Herman Louis Koegel, my grandfather, came to the United States from Germany as a young boy at the turn of the century and learned the trade of mechanical engineering. He worked his way through the profession and became a designer of stationary cranes for the heavy industries of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Some of my earliest memories were of him giving me a large, steel ball-bearing to play with, a casing of pin-bearings to study, or a model of a mobile crane to fascinate over. He loved to clarify ideas by sketching on whatever paper was at hand using a mechanical pen or stub of pencil.
My grandparents pride and joy was the cottage, a home and sculpted landscape built on spring-fed Waubee Lake in northern Wisconsin. Designed by my Grandfather and built largely by my father in stages over years, this world – which married built structure with nature – never ceased to stimulate my sense of curiosity, excitement and reverence.
We arrive by the curving descent from the road. The grade is flanked by hand-built dry stone walls and terraces, fashioned from boulders collected on jaunts into the outlying wilds. Upon parking we jump out to greet treasured outdoor rooms: the workshop / fish shed, the vegetable garden, the small grassy clearing, and our beloved tree-fortress perched in the boughs of the great Basswood. Turning the corner, the lake emerges framed by the circular sunken sunset patio – wreathed in it’s parapet of feldspar and quartzite – and the five steps rising to the entrance balcony sailing out over the lake. Swinging open the door, we shout greetings from the little entry bureau, cantilevered like a foredeck from the vast hearth that is the heart of place. Around it flows the kitchen, and continuing on to the lake façade, the great windowed living space with it’s encircling deck and it’s striking view of the lake beyond.
I remember elegant geometries: the angled, cantilevered extension flaring out, shifted off the grid, following the curve of the lake and housing my grandmother’s two great foot-treadle floor looms and, off to the left, the screened outdoor sitting-room overlooking the bay amid the trills of birds and insects; the shapes and vectors of piers contrasting with the serpentine pathways and curving embankments.
This world was structure that flowed into and through nature, focusing the woodland surroundings into crystalline images. I remember movement, environment and experience in a cohesive pattern: scampering down the stairs and onto the pier at night, it’s length stretching over the lake’s mirrored surface, leaping into cool waters under a wild starlit dome, turning to see angled planes glowing; then sitting, tingling, wrapped in towels at the roaring fire – the towering, rough-hewn rock hearth anchoring the center of the space.
In this place I learned to revel in the extremities of seasons; how design provided possibility and presence. Here was sanctuary – though not static or meant solely for appreciation – here was ongoing work of continuous crafting and building.
I loved following Grandpa to the workshop, watching him probe patiently through oily wooden boxes full of metallic objects rustling gently under his strong fingers. He was a magician – able to fashion and fix anything. Grandfather taught me it is possible to dream and to vision spaces that harmonize with the environment. He and my father showed me, in a fundamental way, that it is possible to fashion these imagined spaces with one’s own hands. He taught me to train my sensing and perception for lifelong reward and satisfaction. He lived the creed: there is ever more detail to discover; nature is a source of ever present inspiration; and that it is possible to shape man-made spaces to heighten a sense of living in wild, elemental conditions.