abby] thinks it’s masculine, but I think its extraordinarily feminine,” Ben says. “It’s a standard poodle, not a miniature poodle, so maybe that’s why she thinks it’s masculine.”
Ben has dreams of his own for the home’s large yard. Though he loves Great Danes, he’s been thinking about downsizing to a slightly smaller breed—a greyhound, perhaps. “I’d love to have races out in the yard, like a track and field championship,” he says.
But, overall, Ben has become comfortable living in a house decorated in colors like “pinkberry” and “peony.” Says Abby: “He’s man enough for it.”