Molly Phinny – artist, mother, grandmother, friend, activist – is a survivor. She is a woman who melts adversity with strength, charm and reflection. Pair those qualities with an innovative sense of design that is revealed in her paintings and in her personal style, and you begin to get her picture.
So when Phinny’s 22-year marriage ended several years ago, it was no surprise to the folks who know her that the new home she set out to build would make a powerful, fresh statement about regeneration. That blueprint began with the hundred feet of shoreline on the Leelanau Peninsula’s Little Traverse Lake that Phinny purchased in the summer of 2005. The wooded, south-facing lot was suited for pursuing the many things that were still whole in her life – her ties to family and friends, and her art.
Phinny also saw the property as a canvas for exploring the principles of two of her favorite design masters. One was the Abstract Expressionist Hans Hofmann, whose bold work translates the essential form, structure and light of the natural world onto canvas. A provocative thinker, Hofmann once said, "The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak." Words certainly worthy of the foundation for both a new life and a new house.
The other master was mid-century modern architect Harry Weese, known for his influence on the Chicago skyline and his design of the Washington, D.C., metro stations. Phinny, however, knows Weese through the clean-lined, light-filled cottage in Leelanau County that he designed for his family in 1939. Weese’s sister, Sue Weese Franke, is a close friend of Phinny’s and still summers in the cottage. "The beauty of its design is that it is really just protection from the elements – a box with windows that encapsulates its own little outdoor world," Phinny says.
Buoyed by simple but profound design principles such as these, Phinny began imagining her new home. Her son, Chris Fisher, drew up initial designs on his CAD/CAM program. To finish the blueprint, Phinny turned to her friend, Leelanau County-based architect Lou Heiser. Heiser took the modernist elements that Phinny is drawn to but tailored them to his client’s diffuse interests, adding unexpected touches of tradition that echo traditional cottage vernacular. The final design is a traditional cottage with a modern twist. Or is it a modern cottage with traditional details? Heiser prefers to call the design The Molly House. "It’s the most eclectic house I’ve ever done, but that’s Molly, of course. She’s the driving force," he says.
At 1,700 square feet the house is essentially a rectangle with a shed roof that slants from one short end of the rectangle to the other – a contemporary interpretation of the Weese summer home’s shed roof that slants from the long ends. Like the Weese home on Glen Lake, the front is mostly glass and looks out onto the lake. The home’s exterior is cedar board and batten painted red and trimmed in an Up North forest green.
Inside, maple flooring and pale mustard walls create a serene backdrop for the light off the lake and for Phinny’s extensive art collection. An ivory beadboard ceiling is a nod to Victorian-era cottages. Phinny’s light-filled bedroom is tucked onto the east end, and an equally light-flooded guest room flanks the west end. An efficient galley kitchen that looks out onto the dining room, and a screened-in porch that leads to the lake round out the simple floor plan.
It is a home where the necessary – art, light and nature – speak. A space built for a new life, and, as it turned out, for healing. Two weeks after she moved in, in October of 2006, Phinny was diagnosed with breast cancer. She spent that winter recovering from treatment in the house that had become as much sanctuary as it was home. One year later, in true Molly style, she isn’t just surviving. In her new home on Little Traverse Lake, Molly Phinny is thriving.
Elizabeth Edwards is managing editor of Northern Home & Cottage.[email protected]
Resources for: The Healing HouseNote: This article was originally published in January 2008 and was updated for the web February 2008.