A Cabin in the Woods
INTO THE WOODS: A family cabin in Wisconsin gets a total redo—while staying true to its rustic heritage
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Patrick McGuire’s sensitive renovation of his family’s 1917 log cabin preserved one of the few remaining original buildings along this stretch of the Menominee River. “The shutters were painted green in the fifties,” says McGuire. “Every highway sign is this color." See more photos in the gallery below.
Chicago architect Patrick McGuire’s 92-year-old grandmother, Dorothy, had two rules for him when he set out to revamp the family’s circa-1917 log cabin in Wisconsin’s North Woods: (1) Don’t make it too fancy, and (2) Grandpa says share.
Actually, Grandpa Mac stopped providing direct instruction 20 years ago, upon his death, but the McGuires don’t take filial traditions lightly. And nothing ties the generations closer than time spent at the family “camp” on the banks of the Menominee River.
In the late 1960s, Grandpa built a new house on the 57-acre property with outrageous niceties—running water, a shower, bedroom walls—and the original 1,300-square-foot two-room cabin gradually fell into disrepair. Bats, raccoons, and other wild critters found the cabin’s accommodations quite charming, however, and over time the walls began to reek of assorted mammalian effluvia.
As the old cabin began a slow-motion collapse into the river, its title was bequeathed to McGuire, his brother, two sisters, and their parents. The siblings embarked on an ambitious gut redo with Patrick at the helm, though he’d be the first to point out that there are no log cabins in his professional portfolio. Over the course of his career, McGuire has spent the majority of his time amid the travertine and glass of Chicago’s downtown residential palaces.
For most urban architects, making the contextual shift from gleaming marble to notched logs would be a major obstacle; not so for McGuire, who has been visiting this remote area his whole life. He loves the cabin so much, he’ll drive five hours through snow to spend a weekend burning firewood for heat and warming water on the stove to wash. The log cabins he doesn’t care for are the steroidal monstrosities in places like Aspen and Telluride—“the Six Flags version of the American West,” he calls them. In response to all the mournful moose heads he has seen staring down from walls in cathedral-ceilinged homes in the Rockies, McGuire declared two rules of his own for the cabin—no taxidermy and no gingham. “The simpler the better here,” he says. “The focus is on the people inside.”
Luckily there are always lots of them, even when there’s work to be done. McGuire and his sister Maura teamed up with McGuire’s close friend Greg Landis to demolish the interior. But the exterior shell, original windows, and stone fireplace were keepers. So were support columns carved with the colorful names of generations of McGuires and their guests. The legacies of Skinnay Paquin, Aunt Ted, and Great Grandma Flamin’ Mame will live on.
“As I got further into the project, I became very interested in the California Arts and Crafts movement,” says McGuire, who credits early 20th-century Bay Area architect Bernard Maybeck as his inspiration for the new board-and-batten paneling (“It’s a clean look but still rustic”). The western cedar McGuire chose for the paneling is a nearly perfect match for the original walls’ honey-colored pine. “Just as it’s getting dark, the whole house lights up with a beautiful amber glow—same as it always has,” he says.
In the living area, a vintage C. Bechstein grand piano provides the only late-night entertainment other than games of what the family fondly calls Full-Contact Pictionary. For seating, McGuire turned to Craigslist, where he found chairs that evoked, for him, a 1970s ski lodge. The cushions are upholstered with elegant charcoal fabric cut from humble $17 wool safety blankets. “When I bought these chairs, my mother said, ‘Have you lost your mind?’” McGuire recalls. “But then when I put the dark covers on them she said, ‘Oh, now I get it.’”
With Mom on board (stylistically speaking), he took another stack of blankets and had them transformed into improbably sumptuous drapes. Vintage yellow Tonka trucks parked on the mantel provide a touch of bright color in the otherwise dark palette. As McGuire explains, “There’s lots of family flotsam here. The background needed to be visually subdued.”
There’s also nowhere to hide. The cabin is essentially a one-bedroom, one-bath place that has slept as many as 16 at once. Upstairs is a loft with three queen-size beds and a twin (down from five doubles and three twins in the Eisenhower years). “So you can’t invite just anyone up here,” McGuire says with a laugh.
When Grandma Dorothy passed away last summer, McGuire assumed her role as Protector of the Aesthetic. “You can call it Lumberjack Chic or the Heritage Look, whatever—I’ve been living it my entire life,” he says. “I call it Masculine American architecture, but it’s also interior design and an entire lifestyle. Fabrics look like they’ve been woven on a loom. Wood is wood—not veneers. Colors are earthy and natural. Anyone can take a sofa and throw burlap on it; the trick is making it feel fresh. I’m 45 and I’ve finally realized I do this really well. And it’s the kind of design I’ve always loved.”
Photography: Matthew Allen