Polishing a Minnesota Gem
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Building a New Cabin on Old Family Property in Minnesota

A property bought in the 1970s gets a big refresh.

Story by Gina Chiodi Grensing

Photos by Rick Hammer, Courtesy Lands End Development


If you’re like most cabin owners, you feel pretty passionate about your cabin. And you know that somehow through the design, construction and décor, both inside and out, your cabin conveys your particular identity. Cindy and Tim Bray, of St. Paul, have always been passionate about their cabin near Crosslake, Minn. But it was the rebuild that put them over the moon with their retreat.


Cindy’s father bought the original cabin in 1978. Cindy made an abundance of memories there, both as a child and as an adult with her husband, Tim, and their three children. However, at only 800 square feet, the cabin didn’t offer enough space for extended visits with family or friends. So in 2008, the Brays took on the building of a new cabin, using the services of Lands End Development, a custom home builder located in Crosslake.


From June’s teardown to final construction detail on December 1 of that year, Cindy stayed in the cabin’s bunkhouse to help facilitate the building process. Having Cindy on site allowed the contractors to get immediate answers to questions only a homeowner could answer.


“While we often do the design and build of homes with limited involvement from the homeowners, it is frequently the projects that have heavy homeowner involvement that are the most fun for us as a company,” says Matt Balmer, co-owner of Lands End Development. “These homes always represent the homeowner and how they live, which is so important for lake retreats. As an added bonus, it usually provides great pride and satisfaction as well.”


While Cindy was glad to be involved in the construction process, it was a little rough for her with only an outdoor shower for six months. It got really cold in the fall, especially when the contractors came very early in the morning and didn’t leave until well after dark; sometimes even working by truck headlights.


“It was, at times, a dark and cold experience,” Cindy recalls.


New and Improved

The design of the new cabin mixes mountain and lake home styles. “Our daughter, Erin, lives in Colorado,” Cindy says. “A lot of what we like in design attributes comes from visiting her.” Lands End worked hard at getting the exact look and feel the Brays wanted.


“Tim and Cindy came to us with lots of ideas,” Balmer recalls. “It was our job to take these ideas and combine them with a floor plan that worked on the property, and for the Brays’ lifestyle.”


“They were good collaborators,” Tim says. “We stretched them with a few things, but they kept working on it.”


The result is a three-bedroom, well-crafted retreat with unique features that blend metal, wood, stone and glass. “It works well for two people but has options to hold guests,” Cindy explains. A fireplace fabricated from steel is one of the main focal points that boasts a design twist: A flat screen TV hides behind doors above the mantel. “We got the idea for the fireplace from the REI store,” Tim says. The metal, especially the angle iron, is taking on a weathered rusty look that Cindy loves. “I’d like more of that to happen,” she says.


Large windows that flood the open space with light grace each side of the fireplace. But it’s the sliding ladders that access the high roof-peak windows that add charm. “We love the breezes that come when those windows are open,” Cindy says. “We are window fanatics. We kept asking Lands End to put more in.” While the fireplace gives off ample heat, the acid-stained concrete floors are also heated to provide warmth throughout. 


Sweating the Details

It wouldn’t be a northwoods cabin without the use of wood, and there is plenty of it in the Brays’ home. Most of the wood features are pine; ceilings and large overhead beams, trim work and the hand-hewn fireplace mantel and eating bar. It’s the woodwork that makes Cindy and Tim proud, having put their own sweat equity into a majority of it by trimming and staining it themselves.


“The worst was the floor trim,” Tim recalls. “We were up and down, up and down. Then we got smart, and one person would do the cutting while the other would stay on the floor and scoot around.”


To curb costs, the Brays also honed their homebuilding skills through hands-on efforts. “The general contractor gave us homework every weekend, for almost six months!" Cindy says, “But Lands End was so wonderful. They gave us access to their shop in town, and the people there would show us how to use the machinery and equipment.” With all of the time spent at the cabin during construction, Tim and Cindy became intimately attached to even the smallest details of the design and had a lightbulb moment regarding some old redwood deck boards they had from their house.


“We had them salvaged and saved for six or seven years,” Cindy says. “We brought up the idea to Lands End to incorporate them into the build. They suggested using them on the upper cabinets and refrigerator face.” The reclaimed wood became a signature design piece. Other unique design elements conceived by the Brays include the exterior concrete patterning, having a window in a bunk nook, leaving exposed hardware on the sliding barn-style interior doors, and a closet converted into a crib/toddler bed in the lower-level bedroom.


“We had the closet wall pushed back, a built-in set of drawers for the base under the mattress constructed, and wood rails made to slide into wall slots,” Cindy says. This feature gave the grandkids, Macie and Colin, a special place to sleep and freed up the floor space a crib would have required. Having been an integral part of design and construction of the cabin gave Cindy a unique love for the place. “We had never built anything before, and we feel terribly lucky to have had a part in building this,” she says. “The experience of creating this place was a once-in-a-lifetime thing for us. For me, this is our home, and our place in St. Paul is where we live when we can’t be at the lake.”


At Home on the Lake

While the cabin interior is inviting, the family spends a great deal of time outdoors. When their sons bring their families and visit, touring the chain of 14 interconnected lakes via pontoon boat, even in the rain, is a top pick for things to do. They also enjoy riding Sea-Doos, swimming, taking walks, biking and paddle boarding. The winter finds them cross-country skiing, ice skating or snowshoeing. They use the outdoor fireplace on the patio all year round. “I’d have to say that’s my favorite feature,” Tim says of the patio fireplace. “We use it all the time, sitting out in the winter and watching the grandkids play in the snow or just enjoying the fire on rainy days.”


Ventures into the town of Crosslake take them to the ice cream shop, the Corps of Engineers park or the pizza place. The St. Patrick’s Day parade is “a must do,” as the classic small town event is unbelievable, according to Tim. “We were dumbfounded at the amount of people who come.” And when all the kids are at the cabin on Memorial Day, a cooking contest tops the list of activities, as they each try to best daughter Erin, who is a professional chef. So far, they have attempted variations of burgers, tacos and ribs.


The Brays spend as much time as possible at their retreat, coming at least once a month in the winter and most every weekend the rest of the year. It’s a piece of their identity, and they are passionate about it. “We hope that anyone who walks in the door feels the warmth and comfort that we feel every time we come back,” Cindy says.



Gina Chiodi Grensing was honored to tour this cabin firsthand to admire its wonderful design. She recommends the ice cream shop.


See also: A Log Cabin Gets an Invisible Addition

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