“Stout’s Island Lodge” by Bill Phelps


By Egotist / /

“Stout’s Island Lodge”
Previously published in YOLO Journal

In summer, it was not uncommon for me to sit on the back step of my grandparents’ house watching Edith work in the garden, just off the kitchen, my hands sticky from a watermelon slice or a heat-ripened peach balancing in my lap. My grandmother had beautiful and powerful hands, with intricate river maps of veins that illustrated a long history of the honest, physical work she so enjoyed. Edith’s father was a brick man, and she would often point out the smokestacks he had built along the river’s edge—quite possibly with a firebrick he designed and patented in the 1920s. Proudly, Edith would reminisce on the days she helped load those bricks with iron claws on and off the trucks.

Beauty was a powerful force in my childhood. My mother’s watercolors and sculptures, her art books, her unwavering love of design; my grandmother’s flower garden, or the tiny patch of rhubarb growing against the garage, ruby red, strong like rope, destined to become a gorgeous late summer pie; my grandfather’s impeccable handwriting, or the respectful care he took in cleaning his catch of the day … all of it influenced me as a young artist. Respect for craft, working with one’s hands, and creating a whole world inside of one idea became a preoccupation for me. It’s not mysterious that I chose a creative life, and harvested the treasures of natural beauty at every turn. Art and design, food and wine, travel and style—they were all just waiting for me to show up.

After many years of living in New York City and traveling the world on assignments, I moved back to my hometown of Saint Paul, Minnesota—and these memories came flooding back to me. I became eager to show my daughter Hazel the gifts of this place. I grew up on a street only three blocks over from the storied Summit Avenue, the longest single stretch of Victorian homes in the country (and of equal if not more significance, where I learned to ride a bike). At the top of Summit Avenue sits the University Club, built on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi, where Hazel and I spend many summer days by the hundred-year-old pool, the stone terraces, and the single clay tennis court surrounded by ancient vines. The club is a tapestry of stories. Examples of craft, architecture and design abound, and it has thankfully been protected by a man who singlehandedly preserved and maintains not only the University Club, but also the Saint Paul Athletic Club, the Commodore Hotel (with its incredible art deco bar) and the sprawling Stout’s Island Lodge. The lodge was built by lumber baron Frank D. Stout in 1903, on the sublime Red Cedar lake in Birchwood, Wisconsin. Designed in the style of the Adirondack hunting and fishing lodges with its 4-inch thick floors, stone fireplaces, and hand-carved beams from the Black Forest, it sits exactly the same today as it did nearly 120 years ago.

Hazel and I were invited to the island for a private weekend during the last three days of summer, and it turned out to be a gift on so many levels. We left Saint Paul before sunrise, heading straight toward a spectacular display of dawn light that sliced through the pines in peach, apricot, and raspberry ribbons. At times the blinding direction of the sun could make you feel as though you might be lifting off the road in some magical flying machine. After two hours, we easily descended to the simple wooden dock to wait for the ferry.

By now the sun was warming the beach, and the crispness of dawn had given way to a soft amber light that felt like a gateway to a weekend where everything seemed possible. Hazel was soaking it all in when the simple pontoon appeared for our timely and safe passage to the island. Approaching the boathouse head-on, it looked to me like an earthbound owl spreading its wings to dry in the sun. To Hazel, I sensed that it looked a bit like Narnia’s wardrobe. This is the magic of places built by hand, with a clarity of purpose and imagination, allowing each visitor the space to live their own story.

Crossing the footbridge from the second story of the boathouse (which also housed a pool table and game room), I was instantly transported to another time, filled with a curiosity to explore. The trees in the wind sounded like a welcoming whisper from spirits of long-ago guests. The great lawn spread out before me in an equally inviting way, reminding me that happy hour was not too far away, and there would be a comfortable spot reserved just for me. The property was patterned with beautiful walking paths swerving through trees, balancing along shorelines, some leading to clusters of canoes at the ready.

After settling in we made our way to the main lodge, passing some of the original guest cabins along the way—like the sublime Allison’s Cabin—up the comfortable grade, through screened-in passageways with beautiful stone floors, and paused to simply take it all in: the original stone fireplace anchoring the warm lounge, incredible arts-and-crafts chandeliers hanging from the ancient beams, a baby grand piano, a full wall of books, and seductive aromas coming from the kitchen. Soon we heard people strolling the grounds—the unmistakable sound of footsteps on a wooden dock, quiet conversations, light laughter. Not only had we landed in one of the most beautiful and protected examples of true Midwestern style and history, but we could call it our own for a few days.

– Bill Phelps.


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