On The Waterfront

One connection led to another, and then the Chicago architect James Nagle began collaborating with a Michigan couple to design a serene house for a prime lakeside site

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Making waves: The view of the house from the lakeside highlights its three pavilions—sleeping quarters on the left, public areas in the center, and the guesthouse on the right. Photo Gallery:::

The site for this modernist lakefront house in northern Michigan’s Leelanau County is densely wooded, with views of Sleeping Bear Dunes, distant freighters gliding along a major aquatic highway, and painterly sunsets that linger. With the two-story gray cedar house completed, its conception and invention seem like part of the natural order of things. But it came to be only through a series of loopy yet genuine links—the kind of cosmic coincidences that drive the plots of Thomas Hardy novels. »

An outdoor passageway connects the main house with the guest quarters.

Among the main characters in this story: the owners, who prefer not to be named. This is the second marriage for both—she a former management consultant and a journalist (known in some circles for eliminating the name-dropping social coverage from a newspaper she once edited), and he an executive in residence at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business and a venture capitalist in the health-care field. Also appearing: the wife’s mother (she may be small, but she’s mighty). James Nagle, a principal in the Chicago firm Nagle Hartray Danker Kagan McKay Penney Architects Ltd. The Michigan developer and contractor James A. Bagaloff. The interior designers Andrew Fisher and Rita Whaley. “We had an incredible collaboration between the architect, the builder, and the designers,” the wife says, “and I give us a little credit, too.”

This SAGA began in 2000 when the husband went to join his wife in Florence, Italy. A longtime devotee of architecture and design magazines, she suggested one day that he take a look at an issue of Ville Giardini. Expecting Renaissance excess, he flipped through and found a story about a modern house in Door County, Wisconsin, designed by Nagle. About that time, Nagle was in Rome, and he saw the same story, placed by his firm, when he picked up the magazine at a newsstand.

When the couple from Michigan returned to their primary residence in Ann Arbor, the husband called Nagle in Chicago to ask about the possibility of his building a house for them near Sleeping Bear Dunes. Nagle said that he knew the area well. The Chicago architects Cindy and Ben Weese, friends of his, had a second home there, as did the landscape architect Joe Karr, another colleague.

And then the connections looped again. In the late fifties and early sixties, when the husband attended the University of Iowa Laboratory School in Iowa City, he had worked for Nagle Lumber, a company run by Nagle’s father and older brother—just one of a string of family ties that client and architect discovered. They hadn’t known each other when they were younger, the client says, because Jim was the academic star of the family and was usually away at school.  

“I thought it would be crazy to look any further,” the husband says. “This was like a friend of the family, and he had designed a great house in Wisconsin.”

“I thought that was a small-world thing,” Nagle recalls. “So we got together and have become friends.”

Playing it cool: To articulate different sections of the exterior, the gray solidstained cedar siding was placed horizontally and vertically.

And the march to nirvana began. A previous glitch had been resolved to the clients’ advantage. They had started out with property a mile inland from their eventual site. “It was on a Jeffersonian knoll that I thought would be incredible,” the husband explains. But when he and his wife returned from a trip, they found that between their land and the lake, someone had built a giant sheet-metal barn with a bright-blue roof.           

Heartbroken but resilient, the couple resumed their search and found a for-sale sign on a lakefront lot in a century-old estate that had originally belonged to a lumber baron. “Finally, we took Mom on a walk and showed her the lot,” the wife recalls, “and she said, ‘You know, the sunsets from here would be really nice.’ And the next day, we decided to buy the lot from Jim Bagaloff.”

Mom lives in a cottage on a nearby lake, but she is blunt about the villainy of the early lumber-company owners: “They abso- lutely raped the land.” She also acknowledges an upside: “They became uneasy and felt they had to contribute, so you’ll find a library, a hospital, an art gallery all the way down the coast courtesy of the lumber barons.” And the trees came back with a majestic vengeance.

 Next: Kitchen and Living Room

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