by Lynn Underwood
In Minnetrista, Minn., there’s a funny-looking house that could have dropped straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. The dwelling is made almost entirely of polyurethane foam. Its quirky appearance — drooping rooflines, domed top and organic shape rising from the earth — has inspired many nicknames, including “the Mushroom House,” “the Foam House” and “Hobbit House.”
Owner Ronald Hietala likens the house to a futuristic UFO. “When the ring around the top is lit up at night, it looks like a spaceship,” he said.
Winslow Wedin, the architect who designed and built the house on eight rural acres in 1969, called it the “Ensculptic House.” “It’s short for ‘environmental sculpture in plastic,’ ” said Hietala. “It’s very innovative.”
Hietala and his wife, Janis Bren, were living in Virginia and bought the house “sight unseen” — except for photos that appeared with the online real-estate listing. The couple are originally from Minnesota and had been searching for a getaway home or possibly a retirement retreat. At first, they decided to buy the house for its $170,000 list price because Hietala estimated that the land was worth that much.
“I thought, ‘We can’t lose,’ ” he said. “We would probably tear it down and build new or sell it when land values went up.”
But when Hietala stepped inside the home before the closing, he gave the owner, Jayme Littlejohn, a big hug. Her parents, now deceased, had built the house 40 years earlier. “I admired the architecture, and it was an amazing accomplishment,” he said.
Bren came to Minnetrista a few months later and was drawn to the home’s unexpected open and airy feeling inside, as well as its artistic sculptural qualities.
“It’s a natural form that looks like a frozen spider web,” she said. The couple decided to save the home and fix it up.
Littlejohn’s parents, James and Letabeth Littlejohn, had hired architect Wedin to build an experimental polyurethane home for their family after they saw models of his ensculptic designs in his studio. Wedin and his architecture students spent the summer of 1969 in Minnesota constructing the dwelling from nylon cables strung in a spider-web pattern and then layered with custom-cut burlap panels. The last step was spraying the polyurethane foam, which dried into a durable hard material, over the structure.
Jayme, a teen at the time, recalled that summer in a 2010 Minneapolis Star Tribune article. “It was totally far out,” she said.
After Ensculptic was completed, a Life magazine reporter spent the night and described it as a “giant mushroom with portholes.” The interior is “light and airy and wonderfully unpredictable,” wrote Joan Downs in Life’s photo feature, published in 1970. The Littlejohns even organized public tours of their far-out residence in the 1970s.
But by 2011, the foam home, vacant for some time, had fallen into disrepair, with broken windows and water damage caused by teens who took advantage of the home’s emptiness and turned it into a funky party venue.
To make the house livable, Hietala invested $50,000 to fix the geothermal heat pump, install new windows, wiring and plumbing and add a layer of polyurethane foam over the leaky fiberglass roof. “The 8-inch-thick walls are pretty sound — poly doesn’t decay,” said Hietala, a retired industrial-organization psychologist.
Inside, the multilevel home still boasts a groovy ’60s vibe, with free-flowing dips and swoops surrounded by curved gallery-white walls. “I love the random forms,” Hietala said. The Ensculptic’s approximate 4,000 nonsquare feet — it’s all curves and round rooms — includes two bedrooms, three bathrooms and a walkout lower level.
Skylights carved into the ceiling of almost every room draw in lots of daylight. At the center, the mushroom-shaped dome holds seven narrow windows.
“The original owners had no fear of color,” said Hietala, referring to the kitchen’s funky red-orange cabinets and purple Formica countertops.
As for living in the offbeat home, simple tasks such as positioning furniture, installing closet doors and hanging artwork are a challenge because of the curved design. But with seating sculpted out of the walls, such as inside a cozy sunken fireplace room, little furniture is required.
Hietala often settles in front of a 28-foot wall of glass facing the backyard, where he watches wild turkeys and other wildlife. “At night it’s very quiet,” he said. “Now and then, I hear a coyote or raccoon run across the roof.” That’s because it’s easy for critters to climb on the drooping parts of the roof that extend to the ground.
Hietala and Bren, who still live in Virginia but visit regularly, are glad they preserved the experimental sprayed-on polyurethane home, although they aren’t sure what its future holds.
“It’s a remarkable piece of architecture, and it’s still standing after 40-plus years,” said Hietala. “But innovation is always difficult. There’s still the possibility that unexpected things will happen.”