The most famous painting in the world may very well be the Mona Lisa, but I appreciate the finger paintings on my fridge more. Van Gogh's "Starry Night"... yeah, it's okay, but I'll take the natural, glittery canvas over Banff, Alberta any day. I've walked the hallways of the Louvre in Paris, and stood beside Michelangelo's "David," but I didn't really "get" the raw appeal. Truthfully, I was far more enamored with the bronzed "Make Way for Ducklings" statues in Boston. And even then...

photos by Shawn Callahan

Left,Middle photos by Shawn Callahan. Right photo by Brian Oar

By: E. Nolan

When I think of timeless art I think of work with actual, practical relevance. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is impressive, mind-boggling even, but then so are many of the intricate sculptures at Legoland. (Clearly I have kids.) My preferred form of art is architecture. (And occasionally Instagram.) I'm inspired by the Pont du Gard in southern France and by the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City. I have the Great Wall of China on my "Bucket List" and, sticking with the bucket list theme, I'd encourage all of you to add a stop on your own respective lists--the Green Gate Guest Houses, right here in Minnesota. As unassuming as the name might be is as awesome and surreal as the property is. And the artist/architect responsible for the ever-expanding eco-friendly resort project: Shawn Callahan.

Just so you know, the name "Green Gate" didn't come from an actual green gate--though someday Shawn might actually have to add one. "Green Gate" stands for the towering tunnel of trees you pass through, the segue from traffic to tranquility, and for the sustainability feature in all of his architecture.

Shawn Callahan is a genius, though he'll never concede that fact, far more comfortable accepting credit for his effort and ethics than his intelligence. Still, the man who considers Elon Musk his "hero," "good health" his greatest possession, and "Tesla" the corporate sponsor he'd sign with, deserves heaps of praise for his collection of creativity in Up North country.

Shawn bought the Biwabik property in 2002 and has four guest houses built so far at this poplar paradise. I mean "built" in every sense of the word, far more than merely hammer to nails. He has conceptualized, planned, and handmade each magnificent home from scratch. How "scratch?" Using materials preserved and refurbished from earlier generations, Shawn has stripped, scrubbed, scraped, chiseled, and taken many other great pains to make sure each detailed house stands uniquely on its own diverse merits.

It took him two years to build his "tiny home"--the Log Cabin--three years for the Barn Home, nearly a full decade to perfect his Farmhouse (after several renovation stages), and the past two years he's been completing his fourth guest house--the Miner House. That's tens of thousands of labor hours over a 15-year period. As someone who had considerable pride in my Lincoln Log creations as a child, I can only imagine the waves of wonder Shawn must feel as this epic project progresses.

Do you have a favorite project, Shawn? (Yes, I get it's like asking if he has a favorite kid.)

"I have a strong connection to each home, but the newest project is always my favorite for awhile--the euphoria of bringing another vision to reality."

Can you give us a brief verbal tour of the houses?
"The Log Cabin is 'pioneer living in style'--a 'big things come in small packages' delight with a cozy, minimalistic footprint as a 'tiny home.' The Farm House is a large and timeless blending of comfortable furnishings with historic elements and vintage fixtures. It has a screened in porch and tons of detailed dynamics. The Barn House is a perennial favorite--a deconstructed 1935 hay barn meticulously rebuilt to be the inside/outside architectural marvel people come from all over to see. And then there's the Miner House with its century-old hand-hewn log construction, with mining-themed elements and a super-insulated exterior. Climate-controlled comfort 24/7... 365. All of my houses are a local tribute in one way or another, with the Miner House honoring the timber and mining history of the local Iron Range."

So what's next? I ask, but he really can't say. In this day and age of social media sharing, concept theft is at an all-time high. And while Shawn appreciates the vision of my own proposals--a Light House, Bridge House, and/or Mill House--he apologetically insists he'd prefer to keep his plans to himself until he starts his next building. Can you start it tomorrow then? Or at least before this article comes out? Shawn just laughs. (I wish!) He doesn't know how many guest houses will be on site when it's all said and done. He follows a course of "serendipity" more than of "direct planning" or even "profit seeking." He's building all of his buildings for LOVE and not MONEY, diligently with no rush. There's no timetable but rest assured you'll never find this man resting! (If this guy had kids, they'd have the greatest treehouse ever!)

What in the world ever prompted the "original thought" for
this resort?
"Believe it or not, I came up with it while hiking the Peruvian Andes in 2002. I was awestruck by the hand-crafted accommodations I discovered there and when I found this Slovenian homestead on return, well, one inspiration led to another. There was just an undeniable energy about this place."

Shawn was born and raised in Grand Rapids, Minnesota before moving to the Twin Cities for his Mechanical Engineering degree at the U of M. (He already knew what he wanted to be by 8th grade!)  He claims he received the best traits from both of his parents--his mom's entrepreneurial spirit and creative thinking, and his dad's logical, analytical, and objective side. Given the chance to go back and do anything over he would ditch his ego at a much younger age, ignore conformity, pursue a 'craft' instead of a college degree, trust intuition, and be less afraid of failure.

So, what was so special about Biwabik, Minnesota that made you think this would work here? That made you WANT to build it here?
"I am an outdoor enthusiast, a hiker, biker, skier, and all-around nature lover. As much as I can be I'm a steward to the Earth, to this area in particular, and I grew up here. If I'm being honest, I had to travel the world to realize just how special we have it right here. Biwabik is such a charming little town, and for golfers, we've got two of the best courses in America right next door at Giants Ridge. (They're adding some fabulous mountain biking trails there this year!) Topping all of that, we're less than an hour from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, from Lake Superior and Duluth. This is paradise in so many different ways. I chose to build and live here because I've seen everything else, and still love this place the best."

If time and money weren't issues and you had unlimited resources at your disposal how would you proceed with Green Gate
Guest Houses?

"I'd design and build a new house each year. I'd hire as many people as I could to return the property to a working farm with additional animals, garden plots, and expanded fruit/berry orchards. (Self-produce his own produce, in other words.) I'd build on our sustainability initiatives by generating more solar and hydroelectric power onsite." (He shared a number of other ideas "off the record.") In other words you'd keep doing what you're doing? Shawn just nods.

Shawn, what would you say to someone else considering a project like this? Would you tell them to just give up?
(He laughs.) "No. Definitely not!! So many people are in awe of this place, but many of those people are underestimating their own capabilities. This has always troubled me to various extents... people need to believe they can do more, help more, be more. Honestly, I didn't even know how to do a lot of this when I started. It took an awful lot of trying and an awful lot of errors. I have a quote I'd love to share if you don't mind." (Don't mind at all!)