Bottoms up: Redesigning a St. Paul residential basement

Ispiri fuses traditional lower-level remodel with grand foyer makeover.

June 14, 2013

Interior designer Lisa Keller faced a rare challenge when planning the renovation of a basement in Dellwood, Minn., a northeast suburb of St. Paul. Because of the home’s position above grade near White Bear Lake, the main entrance of the 1940s residence is through the lower level, a previously damp, dark open space riddled with tangled mechanicals and used primarily for storage.

The homeowners frequented an entryway through the garage and wanted to create an elegant, comfortable vestibule that appropriately welcomed visitors and beckoned them up to the main living areas on the second floor. But they also sought amenities of a customary finished lower level: entertainment zone, billiards room, and wet bar.

“When you come into a home, you’re expecting to be ushered into a foyer. Here you’re being dumped into a lower level space right off the bat,” Keller says. “You don’t really want your guests being greeted with, ‘Well, here’s my pool table.’”


Company: Ispiri
Owner: Jason Fabio
Location: Woodbury, Minn.
2012 sales volume: $6.1 million
Projected 2013 sales volume: $6.78 million

The overriding task for Keller and Ispiri, a full-service design-build firm based in Woodbury, Minn., hinged on the integration of a formal entrance overhaul with a typical basement remodel.

Creating continuity

The homeowners researched similar renovations and visited many of Ispiri’s showcase houses before reaching out to the company, Keller says. They also had a clear idea of the materials they wanted to incorporate in the lower level’s reconfigured design; for example, the clients had already purchased a copious amount of slate tile to be laid down in the majority of the 1,100-square-foot space, and they wished to include stone veneer on walls and columns.

The drab flooring and rocky partitions, however, conflicted with the main goal of the project: to fashion a warm, transitional corridor that ushered visitors into the home through its lower level. Keller opted to blend wood with slate and stone to render a basement that is visually and aesthetically intimate.

A custom-designed mantel made of knotty alder, a rustic specie, complemented the large stone fireplace Ispiri built in the lower level’s family room and entertainment area. The woodworker purposely distressed the dark-stained piece to make it appear as though the mantel had been there all along.

This worn look achieved a sense of authenticity around the gas fireplace, which initially made a natural feel difficult. “When you look at the fireplace façade, you get more wrapped up in the aesthetics of the mantle and of all the stone and detail,” says Keller, who deviated from slate and outfitted the room with carpet to enhance its coziness.

The same woodworker hand-scraped knotty alder again to craft a Chicago-style bar rail, a feature of the wet bar the homeowners specified from the project’s outset. To make way for the bar, Ispiri relocated a three-quarter bathroom and its base plumbing to the side of the home facing the lake. Transplanting the lavatory also opened up an opportunity to construct a central focus for guests as they crossed the threshold of the front entrance.

Catching attention

Keller conceived a niche across the foyer in direct sight of the door to keep visitors’ eyes from darting side to side as they stepped inside. Tucked in an alcove next to the end of the bar, a sleek display table with wooden legs and cabinet sits below a recessed light.


Bathroom cabinets: Dura Supreme
Bathroom sink: Toto
Bathroom shower: Delta
Bathroom toilet: Toto
Bathroom fans: Panasonic
Bar sink: Blanco
Fireplace: Heat and Glo
Hardware: Amerock
Lighting fixtures: Visual Comfort; Troy
Paints/stains: Benjamin Moore
Trim work: Shaw Stewart Lumber Co.

“When you come into the home on that lower level, you feel like you’re entering into a space that’s more public than private,” says Keller, whose design created a versatile space where visitors “can hang up their coats, sit down, and take off their shoes.”

The sea of opaque Versailles-patterned tile in the foyer begged for an alternate material and configuration to help break up the overwhelming expanse. Ispiri inserted a travertine rug pattern that complemented the slate and lured guests into the house and toward the art niche in the middle of the basement.

The homeowners originally wanted to cover some of the columns and walls with stone from the floor to the ceiling, but the firm convinced them to come down to a more comfortable height so the rocks’ heaviness didn’t overwhelm visitors, Keller says. The company utilized the columns and other natural breakups such as cabinets in lieu of walls to form spaces and ensure an open, fluid floor plan. The custom cabinetry details play a crucial role in ensuring the finishes appear original to the home’s era.

Details in the cove ceilings of the foyer and family room make the ceilings seem higher, and a coffered ceiling in the office across the foyer from the family room evokes the feeling of a retreat. A series of repeated arches in soffits and architectural detail adds soft lines, reinforcing visual interest. Ispiri deftly meshed a grandiose yet inviting lobby with a casual lower level, but only after clearing a few hurdles during the design and build phases.

Transcending trouble

The firm sought to cap all plumbing in order to commence work on the lower level, but could never locate the home’s water main shutoff; as a result, Ispiri had to freeze all of the pipes in the basement for the duration of the job, says Bjorn Freudenthal, vice president of sales and marketing for the company.

Early in the construction process, Ispiri noticed the floors were uneven and the walls weren’t square. The firm used 3-D modeling technology to help orient its team with the space and ensure the remodel overcame as well as corrected any existing deficiencies, Keller says.

An unsightly concrete curb around the indoor perimeter at the base of the basement presented yet another problem. Removing the barrier would’ve proved more trouble than what it was worth, so Ispiri decided to accommodate the quirk and incorporate it in the renovation’s design; built-out drywall and wainscoting obscure the curbing and provide a seamless transition from the walls to the floor.

The firm’s ability to conquer complications in stride kept the project on schedule and earned the clients’ complete satisfaction. Ispiri finished the lower-level renovation for a total cost of $99,900 on Feb. 9, 2011, just two-and-a-half months after the homeowners signed a contract.

Exceeding expectations

This award-winning finished basement became one of the firm’s flagship projects and continues to receive the most hits in the photo gallery on the company’s website, says Freudenthal, who praised the homeowners for their cooperation during and following the remodel.

“They’re absolute ambassadors of our company,” Freudenthal says. “They come back ever year for the client appreciation nights.”

Ispiri worked closely with the homeowners to produce a practical and aesthetic solution for an uncommon quandary, and affirmed the company’s assurance of a timely and quality job. “We really made an impact on how they live,” Freudenthal says. “When you get to that point, it’s really rewarding for everybody.” PR

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