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Love of Africa inspired custom home

Cass and Andy Stillman decided to build a house where they could surround themselves with things that reminded them of their favorite destination: Africa.

But first they needed just the right site. They’d been looking for two years when Cass, out for a bike ride, came across a former dairy farm on a wooded, secluded site in Woodland, Minn. a small city tucked between Deephaven and Minnetonka.

The Stillmans decided it wasn’t practical to save the house, although they did save the former barn and some exterior stonework.

To design their new house, they turned to architect Jim McNeal of Plymouth, Minn.-based Charles Cudd DeNovo, whom Andy had met on a Parade of Homes tour.

“There was this guy there with a sketchbook,” Andy recalled. “I could see his passion for wood and stone. We hit it off. I knew this was the guy.”

Inside, the centerpiece of the home is a round living room, or rondavel, from the Afrikaans word “rondawel,” which refers to a Westernized version of an African hut. The room has a distinctive curved dry-stacked stone fireplace and a ceiling with classical groin vaults, but in a machete shape.

“Instead of traditional details, we came up with our own,” McNeal said.

The 6,400-square-foot home includes a gallery, where the Stillmans can display their African art, as well as art-friendly niches and alcoves.

When it was time for finishes and fabrics, McNeal called in interior designer Abby Wettleson of Charles Cudd DeNovo. Wettleson met first with Cass to understand why the African theme was so close to her heart. “She had lived there and always loved it. It was important to both of them,” Wettleson said.

During the project, interior designer Abby Wettleson, of Charles Cudd DeNovo, learned the difference between African and Indian elephants, where to find crocodile-shaped hardware and how to use limestone tile to mimic the look of ivory.

“There was so much permanent detail in the house, like carving, that the other things didn’t need to be so obviously African,” Wettleson said.

Andy, who christened the house “Mwamba Boma,” which is Swahili for “big stone homestead,” loves every inch of it. “This is everything I wanted, room by room,” he said.

The couple, who entertain frequently, have hosted many gatherings in their new home, including several fundraisers for African-related causes. Andy’s favorite compliment came from a guest: “Someone said, ’It’s big, but it doesn’t feel too big. It’s very warm.’ That was music to my ears.”

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