Couple builds new home on old family farm


Farm home with barn
The Willners' seven-acre property between Eden Valley and Watkins is near where both Janene and Jeremy grew up. Both their parents and her two brothers all live within a three-mile stretch. They purchased the property in February 2001, started construction in June 2003 and moved into their new home in November 2003, just in time to host Thanksgiving.

Great room
They wanted an open staircase and an open feel in their two-story living room with a view to the second floor and a focus on the cultured stone fireplace.

The Willners used maple wood and bright colors throughout their new house. Janene thinks white is a cold color, so they chose stainless steel appliances in the kitchen and green formica countertops that match the antique copper flooring.

Butler's Pantry
A butler's pantry between the dining room and kitchen provides extra counter space and storage.

Dining room
The Willners love to entertain and have a formal dining room connected by a butler's pantry to the kitchen.

By Michael Jacobson
Janene and Jeremy Willner had known about the property for most of their lives. It belonged to a distant cousin of Jeremy, and it was located just a couple miles west of the farm where Janene grew up.

Jeremy - who grew up on the outskirts of Eden Valley - had helped a neighbor to farm the land. "I grew up out here," he said, of the property that lies just south of Highway 55 between Eden Valley and Watkins.

The Willners bought seven acres of the property in February 2001, they built a new house on it in 2003, and now his parents, her parents, and her two brothers all live within a three-mile stretch near their home.

Jeremy, a 1990 EV-W grad, and Janene, a 1991 EV-W grad, got married in 1993 and bought an old farmhouse in Eden Valley, where they lived for ten years. But they always had plans to build. Originally, after getting married - since Jeremy was working in St. Cloud - they had purchased a lot near Cold Spring.

"I think we knew right away that we were going to build," said Jeremy.

But then Jeremy heard his cousin was going to sell the property and made contact before it officially went on the market. They bought the seven-acre homestead site, including an old trailer and a number of farm buildings. The tillable acres were sold separately.

While the land had always been farmed, the homestead had not been an active farm for many years; the Willners have been told that the farm has not been in operation since the 1940s. Outbuildings - such as a tobacco shed, chicken coop, grain bin, and barn - still stood on the property when they bought it.

They spent a couple years cleaning up the property: cutting giant box elder trees, removing the old trailer, and demolishing the outbuildings, except for the barn.

They began construction in June 2003 and moved into their new house in November 2003.

Having always intended to build a new house someday, the Willners had bought books of house plans and attended the Parade of Homes in St. Cloud for years to get ideas, think about what they wanted, and choose their design.

Their final plan was a top-five contender for a long time, but not always the favorite. "We kept coming back to it," explained Jeremy.

One of the things that Janene really wanted, though, was an open staircase as a central focus of the house. They kept coming back to this plan because "it's hard to find a nice plan with an open staircase and a full upstairs," Janene said.

They liked this design because the staircase to the second floor opens both to the front and back of the house. The half staircase facing the front door and the half staircase facing the back door meet at a landing, and then another half set of stairs leads to the second floor.

"I love it," said Janene. "It's exactly the way we wanted."

The Willners also wanted:

•Openness. The open stairway provides views from the front of the house to the back and from the main level to the second story.

In Eden Valley, the Willners owned an old farmhouse - dating back to the early 1900s or maybe even the 1800s, they speculated - that had lots of small rooms. Every room was small and had a door, for energy efficiency, so each room could be closed in the winter, and only certain portions of the house would then need to be heated.

After living in house with small, defined rooms, "We definitely wanted something that was open," said Janene.

The great room - living room, breakfast nook, and kitchen - spreads out across the back of the main floor. From the front entry, the open staircase flows into the two-story living room.

Along with the views of the open staircase and to the second floor, a focus of the living room is the cultured stone fireplace on the two-story west wall. (Janene always wanted a fireplace, since her godfather made a real fieldstone fireplace for his house.) The two-story south wall in the living room has a door and windows to the wraparound porch and a piano window at the top.

The living room opens into the breakfast nook and to the kitchen. The Willners wanted this large, open area for entertaining. "We do a lot of entertaining, and it's nice to mingle," said Janene, even while working in the kitchen.

In fact, when the Willners moved into their home in November 2003, they had to hurry to get all the finishing touches done so they could host the family Thanksgiving that year.

The Willners used the flooring to break up the great room. The living room is carpeted, and the kitchen and breakfast nook have antique copper flooring. This provides separation between living room, without a wall. The peninsula counter provides the only separation between the kitchen and the breakfast nook.

One thing they liked about the farmhouse, though, was it had nine-foot ceilings. After living in a house with high ceilings for ten years - and enjoying that extra space - "I don't think we could have gone back (to lower ceilings)," said Jeremy. They also chose eight-foot ceilings on the second floor and in the basement.

