DETROIT LAKES, Minn. — Now here's a house that's stone-cold cool!
Built nearly 100 years ago, the one-time family lake house at 1100 West Lake Drive in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, is easily recognizable to passersby today as the current home of the Stowman Law Office.
The 1930s building is a marvel of masonry, with perfectly cut stone selected for its color, fitted into place, and wrapped up like a bow with colored grout work. With a curved, matching stone staircase leading up a hill to the home's front entrance, its rustically ornate exterior is like something right out of a fairy tale.
David Stowman, who runs the personal injury law firm with his son, Jeff, and is familiar with the history of the building, says the stones used in construction were delivered by horsepower, one wagonload at a time, by Ray J. Anderson. A dairy farmer, Anderson would leave his farm each morning, across the railroad tracks from the airport, to pick up a load from the gravel pit north of County Road 6 and then head to West Lake Drive to drop the stones off at the house.
“Sometimes he did two loads a day, then he’d go home and milk the cows,” Stowman says.
The skilled mason who worked on the home, whose named is unfortunately unknown today, built it in the mid-1930s over a period of likely several years, with help from his brother and a nephew, Stowman says.
“The 'rock guy' knew what he was doing — he liked certain colors, and they’re split just right," he adds. "The art of laying stones was a dying art, even at that time.”
Stowman learned about the construction of the building in an odd way. About a year or two after buying the property in 1987, he happened to be looking outside when a car drove by slowly, then pulled up and stopped. A man got out and started taking photos of the house. Stowman chatted with him, and it turned out the man’s dad and uncle had laid the stone for the house.
“He, as a kid, would mix mud for them," Stowman recalls of their conversation. "I think it took a couple years to lay the house."
There's stonework inside, too
The interior of the house is as uniquely beautiful as the exterior, with matching floor-to-ceiling stonework in some parts of the home, along with notable architectural and design features like arched entrances and terrazzo (poured marble) floors.
The floors curve and flow from the floor to several inches up the walls, the terrazzo serving as a baseboard. Terrazzo was a fixture of art deco construction from the 1920s to the 1940s. It was an Italian invention, and old paperwork found by Stowman indicates the labor-intensive work was done by an Italian company.
The house is a wonder of ornate woodwork, unique windows, a sunken living room and sunroom, and two wood-burning fireplaces — one on the main floor and one in the basement.
The crème da la crème just might be the long, deep bathtub, with a built-in seat, that's in the main floor bathroom. The home's original owner, a Mr. O’Leary, apparently made his money in plumbing supply sales. He traveled to expos and fairs, and Stowman believes O'Leary got that jewel of a bathtub at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.
Love at first sight
Stowman says he has loved the house since he first saw it.
“One day I was driving by here and a 'For Sale' sign was out,” he says, adding that it was listed with a real estate agent who was a friend of his.
Stowman's friend was a little incredulous at first: “He said, ‘You don’t want that for an office, do you?’ I told him, ‘Well, until you mentioned it, I thought I did,” he recalls with a laugh.
He bought the house, got a conditional use permit for his business, and bought another 25 feet on the west side for a driveway that leads to a parking lot in back. He and his wife, Judy, didn't do any structural remodeling before moving the law firm in, wanting to leave all the stonework intact, but they have put some work into the house over the years.
“There were layers of wallpaper on the walls, and the guy before us smoked cigars and it absorbed the cigar smoke,” Stowman says.
They removed that old wallpaper and have made some other improvements since then, such as putting on a new roof and installing new windows a few years ago.
From Vietnam to Detroit Lakes
Stowman served 13 months as a Marine fighting in Vietnam, “from Thanksgiving of 1967 to Christmas of 1968,” he says. He was there for the Tet Offensive that started Jan. 31, 1968, and was a captain when he left Vietnam.
When he came back to the States and launched his law career in 1972, he and his wife knew they wanted to live on a lake, and ended up in Detroit Lakes, even though they had never been to the area before. They ended up raising four kids in Detroit Lakes: Jeff, who helps run the law firm; Mike, an emergency room doctor; Matt, an engineer; and Anne, a pathologist.
Stowman’s first law office, which he occupied for many years, was near the courthouse and post office, two places his staff visited often. But when Stowman asked his staff if the law office should move to the stone house on West Lake Drive, there was no hesitation: It was a unanimous yes.
“They just liked the place," he says.
A one-of-a-kind house
Stowman has made the most of his unique law firm on the lake.
One time, “We even took deposition out on a pontoon,” he says. “We took the witness, two staffers and the court reporter and cruised on a nice afternoon. We got some sunshine and took care of business.”
After all these years, he still appreciates his stone home office.
“It’s just unbelievable, the workmanship,” he says. “I’m amazed every time I see it. Architecturally, it’s kind of a unique place, and the building materials are unique, and the landscaping is unique. It makes for a pretty nice place."