A Home to Grow Into
by Patricia Carlson
With its lush front yard, inviting porch, oversized windows, and charming blue front door, Polly Merickel and Jim Poe’s lake home near Lake Melissa in Detroit Lakes might give the outward impression that it’s like any other summer retreat. This cabin, however, has a hidden purpose. One that is meant to help the couple heal from an accident that derailed their retirement plans.
Polly, originally from Wadena, met her husband while working as the Deputy Chief of Institutions for the San Diego County Department of Probation. She’d moved to California after several years with the Minnesota Department of Corrections and met Jim, a San Diego local, who was the Assistant Chief of Probation for the same county department. Their shared career path in the criminal justice system brought them together and they’ve now been together for 32 years, married for 26 of them.
Jim, 10 years older than Polly, retired first. An avid motorcycle enthusiast, Jim was on an incredible road trip through Death Valley National Park with friends when he was involved in a horrific accident. He was life-flighted to Las Vegas and spent six months in hospitals and rehabilitation centers recuperating. “He’s lucky to be alive,” says Polly.
Initially, Jim was confined to a wheelchair, then he graduated to a walker, and now he uses a cane. Progress has been slow and Jim still struggles with balance and mobility. “His left leg works a little bit and his left arm has a little movement,” explains Polly. “They call it partial paralysis.”
At the time of the accident, the couple split their time between a home in San Diego (the same house Jim has owned for 40 years) and a cabin on Lake Melissa. Polly’s twin sister, Peggy, had lived there for many years and Polly and Jim were regular summer visitors. A couple of years after Polly retired, she and Jim purchased their first lake home.
That home, though, wasn’t built or equipped to help Jim or Polly deal with his disability. He required more safety and comfort measures and she needed space to relax and regroup from her care taking duties.
In April 2015, less than 50 feet from their existing home, another house was put up for sale. “I decided to buy the lot and last September  I had the original house demolished,” explains Polly.
If she and Jim had to rebuild their retirement lives, they were going to do it from the ground up.
The time following Jim’s accident gave Polly great perspective on what their new home needed.
“What we realized is that things like taking a shower or moving from room to room needed to be built to make our lives easier. I needed to reduce the possibility as much as I could that Jim would injure himself further,” says Polly. “I started looking at websites that talked about ideas for mobility and had tools to make our lives easier.”
The idea for the Lake Melissa cabin was pretty specific: find a home that she and Jim could age into. She found a generic one-page house plan and got to work. She asked Jim, family and neighbors for input. She tirelessly searched online for other similar homes that had incorporated tools and tricks for people with mobility issues and didn’t become overwhelmed by those often sterile-looking devices.
Finally, Polly settled on a rough blueprint and sought the advice of one of her brother Harry’s best friend, Dave Erwin of Dave Erwin Construction in Battle Lake.
Dave, a seasoned contractor of high end homes, was eager to tackle the project. “This was a challenge because we had to think in detail about how Jim would function in a given situation,” says Dave. “When he comes into a room, how and where would he enter it? Where will his body position go? We really needed to make everything handicapped functional without it looking handicapped.”
There were several architectural elements that Polly and Dave agreed upon before breaking ground. One requirement was wide passageways throughout the home, including the kitchen. Thirty-six inch wide doorways that could accommodate a wheelchair. They also settled on oversized windows that would bring in tons of natural light. Strategically placed and aesthetically pleasing grab bars and mobility devices, as well as eliminating thresholds. And two areas specifically for relaxation – a large garage for Jim (“I kept using the term ‘man cave’,” says Dave) and an upstairs yoga retreat for Polly.
Construction began in September, 2015 and was completed nine months later in June, 2016.
“It was one of the least stressful experiences of my life,” says Polly. “This is really my dream house. When it came down to it, when someone gave me a great idea and I liked it, I went with it because I trusted Dave and his teams. This is the only house I’ve built and the only one I’ll ever build.”
The Little Things
The 3,000 square foot home emulates the style, patterning and mixing of materials you might find in a coastal home on the East coast. “It’s like Hampton chic,” explains Dave. “There is very little sheetrock in the house.”
Instead, Dave and his team concentrated on quality wood, paneling and shiplap to give the home a warm, textural feel. Dark hardwood floors used in the majority of the home are given life with bright, white paneled walls and the occasional painted accent wall, like the one in Polly’s yoga retreat. The guest bedroom accomplishes the opposite, using a dark chocolate accent wall to offset its white wood walls and ceiling.
The spacious kitchen and living room share a large, open space and wide walkways capped with exposed beams and framed by rows of windows. One of the most striking visual aspects of Polly and Jim’s home is its clean lines and spartan use of accessories. You won’t find a throw rug in the kitchen or a dangling cord from any television – Jim’s cane could get stuck in them. There are no table lamps. Chairs, stools and benches tuck under tables or counters. The master bathroom shower has no lip and no door or curtain. The bedrooms don’t even have dressers.
The closets are smartly designed to store all clothing needs.
“I did not want a lot of clutter around,” says Polly. “After living in our old lake home with Jim we both knew what we wanted now and in the future for our new home.”
It’s a testament to the planning that Polly, Dave and his teams did that visitors rarely notice the grab bars and other mobility tools that are incorporated throughout the house. The colors all match the other fixtures in the room – bronze in the bathroom, white in the bedroom.
Polly and Jim still plan to spend the winter in San Diego, but you can bet when they return to their Lake Melissa retreat each summer, it will feel like a home they can definitely grow into together for a long time to come. ~L&H