Judy Ingber has been an architecture aficionado for as long as she can remember. She grew up in Minneapolis in a house designed by award-winning modernist architect Elizabeth “Lisl” Close.
So when she and her husband, Jerry, were house hunting and came across a midcentury modern house designed by Saul Smiley and influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, they knew it was right for them.
“It reminded me of Lisl’s house that she and my dad and my mom had created. It was spacious without having a lot of rooms,” Ingber said.
Originally, the St. Louis Park house near Cedar Lake was built in 1952 for Nankin restaurant owners Carl and Yetta Chalfen.
Twin Cities architecture critic Larry Millett said the home is one of several in the western suburbs designed by Smiley, whose firm also designed the fabled Thunderbird Motel in Bloomington.
“With its banded brickwork and low-slung profile, the Chalfen House calls to mind Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian houses of that period,” Millett said. “The courtyard is a distinctive feature that midcentury architects, including Ralph Rapson, used very effectively in their designs.”
Millett called the Chalfen House “an elegant design with exceptionally fine detailing throughout, and it’s an outstanding example of midcentury architecture in the Twin Cities.”
Up close and personal
The Ingbers became the third homeowners when they purchased the place in 1982. They’ve appreciated the Prairie School design, which starts outside in a strong connection to nature with details such as a courtyard that wraps around a birch tree. The house comes with a porte-cochere overhang to transition exterior and interior spaces.
“The house is an example of a lot of elements of the Prairie School Saul Smiley used,” said Judy. “It starts outdoors with natural elements [such as slate and brick] and carries through to the indoors.”
Once inside, a row of clerestory windows just below the ceiling allows natural light into the asymmetrical rooms.
“When you look into the living room and dining area, it’s L-shaped. Like Wright, it’s not a room with 90-degree angles, and it’s 1½ story tall,” Judy said.
The home came with another Prairie-style trademark the Ingbers were especially thankful for when they first moved in.
“When we bought this, we were totally house-poor. But luckily, as is true of Prairie styles, there were built-ins — beds, cupboards, dressers and wonderful other features — so we didn’t need furniture right away.”
Over the years, the Ingbers have been fortunate to learn about the home’s history from the architect himself. They’ve met Smiley twice, and he was more than happy to talk about unique details such as how a series of slatted doors off the living room came to be.
“He told us Mrs. Chalfen and her husband had seen a movie the night before where there were these pivoted doors. After that, she saw exactly how she wanted that space to be divided up,” Jerry said.
“Saul says he saw the movie 11 times. Since there were no retakes, he was drawing like a madman whenever the doors were shown in the movie. … The outcome was quite beautiful.”
Preserving and updating
The Ingbers have taken on many projects, such as updating the brickwork and cork flooring. They gave the kitchen a major refresh while incorporating stone, granite and cherry wood.
“We wanted natural elements and brought it to the original blond wood when it was built,” Jerry said. “The second homeowners had stained all the blond wood with a walnut.”
The previous homeowners had also put a pool in the backyard, which the Ingbers and their two sons have enjoyed over the years.
The Ingbers made their own upgrades to the outdoor living space, adding a second patio, a hot tub, a gazebo, redwood fence, wildflower garden and an olive tree.
Now, with their children grown, the couple have listed the one-level, three-bedroom, three-bathroom abode spanning 3,675 square feet.
While they’re downsizing, they are maintaining their commitment to architecturally unique homes. “We are moving into an older home that used to be a grain silo,” Jerry said.
The Ingbers hope the next homeowners will appreciate living in such a unique home in a location that offers easy access to downtown Minneapolis, the lakes and bike trails.
Listing agent Ed Bell said that from the vaulted ceilings to the clerestory windows, the home is designed in a way that nicely brings the outdoors in.
“The home captures timeless features of both midcentury and Prairie architectural design,” he said. “It’s wonderful one-level living.”