Architects Joy Martin and her husband, Ted, were having a cocktail on their front steps in summer 2018 when a couple riding by on bikes began to loiter in front of their Minneapolis house. The Martins approached them straight away.
“We were like, ‘Yeah, what can we do for ya!'” Martin recalled.
The bikers were Kirsten Delegard and her husband, James Shiffer (full disclosure: Shiffer is an author who also is a reporter and editor at the Star Tribune). Delegard founded the Mapping Prejudice Project, which documents the history of racial covenants that restricted land and homeownership for people of color. She wanted to share with the Martins some background about their house.
“They invited us for a drink,” Delegard said, and she told them about how the structure was built more than 100 years ago by Moses and Mary Burke before they and other African Americans were driven out of that part of town. “Minnesota has some of the largest [racial] gaps in homeownership in the country, and that didn’t happen by accident.”
The house, in Minneapolis’ Fulton neighborhood, had seen a lot of changes since then, and Martin was about to add her own chapter to that history. Her artful, efficient and elegant renovation of the structure is a winner of the Home of the Month award, a partnership between the Star Tribune and the Minnesota chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
“Maximizing the existing square footage, this home exemplifies the qualities of ‘The Not So Big House’ by living large in the space it has,” the submission read.
Answering her calling
The honor is a highwater mark for Martin, who started her own studio, Joy Martin Architecture, in 2016.
“It was fascinating to discover the pedigree of the house, and we thought about that stuff as we took it apart and put it back together,” Martin said. “We were out of our home when George Floyd was killed and the renovations were happening. It made us think about the privilege to do this kind of project.”
The renovation, like much of her work, extends a creativity that has been fostered since childhood. Martin grew up in Charleston, S.C., the middle child of mom Kathy Rackley, a teacher who loved science, and dad Gary Rackley, a dairy salesman who traversed South Carolina’s Low Country.
Her parents were jocks, but they put her “in front of all kinds of opportunities,” Martin recalled. She has taken art since she was in kindergarten. And she aspired to nurture that creativity, even if it was just a sideline to a practical career in dentistry until her first year at Clemson University.
“I was taking a painting class because I missed doing something creative when I walked through the hallways of the architecture building and saw all the projects that were pinned up,” Martin recalled, and she stopped in her tracks. “I realized that my pre-dental track was the wrong major. I was going to go to dental school because I liked science, I was good with my hands and my mom thought I could make good money to support my hobby.”
That formal schooling helped her understand, and appreciate, the built environment of where she lived. “I’ve been exposed to beautiful architecture and amazing town planning my whole life,” Martin said.
Martin is passionate about renovating historic homes. In the broad sense, renovations mean reinvestment in the urban fabric. And it is a sustainable movement in architecture. But, personally, she loves to bring a modern aesthetic to an older structure.
“What’s really fun is that we’re able to pay homage to the original craftsmanship,” Martin said. “A lot of older homes don’t have fancy things in them that we can restore. It’s up to us to breathe new life into them. We have this chance to love them up, level up, and take that sweet house to the modern age with a better floor plan, kitchen, newly relaxing owners’ suite, fixtures and finishes that are fresh and updated.”
She put that into practice with her own project. When the Martins, who met in graduate school at the University of Oregon, bought their Minneapolis house in 2017, they knew that they would have to renovate it.
“The existing house was quite charming, but the kitchen was isolated and dysfunctional,” Martin said. “For the size of the home, the formal dining room was disproportionately large. The use of the square footage was inefficient.”
And that was only downstairs. Upstairs, the three rooms were, in her words, “odd-sized.”
“We had a large owners’ bedroom with a tiny closet and no bathroom,” Martin said. “The kids’ room had a giant closet. And we all shared a mediocre bathroom.”
Downstairs, the basement was partially finished “but not to the level where you would want to spend a lot of time down there,” Martin said. “It wasn’t heated and was used mostly for storage.”
The goal, then, was to maximize every inch of the 2,000-square-foot home, making it useful and beautiful for a family of four with elementary-school-age kids and two working parents. That meant reconfiguring the upstairs for a private owners’ suite with ample storage and closet space. They also would create appropriately sized bedrooms for children.
On the main floor, they went with an open floor concept to maximize the kitchen, living and dining rooms. That served not just the family but also their pre-COVID goals, which included lots of parties and entertaining. They redid the mudroom, which previously was a tunnel. It was rearranged to be much more functional.
Maximizing existing space
The renovation included converting underutilized areas into functional spaces. The area beneath the front stairs, which had been blocked off, was opened up and turned into a closet.
Downstairs, she built a home office for herself, a cubby and a bike room. She also turned a powder room into a three-quarter bath and added an egress window. A big storage room that she described as “gross and creepy” was turned into a craft room with storage. The space proved pivotal during the coronavirus shutdown of schools, becoming a classroom for her kids and others.
In all of it, Martin considered light, access and flow, adding a back door off the sunroom that connects to the kitchen and patio.
“It’s a nice way to utilize the indoor-outdoor living,” Martin said.
And all of the changes would be done without adding any square footage.
The broader history of the house also has a personal, and poignant, corollary for Martin. Her husband, Ted, a booster of her artistic and architectural gifts, died after a road bicycling accident in May 2021.
“He supported all my crazy ideas,” Martin said. “If there were things that I wanted to do to keep pushing the envelope — he never doubted my ability to do it and encouraged me to follow my passion. That was an amazing gift that doesn’t die with the person.”
Martin is expanding her studio and building her practice in her hometown of Charleston. The Minneapolis house that she spent so many nights dreaming about and that she built into an emblem of elegance and efficiency? That will be for another family.
“The beautiful thing about living in a historic home is that you know there were lots of lives here before you and that there will be lots of lives after you,” Martin said. “People will be making memories and writing their own histories here. That’s a cool legacy that I’m very proud of.”
About this project
What: From creating closets, craft rooms and office spaces, a south Minneapolis reno utilizes every square inch.
Size: 2,000 square feet.
Designing firm: Joy Martin Architecture.
Project team: Joy Martin, AIA.