•A big porch. "I definitely wanted a big porch," said Janene. Their whole family - Hayden, 10; Raevon, 7; and Xander, four months - likes to be outside in spring, summer, and fall. Jeremy likes to mow and landscape, Janene likes to tend her flower garden and birdwatch, and Hayden and Raevon like to play basketball, ride four-wheeler, and jump on the trampoline.

•More storage. While their old farmhouse had four bedrooms, it only had two closets! Not nearly enough for a family of five these days. (Their old house also had only one bathroom, originally a pantry before indoor plumbing was added!)

Janene and Jeremy designed plenty of storage in their new house...a walk-in pantry...plenty of kitchen cabinets...a butler's pantry to provide extra storage and counter space between the kitchen and formal dining room...walk-in closets...and a cold storage underneath the wraparound porch.

That cold storage was their excavator's idea. It was one of many ideas that the Willners were glad to have gotten from their professionals.

When they started excavating in June 2003, their first snag was seven inches of rain in the next week, turning their basement into a giant puddle. They did learn about the high water table and, at the advice of their excavator, added rock and drain tile under the basement and used fill to raise the house four feet. "We haven't had a drop of moisture in the basement," reported Janene.

Their lumber yard, builder, and other contractors provided additional ideas to tweak the plan. Such as, squaring off the house, as the original design had a more irregular shape. This provided more space while saving building costs. (Their house is 4,700 sq. ft. in all.) They widened their garage, which is still two stalls but now has extra room on the sides. They eliminated a sitting area in the master bedroom and used this space to create a bonus room upstairs, above the garage, which became the kids' toy room. And they lowered the pitch of the roof, also save money and they like the look better, said Jeremy.

They also used cultured stone around the exterior base of the house.

The Willners chose a heat pump for their main source of heating and cooling. It is very efficient, reported Jeremy, and uses off-peak rates. They have a propane furnace as backup, but it normally has to go below zero before that furnace is needed, said Jeremy.

In the interior, bright colors and maple woodwork are themes. Janene hates white, so nothing in the house is white except for a few vents. She gets enough white at work - she's a recreational therapist for the Paynesville Area Health Care System at Hilltop Care Center in Watkins - and she wanted warm colors for her house.

Janene also did much of the painting herself, including an orange brick pattern in the bathroom on the main floor, sponge painting in the master bathroom, and accents - such as Bratz dolls in Raevon's room - in the kids' rooms.

All wood in the house - from the two-inch by two-inch spindles in the staircase to the cap for the fireplace - is maple. (They even have maple leaf accents in the tile on the kitchen walls.) The Willners tried to match the color of the maple flooring by the front door with a custom, cinnamon-color stain for the rest of the house. They are pleased with how it matches. but regret having to stain all the windows themselves with the special stain!

The Willners chose four-inch maple baseboard. Their old farmhouse had extremely wide baseboard - eight inches or so, they estimated - and they liked that looked.

The kitchen cabinets - done in mission style - are also maple. They wanted the cabinets to have a basic look but did have rope braid added for decoration.

Janene found an antique copper floating tile for the kitchen. She loved the colors and knew it would match the maple and her green formica countertops. The Willners didn't want granite or tile for the kitchen because either would be permanent. The floating floor should be easier to replace.

Also in the kitchen, the Willners opted for stainless steel appliances. Janene didn't want white appliances, and they saw a lot of stainless steel appliances during their tours. The newer ones, they noted, have a special coating on the metal that avoids leaving noticeable fingerprints.

The main level of their house also includes a laundry room, which can double as a mud room from the backyard; an entryway from the garage with a maple cupboard for jackets, shoes, and other clothing; a formal dining room; the butler's pantry; and a home office, with windows on three sides, for Jeremy, who has had a financial planning office in Eden Valley for four years and in Paynesville for 18 months. He often has appointments with clients at night.

The upstairs has three bedrooms for their kids, a bathroom for the kids, a toy room for the kids, and a master bedroom suite with a walk-in closet and a master bathroom, which includes a shower, corner whirlpool overlooking the backyard, and separate toilet room.

The Willners decided to finish their basement - which has a guest bedroom, a guest bathroom, the utility room, the cold storage, and a large family room - right away. The family room, though, is largely unfurnished, with just a TV and L-section couch so far. Right now, the Willners like having a large space for their kids to play in this room. They also roughed in the plumbing for a bar in the family room, but that has not been added yet.

Furnishing the basement is one of the things that the Willners have left to do. They also want to add a back deck but are not sure about the size or if they want an outdoor pool.

Other projects are to build more flower beds for Janene to tend; to finish the landscaping; and to finish the barn. The barn has been resided, and they use the ground level for storage. They are thinking about using the wood floor in the hay loft as a winter basketball court for their kids.

Right now, their house and property are geared for their young family, but the Willners have already considered that additions/modifications could be made to it to accommodate retirement living, too.

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