A Minnesota family spent a generation of happy summers in a midcentury cabin with more quirks than square feet. When they finally renovated, they changed a lot—but not the tiny footprint.

By Hannah Agran; Photographer: Justin Salem Meyer; Producer: Tara Okerstrom-Bauer
Johnson cabin

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From the end of Deane and Jill Johnson's dock, you can see every twig, pebble and grain of sand through the rippling lens of Big Sand Lake. A summer breeze teases the water, scattering sunlight. Somewhere, a motorboat hums. "This is as busy as this lake gets," Jill says. "We're just far enough north, it scares a lot of people from moving up here."

Behind her, a cabin takes in the view. A tiny cabin. One that could fit in some homes' garages. It has a wall of windows, a door on either end, a wee living room, an even more wee kitchen, a rather grand fireplace, a single bedroom and a bathroom. It's a shoebox with a snappy red roof for a lid-small, rectangular and stuffed with memories.

While scoring a new floor plan, Deane and Jill Johnson retained many of their 1955 cabin's original features: 10-foot windows, a Heywood-Wakefield sofa and lounge, a funky metal patio awning, and the 64-year-old sidewalks trimmed with lake stones.

Thirty years ago, when their three children were in elementary school, Deane and Jill were looking for an affordable lake escape near their home in Park Rapids, Minnesota. They bought a 1955 cabin perched at the bottom of a steep wooded slope. It was architecturally out of favor and a homely shade of gold-but it had a 162-foot beach. Right away, they tore out a broken dishwasher and heavy drapes. A few years later, they repainted the exterior and removed a wall to combine two of the three teeny bedrooms. And that was about it. The cabin's idiosyncrasies became part of its legend. (Every time the teal fridge shuddered, someone would shout, "This is the end!") Looking back, the Johnsons admit they were just too busy working, raising kids and having fun to worry about cosmetics.

By 2015, though, benign neglect became less funny. The roof leaked. Mice scurried through the walls. The couple considered bulldozing. Then a friend brought a visitor from New York to see the place. "How lovely!" he remarked. "A Danish modern cabin!" Deane and Jill always found the retro look a little odd. But maybe it wasn't? Midcentury design was now all the rage. The concrete foundation was solid. (The cabin had been built by a Kansas contractor who laid missile pads for a living and had a healthy respect for tornadoes.) The stonemason who built the church up the road had constructed the fireplace. The couch was original. So was the barbecue. And all those memories. The Johnsons' cabin had roots as thick as the pines around it.

Having decided to renovate, Jill and Deane toyed with adding a room, but they were reluctant to take down trees. And this place was never about personal space. It was about laughter and love and piles of elbows and knees. "There were always at least eight of us staying here. The kids, their friends, kids tacked to the walls," Deane says. Intimacy was part of the cabin's soul.

A slim pocket door to the bedroom means you can now see the lake from bed-a primary renovation goal.

Several contractors balked at modernizing within a 650-square-foot footprint, but Deane and Jill found a designer who understood their priorities. Jenny Becker Eischens had been their son Dan's classmate. "She looked at it and she saw it," Jill says. "She didn't waste an inch of space." Jenny opened the galley kitchen to the living room and took the two small bedrooms down to one that sleeps four. That bought real estate for a larger bathroom with laundry-a sacrifice Jill happily made after 30 years of toting damp beach towels home to wash.

For period-appropriate color inspiration, the Johnsons consulted a 1954 Ladies' Home Journal decorating book that featured a home nearly identical to theirs. They installed a red roof and trim, upholstered furniture in scarlet and gold, and wove aqua accents through the home, a nostalgic nod to the old teal kitchen.

As she watches her grandson, Leif, wading, Jill looks back at the glowing windows. "We loved our cabin for its oddities and imperfections," she says. "But in the end, what you really remember are the people."

Petite appliances (a 24-inch fridge and range and 18-inch dishwasher) match the cabin's historic scale. The single-tub sink is original. The Johnsons hit garage sales and thrift stores for period-appropriate accents from brands like Dansk, Catalina and Denby. After decades of battling sandy feet, Jill loves having mop-and-go vinyl flooring in a forgiving gray tone.

Each bunk has a slim ledge to hold a glass or book, plus a compact reading lamp on the wall.

For years, the cabin was a cramped warren of awkward doors and walls. Combining the living room and kitchen created the illusion of more space and allowed sunlight from the wall of windows to flood through.

Deane and Jill with their son Dan and grandson, Leif.

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