Just walking distance from the Mayo Clinic and tucked into a cozy neighborhood of similar homes, a 1930s Tudor Revival-Style residence had a lot of potential. The problem was, homeowners could neither access the back yard nor see what the property had to offer. After years of neglect, weed trees and brush had taken over, blocking views and crowding out other large, valuable trees. Wooden decks and walkways were in disrepair, further limiting the property’s potential. Although the house itself is historically important, having been designed by a renowned Rochester architect, the surroundings were an affront to the site and to the neighborhood.
Discovering the potential
Landscape designer Charles Seha, of Charles Seha Design in Rochester, Minnesota, was initially called in to assess the condition of a massive retaining wall, but he recognized the property’s potential during his first site visit. The wall had developed a crack: “The wall was holding up the house, and [the homeowners] thought it was going to fail,” Seha recalls. “But after we cleaned it off and assessed it, [we discovered] it was actually in very good shape. The part that was cracked was over an area that didn’t have proper drainage.”
Located at the back of the house, the wall and the rest of the property were “completely inaccessible,” Seha says. “You could not even walk to it. You had to slide down the hill and then bushwack through the brush. But there were many, many beautiful old trees there; you couldn’t even see the canopies because the weed trees and the brush had grown up so thick.”
Once the mess was cleared away, Seha discovered that the site posed an additional challenge: “It sloped all the way to the property line. There was no level space whatsoever, and some of it was extremely steep.”
A consulting assignment became a full-scale renovation, but Seha was up to the challenge. Seha has logged decades of experience in landscape and garden design and construction as well as stone masonry design and construction, with award-winning projects located around the country. He had begun his career in Rochester, but hadn’t worked there since 1985. He was still living in Colorado when, during a summer visit to Minnesota, a friend asked him to consult on the retaining wall. “The clients saw my work and wanted to hire me to coordinate the full landscape project,” he says.
Renovating from top…
Much of the site experienced the problems inherent in an older property: poor drainage, aging structures in need of restoration, basic neglect. “It’s quite typical on these old houses to have drainage problems, because organic matter’s built up so much over the years that nothing drains away from the house, and that was the big problem,” Seha says. So before aesthetic improvements could be made, sitewide drainage was addressed, including the installation of commercial storm sewers and catch basins.
All storm water was redirected away from the house and down to the lower level of the property to an infiltration dry well, which also helped to protect the integrity of the old stone retaining wall. Fortunately, trenching for drainage allowed Seha to provide water and power to a small writer’s studio that he designed for the lower edge of the property.
Despite what appeared to be earlier attempts at creating outdoor living space and access to the lower part of the site, the wooden structures were dangerously unstable. “The existing wooden steps and the deck were probably built in the 1970s, and they were completely rotten; you couldn’t walk on them without falling through,” Seha says.
He removed all of the damaged material and replaced one of the decks with a concrete bordered brick patio. “The bricklayer had a proprietary concrete coloring that makes the concrete look aged, and we used that for the edging,” he describes. “And then we used 100-year-old street pavers for the actual patio. I use a lot of antique paving bricks; I don’t do any of that concrete paver thing that’s so trendy now.”
…along the slope…
Stone steps now descend along the massive retaining wall—which supports the home’s driveway—to the lower part of the site, allowing for greater use of the property. The wall, also built in the 1930s, stands about 22 feet high and is 4 feet thick at the base. Locally quarried limestone had been used for the wall, and the new steps are composed of similar limestone from neighboring Wisconsin.
Although the wall was sound, “the driveway had completely failed,” Seha says. “When we removed the old driveway to put in a new one, there were 4-foot voids under the concrete. But the wall held up quite well, and we took care of the drainage and it should last another many generations. [The residents] do continuing restoration now every year; they’re on a schedule.”
Now free of overgrown brush, the wall also provides an impressive and unique aesthetic feature on the property.
New steps provide a dramatic walkway along the retaining wall leading to the lower part of the property, which was unusable for decades—that is, until Seha uncovered the area’s potential for retreat and recreation. One scoop at a time, “we excavated. We had to remove 200 yards of material up the slope to make a cut at the bottom, so [the homeowners] would have some level space,” Seha describes.
“You couldn’t get machinery down that hill,” he continues, which is one reason the area had been neglected for years. “And nobody on the crew wanted to, so I jumped into the machine. I’ve done these challenging jobs before.”
A new retaining wall creates a terrace that was cut below the original wall. The arcing dry laid wall stands about 4 feet tall and is over 3 feet thick, and it’s a tightly fitted structural retaining wall built by the designer. The protected, level space created is ideal for lawn games or simply for relaxation. It also presents a sort of front yard for the small retreat built at the property’s edge.
A writer’s retreat
The homeowners requested a unique little retreat for a resident, part-time writer, so Seha designed a studio that is very private and takes advantage of on- and offsite views. Nestled nearly 25 feet below the house, it sits apart from the residence yet is intimately connected to the property.
“We kept it small enough, so according to code, we could put it right on the lot line and look back at the rest of the property,” Seha explains. “It’s open on three sides, [with a view of] the neighbor’s beautiful garden, taking full advantage of the site.”
Access to the lower part of the property — now facilitated beautifully by the stairway and a secondary ramped pathway—was tricky, at best. Materials couldn’t easily be transported down the steps, so Seha worked out a deal with a neighbor. “We had to build a plywood road through the neighbor’s yard,” he explains, in order to gain access to the studio site. “They let us have one day, and nothing could be destroyed, so we poured all the concrete for that, and hauled in all the materials, in one day. The studio has full frost footings, so it’s the real deal. There’s also electricity and water.”
Seha designed the structure according to the homeowner’s request, but incorporated elements that greatly enhance the simple structure.
“It’s based on an old building that’s on a nearby historic property; I lightened it up a little bit,” Seha says. “I put glass up in the peak, which I had done on one of my jobs in Colorado, so when you’re inside, you’re looking into the canopy of the big walnut tree.”
Plants were selected for their ability to tolerate steep slopes and moderate to extreme shade, and to create a naturalistic setting. Groundcovers have filled in nicely, and Seha imported a few woodland ornamental trees.
“But I wanted to keep the ground plane open to better display the magnificent old trees on the site,” he says. “There’s a huge burr oak, an 80-year-old white pine, spruce, tamarack and walnut which you couldn’t see before. But now they’re exposed and the forms can be appreciated.
The residents, of course, are thrilled with their “new” property, and three years after completion, Seha says, “my satisfaction is that after a few years, it looks like something that had been there with the original house. It doesn’t look new at all.”
Cover and Photos courtesy of Charles Seha