Even though spring has barely sprung, design aficionados are already marking their calendars for the third weekend in September, when the AIA MN Homes by Architects Tour makes its annual debut. For anyone who loves great architecture, the Tour is the design equivalent of the Tour de France, the Indy 500, and Superbowl Sunday. Lured by the invitation to see inside more than a dozen homes designed by local architects, these design-savvy superfans welcome the opportunity to meet local architects, chat with custom home builders and talk design with like-minded fellow guests. (For guests who can’t participate in person, a number of the homes can viewed online with dynamic 360-degree virtual tours.)
While much of the Tour usually wends around Linden Hills, Lake Harriet, Lake of the Isles and Lake Calhoun, White Oaks Savanna has quickly become a favorite stop on the Tour. Situated about four miles west of downtown Stillwater, this unique, architecturally-driven community consists of 30 home sites on 200 acres of lush prairie. With expansive lots ranging in size from five to seven acres and 120 acres reserved for organic farming, plus easy access to Stillwater and the St. Croix River Valley, White Oaks Savanna is a low-key Midwestern cousin of Napa Valley and the Hamptons.
Unlike many suburban communities that are controlled by large national developers, White Oaks Savanna is a labor of love for local owners David Washburn, a former organic farmer, and Bob Appert, a top custom home builder and owner of Redstone Architectural Homes. David and his wife Meg ran Red Cardinal Farm for more than 20 years on the 120-acre Masterman Farm adjacent to the historic, 200-acre Robert Carlson farm. The Carlson farm was a commercial enterprise, so the soil was heavily depleted due to years of heavy fertilizing. But, the landscape was breathtaking, with a hundred-year old barn, undulating hills, natural ponds, stands of forest and open expanses of prairie.
Before Mr. Carlson passed away, he introduced David and Bob to his daughter and her husband. They explained their vision of a small, architecturally-driven community and their desire to restore and protect the land. With the couple’s blessing, they acquired the property. Their first order of business was to christen the land. For David, this was both an honor and a responsibility.
“I grew up on the south shore of White Bear Lake and while I was still a kid, my grandfather’s Juneway Farm became Dellwood Country Club (originally Dellwood Hills), so I’m passionate about local history and nature,” says David. “I researched the provenance of the land and learned that before it was a farm, it was likely an oak savanna, a prairie grassland where oaks are the dominant tree species. When Bob and I counted 18 original open-growth white oaks trees on our land, we decided to name it White Oaks Savanna.”
“Long ago, oak savannas were common across Minnesota and the Midwest,” adds Bob. “They were cherished by the Native Americans since they were prime habitat for bison and other wildlife. Left unattended, the savannas would naturally fill in with trees and shrubs, so the Native Americans would set controlled fires to maintain the open land. But, because oaks are naturally fire-resistant and lightning-resistant, they continued to grow and thrive until European settlers arrived and began clearing the land for farming.
“As the Twin Cities metro area continues to grow, oak savannas are increasingly endangered in Minnesota,” says David. “As stewards of White Oaks Savanna, we’re honored to preserve this vital ecosystem for families and individuals who care deeply about living in harmony with nature.”
White Oaks Savanna’s first house was featured on the 2020 Homes by Architects Tour. Designed for a young family by Christopher Strom of Christopher Strom Architects and built by Redstone Architectural Homes, the clean-lined modern home is nestled into the land overlooking a pond. Echoing David’s belief that christening a property is an honor, the couple’s young daughter named the home “Eye-Land” for the spectacular views of nature in every direction.
This year’s Tour guests will be able to hop in a golf cart, tour the savanna and view several homes in various stages of construction. Sandhill Residence, designed by Kristine Anderson and Tammy Angaran of PKA Architecture with landscape architect Travis Van Liere, is a striking modern home with a palette of natural colors and organic textures, solar panels and a swimming pool. Built by Redstone Architectural Homes, Sandhill Residence will be open to visitors on the 2023 Homes by Architects Tour.
“Four years ago, there were no Sandhill cranes on the savanna,” notes David. “But, as a delightful result of our prairie restoration efforts, Bob and I have counted nearly six-dozen Sandhill cranes that return in the spring and take up residence in the ponds and marshes.”
And, like the Sandhill cranes, a number of people with Minnesota roots have flocked to White Oaks Savanna after living out of state for many years. For one former Alaskan with fond memories of a Minnesota childhood and a love of Norway, Christopher Strom designed “Valdres,” a modern Nordic-inspired home that takes its name from a Norwegian portmanteau word for “the valley of pastures in the forest.”
While more than half of White Oaks Savanna’s 30 home sites have been sold or reserved, David and Bob have a selection of beautiful lots that are still available, ready and waiting for people who share their appreciation for nature and a passion for great design. To learn more about this unique community, visit whiteoakssavanna.com.