Common Ground

Sliding doors (visible at far left), which allow for flexible use of living space, can be closed to shut off entertaining noise from sleeping children. Throughout the home, utilities — such as outlets — are concealed in the wood paneling. All window and doorframes are stained Douglas fir.
Photograph by Carrie Acosta

1959 Cape Cod it isn’t.

Airy, transparent, and woodsy, the only obvious element this contemporary shares with the former home is their literal common ground — an enviable bluff-top site overlooking the Huron River near Ann Arbor.

Homeowner Jon Carlson, a restaurateur who owns Bastone, Café Habana, Vinotecca, and Commune in Royal Oak, and Café Habana in Ann Arbor and Traverse City — along with other Michigan properties — also owns 2mission Design and Development. So, not surprisingly, he’s a man with vision, a trait that allowed him and his wife to “see” what the well-situated Cape Cod could be.

“We had been looking for close to a year and just fell in love with the land and the river,” Carlson says. “The house, on the other hand, left a lot to be desired. I don’t think it was very high up on my [wife’s] list.”

Royal Oak-based architect Brian Howard, who was charged with transforming the Cape Cod, said the inspiration was a northern Michigan vacation home, with emphasis on the water. The couple wanted to acknowledge the natural surroundings while creating the feel of a ’60s modern home.

Howard says that present-day zoning rules would never have permitted the structure to be perched as it is so close to the bluff’s edge, 30 to 40 feet above the river. Current rules would have pushed the foundation back another 50 feet.

Concrete floors and ceiling-to-floor windows contribute to the minimalist ’60s-modern look of this Detroit Home Design Award-winning house by HF Architecture. The kitchen table is a family heirloom, purchased by the homeowners’ grandparents in Brazil in the early 1960s. The Fil de Fer Suspensions Light is by Catellani & Smith. Photograph by Carrie Acosta

To legally use the same location, the homeowners retained roughly 40 percent of the original house, Howard says. Otherwise, he says, they would have had to push it “so far back from the water it would have been pointless.”

Among the changes was an increase in size. The square footage was nearly doubled to accommodate the family of five.

The roof, exterior walls, and floors were saved; all windows were replaced. During design and construction, the goal was to be able to “look through” the home and “create pockets of outside and inner space,” Howard says. To maintain the airy feel, material use was restrained and minimal. To change the feel of a room, the team used paint and stain rather than bringing in more material.

Because the family is in the restaurant industry, the kitchen was a natural focus. “We spend so much time there,” Carlson says. “We both come from big food families.” That doesn’t mean they wanted their food space to look like a beehive of activity, however. To control and conceal the inevitable clutter, they requested generous cabinet space.

The finished space is a reflection of their philosophy: More isn’t always better.