Lake legends

For anyone in awe of the stately houses lining the lakes, a new coffee table book offers a peek inside. “Legendary Homes of the Minneapolis Lakes” is organized so readers can pick a lake, start walking clockwise, and follow the entries along the way. 

“This is the way that many people experience history,” said photographer Karen Melvin, who authored the book with writer Bette Hammel. (Hammel is the widow of modernist architect Dick Hammel, who is the “H” in HGA Architects.) 

The authors spent two years on the project. They pored through books on historic houses, interviewed homeowners, and asked real estate agents which places had the most jaw-dropping interiors. Melvin used assistants to photograph each interior in a single day, to limit inconvenience to the occupants.

“It was an intense couple of years,” Hammel said.

The 26 historic homeowners mentioned in the book include Cream of Wheat executives, lumber barons and the “queen” of Mary Kay. Homes showcase everything from a vintage race car to artwork by Andy Warhol, a Moravian tile fireplace, and Corinthian columns.

“Some of them feel like embassies,” Melvin said. 

Roger and Neroli Lacey own the Cedar Lake home on the front cover of the book, which is a white, International style house with ribbon-like stretches of windows on each floor.

“This is as good as living in the south of France,” said Roger, who speaks with authority as he keeps a home in France.

The Laceys’ decision to live in the 1936 house wasn’t taken lightly, however. When they moved in, they discovered the house was drafty. Ice formed inches thick on the windows, and they needed to be careful about which lights they turned on at the same time. Neroli told her husband they either needed to upgrade the home or move out. They decided to remodel and stay. 

“This secured the home for the next 70 years,” Lacey said. 

Melvin said most homeowners didn’t require much convincing to participate in the book. Some, like the Laceys, had invested in large remodeling projects and were happy to provide tours. Others chose their homes because they were interested in the architectural history. The “Numero” house on Cedar Lake is a time capsule, Melvin said. The current owner bought it with all of the original 1960s-era furniture. 

“They are very passionate about their houses,” Melvin said. “We saw that everywhere.”

Melvin and Hammel also worked together on the book “Legendary Homes of Lake Minnetonka,” published in 2009. They currently live in Plymouth and Wayzata, although both of them lived near the lakes years ago. 

For Hammel, a remarkable part of her research was learning about the Park Board’s decision in the 1880s to acquire lakeside land for a system of parkways, at the recommendation of a landscape architect from Chicago named Horace Cleveland. 

“He had the vision that 100 years from now, if we don’t do something now, all will be lost,” Hammel said. “It’s the most fascinating thing for me, as a writer.”

On the week of the book launch, Birchbark Books sold 40 books in four days — not bad for a $50 book, said Manager Susan White.

“The [homes] are beautiful mysteries,” she said. “I love it when they leave the shades down and the curtains drawn back.”

The following is a tour through some of the homes that drew back their curtains for the authors.