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Fireplace Fantasy

An epic tale of one woman's search for the perfect touch
By Jana Voelke Studelska
Published: December 1, 2004
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Phyllis Berg-Pigorsch and her Norwegian-American fireplace.
Photo by Aaron Peterson, www.aaronpeterson.net
At the center of Phyllis Berg-Pigorsch’s cabin is a fireplace with a story. Like an aunt’s old wind-up clock or a grandfather’s favorite fly fishing rod hanging over the mantel, her fireplace is an item of affection and legend. All the right pieces of a great tale are contained: two continents, a crew of strong men, an almost mystical convergence of time and place, and a lot of good humor.
   
And what better place to hear and tell stories than in front of the fireplace itself?
    
Long before she bought the rugged, sheer rock point that would eventually be the site of her cabin, Phyllis Berg-Pigorsch sensed she had found her place on the planet. Berg-Pigorsch often traveled to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula from her Madison, Wis., home on vacations and for soul-soothing. Of all the places she’d traveled, the steep cliffs and isolated sandy beaches facing north into Lake Superior’s wild and tumultuous weather always affected her the hardest.
   
Traveling in Norway, she experienced another connection: The landscape, the shoreline, the forests all looked so much like the terrain around Lake Superior. It was as if she hadn’t left, in many ways. Actually, this wasn’t too surprising, since tens of thousands of Scandinavian immigrants who settled in the northern reaches of the Upper Midwest had found the same comforting similarities a century ago.
   
“It all just looked so familiar,” said Berg-Pigorsch, who works as a filmmaker. “I think we have something in us that makes us remember. For me, it was the feel of the rocks, and the sound of the water. This was the place where my grandmother had come from. It was like a genetic memory. I just knew the place in my heart.”
   
When the opportunity came along several years later to buy the large ledge jutting into Lake Superior near Mar­quette, Mich., all the tugs on Berg-Pigorsch came together. She had visited this very property a number of times as a guest, had known its owners and walked its trails. It was, she realized, where she belonged.
   
The old cabin, rotted and long ignored, had to be razed. Berg-Pigorsch began building what she calls a camp, constructed almost entirely from locally harvested and reclaimed wood. The cabin was carefully sited on the land, accessible only on foot from the parking area a few hundred yards through the woods. The fireplace, standing in the great room, perched on the edge of the cliff, was to become the cabin’s counterpoint to Lake Superior’s cold and stormy company.
   
This is the part where the crew of strong men enters the story.
   
Handyman Dennis McGuire and his team of workers spent one epic day, pushing, pulling and bullying a 715-pound WarmHearth fireplace insert up Berg-Pigorsch’s rocky footpath into the unfinished cabin.
    
“Kind of like wrestling a bank vault up a goat trail,” McGuire said.
   
“It was a little fiasco,” he went on. His description of the insert’s ascension into the cabin includes tales of an appliance dolly, boards used as leverage-like crowbars, too few ropes and sheer muscle power.  
   
Once placed in the great room, from where it would heat most of the cabin, the insert needed a shroud. Berg-Pigorsch knew what she wanted, and it wasn’t a standard brick or stone facade. She’d become smitten with a certain kind of craftsman-built fireplace native to the Norwegian countryside, and she set to work trying to find pictures, drawings, making little clay models – anything to show her contractor what it should look like.
  
“They’re these wonderful sculptural, elliptical fireplaces. Sort of circular and stucco-like,” she said. “But despite the carpenters’ best efforts, it just didn’t come out right. They’d just never seen such a fireplace.”
   
Then the contractor called to tell her about a stone mason named
Gary Swanson who was interested in the project.
   
 “I sent him a drawing immediately, and he went to work all alone up there through the winter,” said Berg-Pigorsch. “He used the fireplace insert to stay warm.”
   
The resulting pale buckskin-colored stucco and grayish stone give the fireplace a craftsman feeling that defines the entire room. Berg-Pigorsch loves it.
   
“In the end, I had to compromise most of the curved design,” she said. “The carpenters had to build the shroud with plywood, and Gary worked from that. As such, it’s really no longer Norwegian, but Norwegian-American, with a twist of Finn carpentry.”
   
That makes sense, considering the history that went into the fireplace. A bit Old World and new, a bridge between now and then. Berg-Pigorsch and her fireplace had found their way home.

Jana Voelke Studelska believes every place has a story. She’s just learning the tales her house has to tell.

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