Inside the Boathouse

Local photographer Karen Melvin’s new book highlights the boathouses of Lake Minnetonka.

When you’re out on Lake Minnetonka, do you find yourself fantasizing about the beautiful boathouses? What would it be like to watch the sunset from that porch? Who built that lovely, old, Japanese pagoda-style boathouse? What does that rustic boathouse look like inside? If that sounds familiar, you’ll want to add Karen Melvin and Melinda Nelson’s new book to your library.

Boathouses of Lake Minnetonka is a 246-page coffee table book with more than 400 photographs. The book takes you inside the boathouses and lets you see how the families who own them live in them today. It also tells you about the history of the boathouses and their special stories.

Photographer Melvin and her husband bought a cabin on Lake Minnetonka in 2001, and she became fascinated by the boathouses. She has photographed architecture in the Twin Cities for several books, including Legendary Homes of Lake Minnetonka, which was published in 2005. Even as she worked with another writer on that book, she couldn’t shake her interest in the boathouses themselves. Eventually, she teamed up with writer Nelson, and they spent three years working on this book together.

The boathouses “are just little jewel boxes,” Melvin says. “People around Minnetonka love their lake, and the boathouses are part of that lake lifestyle.”

The book goes deep into the history of some the more interesting boathouses. Nelson, who lives in Excelsior, says she and Melvin are “architectural Nancy Drews” who love to dig out old stories. They aren’t only fascinated by the boathouses; they’re also interested in the people who built them.

“We wanted to find out about the families who built the houses,” she says. “We were particularly interested in the women who helped create the lifestyle.”

Nelson went to summer camp on the lake as a child and remembers trips to the Excelsior amusement park with her father. She’s lived in Excelsior for 26 years and has been on the Historic Preservation Commission.
The boathouses truly are a part of the history of Minnetonka. Very few new ones can be built on the lake—since the 1970s, Department of Natural Resources guidelines have opposed new construction right on the water line. “Most municipalities around the lake follow those rules. So the boathouses are even more treasured and special because they are rare,” Melvin says.

Boathouses of Lake Minnetonka takes readers inside 35 of the most interesting examples of these special buildings. Along with beautiful photographs that let the reader see the views from the screened porches and tour the dressing rooms, sunrooms and family rooms, there are the stories. That Japanese pagoda-style boathouse, for example.

When Harry and Helena Robbins returned from their honeymoon in Japan in 1912, they began construction on a house and boathouse near Smithtown Bay. They both had deep roots in the area. Harry’s father had been the construction superintendent for James J. Hill and Helena’s grandfather was the general manager of The Pioneer Press. The book shares how Nelson used her research skills to figure out who the architect must have been and follow the story of the pagoda boathouse from design to its rehabilitation under the care of its current owners.

The pagoda boathouse is just one of the fascinating histories you can read in Boathouses of Lake Minnetonka. All 35 houses have their own story and offer a peek into that wonderful lake lifestyle.

Boathouses of Lake Minnetonka is available at Excelsior Bay Books, Barnes & Noble, Kowalski's, and several other shops around the lake. It's also available on Amazon.