The natural forces that shape the world often lead to disaster. But once in a great while, they lead to something positive–even if it takes decades to realize it. Such was the case at John Folks and Max Suzenaar’s historic vacation property in rural Fennville, Michigan. For decades, the 1 1/2-acre plot has been a veritable magnet for lightning, possibly because of the ground’s massive deposits of iron ore. In 1959, a bolt from the sky struck the mansion industrialist John Stream had built on the land, igniting a raging fire that burned it down. In later years, separate strikes felled a pair of tall trees that stood next to the property’s remaining carriage house, which had been converted into John and Max’s main residence. The latter disaster, however, turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because it made way for a spacious new addition to the home. “The lightning cleared the land naturally,” Max says. “How ironic.”
With more land available, the wide-open plot John and Max purchased 10 years ago now served as the perfect place for the couple to create a rambling farmhouse with furnishings designed to stand up to their canine, Oliver, a Samoyed and Border Collie mix. The couple, who co-own a strategic consulting agency, have a contemporary condo in Chicago as their main residence, but here they wanted a spacious, comfortable and beautiful spot that family, friends and neighbors would enjoy visiting.
To help them pull together the addition, which included a great room with lofted ceilings, a more functional kitchen and a spacious new master bathroom, the couple turned to their longtime friend and designer, Michael Abrams, who also owns a vacation home in the area. “The homeowners had a set of architectural plans for the core and shell, but they needed somebody to do the interior,” he says. “We had meetings on the property on the weekends with a glass of wine–it didn’t feel like work!”
From their conversations, Abrams modified parts of the plans, for which Adam Ohlman of Sears Architects served as architect of record. By swapping the position of the kitchen’s range and sink, for instance, he improved the overall flow and sight lines in the roomy new space. Custom kitchen cabinetry with beadboard doors and a rustic painted finish complement the massive island, which is topped with a piece of vintage pine from the couple’s former dining table, and egg-shaped flush-mount light fixtures encased in wire exude a modern country look.
The kitchen opens into the newly created living area, where facing sofas and a pair of plaid armchairs make for a cozy spot in front of a stone fireplace. Arched spruce trusses handcrafted in northern Michigan define the lofted ceilings. “I showed the homeowners three different options for trusses,” says general contractor Todd Needham. “They chose the most complicated design, but the beams are a showstopper.” That detail carries into the screened-in porch, which has a view of the backyard’s swimming pool.
Needham and his crew also constructed the dining area’s custom built-in shelving, which is painted a mossy hue that complements the grass-cloth wallcovering and the space’s antique Oriental rug. “The bookcases add a lot of character and give the homeowners the opportunity to display personal effects,” Abrams says. “It’s a large room, and we wanted it to have a multipurpose feel.”
New pieces such as the dining table and wing-style host chairs commingle easily with an English antique buffet and other family heirlooms. Abrams also made use of the couple’s existing furnishings on the three-season porch, incorporating a wicker sofa and bamboo chairs he had painted in a shade of blue that matches a braided rug.
Perhaps most important, Abrams satisfied the couple’s goal of having a place for gatherings in the close-knit community. “Every week, somebody in the neighborhood hosts ‘Wacky Wednesday’ with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres,” Max says. “Also, our friends know if you’re driving by our house and the light in the clerestory window is on, that means the bar is open and to stop by–and they do!”
Even Oliver receives visitors, as guests often bring their four-legged companions to John and Max’s soirees–which have included a quinceanera, weddings and a Fourth of July pool party that doubled as a birthday bash for Abrams. And so far, thankfully, there has been no lightning in sight during those poolside celebrations. “The pool is the center of summer fun,” John says. “We enjoy it here so much.”