Out on the cliffAs Gary and Holly Martini searched for a cabin getaway on Lake Superior’s North Shore, they agreed that if the property didn’t have beautiful rocks and easy access to the water, they wouldn’t even look at it.
By: June Kallestad, Forum Newspapers, Lake County News Chronicle
As Gary and Holly Martini searched for a cabin getaway on Lake Superior’s North Shore, they agreed that if the property didn’t have beautiful rocks and easy access to the water, they wouldn’t even look at it.
Their search led them to “Cliff House” — a tidy little home that started as a party patio for the well-heeled, sheltered the famous, enchanted vacationers and, in its latest evolution, attracted the talents of renowned architect David Salmela. The Martinis moved in permanently last year. Rocks and water are part of their everyday life now.
The house is perched on the rocky shoreline that offers up beautiful agates by the handfuls and many windows bring the outdoors inside.
“Nature catches us off guard here,” says Holly. “We’ll be just watching TV and then you turn and there’s a rainbow or the moon is coming up over the water, and you wonder, how can it be that orange? There’s always variety. We watched a giant otter swim up onto the ice this winter. It’s very entertaining.”
Although the couple lived on a lake in the metro area, they say Lake Superior is a completely different experience.
“The beach is always changing — big rocks, small rocks. Today is not typical,” Gary says as he notes natural debris from a recent storm. “Today there’s a bit of a wave, tomorrow the lake could be flat as glass or three-foot-high waves. We wake up and wonder, what’s it going to be today?”
Self-proclaimed “city people,” visiting the North Shore was a regular part of the Martini’s 40-year marriage, and they enjoyed taking their children to their favorite spots over the decades. But as the children grew and they approached retirement age, they decided it was time for a North Shore cabin.
The couple happened upon Halcyon Harbor, a small resort on Highway 61, sitting on the market for four years. The seller, John McQuade, told them about its interesting history. The compound of five cabins started in 1937 as one family cabin of Lyle Oreck, who owned Oreck’s Department Store and The Flame Restaurant in Duluth.
“They were a people of means and this was their summer home,” says Gary, pointing to what he calls “the Lake House,” a two story home with beautifully aging character. The Cliff House was the party patio with a long boardwalk to the water so boats could pull up to the rocks. At the end was a very large stone barbecue. Over the years, a cabin was built around the patio and barbecue which housed some of the Orecks’ famous friends, among them Sinclair Lewis, Milton Berle and boxer Joe Lewis.
The Orecks added more cabins to the property, then eventually sold it with 600 feet of shoreline. Several owners later it became Halcyon Harbor, until the Martinis bought it in 2004. They wanted only one of the five cabins, but decided to buy the whole resort, sell the other cabins to private owners, and make all the land and rocky beaches common property.
Perhaps it was the good kharma left by vacationers’ happy memories documented in stacks of journals over the decades — the cabins sold quickly. The Martinis are happy to share the property as a community.
For many along the North Shore, “Cliff House” meant the restaurant along Highway 61. It was abandoned and later torn down by the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
While many bemoaned the loss of another family resort, Gary says keeping the property intact should be some sort of comfort for past owners and guests. “We didn’t tear it all down and build condos,” he said. “We’re trying to restore it back to the Oreck days.”
While its history is rich, the Cliff House’s next chapter is fortunate. Holly’s father, an architect who admired the work of David Salmela, introduced the couple to the modernist, minimalist, award-winning architect.
“There was mutual admiration between David Salmela and my dad,” says Holly. “Their work was very similar in style.”
Salmela’s clean style is evident in the dark brown exterior that blends into the landscape, the large windows that bring the outdoors inside, and the efficiency of the kitchen and bath designs. And, as befitting a Finlander, the Salmela style isn’t complete without a sauna. It will be built in the storage area under the foundation facing the lake.
“Working with David Salmela was wonderful,” says Holly. “Like my dad, he could see the finished project in his head before we even had any idea what he was talking about. They know what they’re doing.”
“We wanted to be at the water. And coming down the driveway through the pines and the cedars… it’s just gorgeous. We feel so blessed,” says Gary. “Our children played along the North Shore, and now we have our grandchildren here. It’s a beautiful cycle.”
This article first appeared in the May-June issue of Living North Magazine, a publication from the Duluth News Tribune and Forum Communications Newspapers. The free magazine is available at businesses throughout the region.