Susan Brown sat on the living room couch, her go-to for TV-watching or gazing at the backyard, complete with a view of Barr Lake.

“This is my spot,” she said. “Every season is something different.”

Susan and Mark Brown are saying goodbye to their lakeside home to move into a Duluth mansion with their daughters.

That’s three households, six adults, five children, three dogs, three cats, a bearded dragon and an iguana. And a partridge in a pear tree.

“I think this was our COVID response,” Susan said, “and I call it a leap of faith that we can live together and thrive.”

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Susan Brown sits on the couch and looks out the window to Barr Lake on April 22, 2021. This is her favorite spot, perfect for watching TV or peering out at the wildlife: fox, weasels, a bear. “Usually, she’s lying down,” said her husband, Mark Brown, with a laugh. After crunching the numbers, Mark found that though their property tax will skyrocket, their move into a Duluth mansion with nine of their family members this month will actually save them all a little bit of money. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Susan Brown sits on the couch and looks out the window to Barr Lake on April 22, 2021. This is her favorite spot, perfect for watching TV or peering out at the wildlife: fox, weasels, a bear. “Usually, she’s lying down,” said her husband, Mark Brown, with a laugh. After crunching the numbers, Mark found that though their property tax will skyrocket, their move into a Duluth mansion with nine of their family members this month will actually save them all a little bit of money. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

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The impetus was a spur-of-the-moment idea from their daughter, Elisabeth Helstrom, who spotted and sold her family on their soon-to-be-mansion in Congdon that boasts eight bedrooms, six-and-a-half bathrooms and six garage stalls on a 1.9-acre lot.

Mark said after viewing the house several times, he’d already figured out everyone’s bedroom assignments before touring it. Everything is perfect, he said, from the suites to the butler’s pantry to the grand dining space and the furnace room.

And it’s a move that fits in more ways than one.

“We moved here in 1991, and we lived all over the country,” Susan said. “Our kids were never around family. When they grew up, that's what they said, they did not want to live and raise their families the way we did. They wanted to be closer.”

Certainly, it’s the way families lived before everybody became more transient, she added.

Mark and Susan Brown talk about work they’ve done over the years in their kitchen Thursday morning, April 22, in their home on Birch Lane. The couple is selling their house and will move into a home with their daughter, her husband, their three kids, their other daughter and her children. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Mark and Susan Brown talk about work they’ve done over the years in their kitchen Thursday morning, April 22, in their home on Birch Lane. The couple is selling their house and will move into a home with their daughter, her husband, their three kids, their other daughter and her children. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

FAMILY BIZ

To figure out finances, Mark created graphs, breaking down and comparing how much each household pays for utilities, mortgage, general expenses, etc. After crunching the numbers, he found that though their property tax will skyrocket, the move will actually save them all a little bit of money.

Early on, their Realtor suggested the family create an LLC, so everyone has guidelines and is protected moving forward.

The families are determining guidelines if someone wants to move out, or if there’s a divorce, a marriage or a death.

There was tension during their first business meeting as they navigated finances, food preferences and the realization of relinquishing sole ownership.

“We lived with my mom in town while we built our house for a year, and it’s that whole sense of identity where I don't want to be Marcia’s daughter; I want to be me, Susan Brown, and I think that’s what happens,” she recalled.

Susan Brown talks with her husband Mark about things she’s looking forward to in her new house Thursday morning, April 22, at the couple’s current home on Birch Lane. The couple is selling their house and will move into a home with their daughter, her husband, their three kids, their other daughter and her children. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Susan Brown talks with her husband Mark about things she’s looking forward to in her new house Thursday morning, April 22, at the couple’s current home on Birch Lane. The couple is selling their house and will move into a home with their daughter, her husband, their three kids, their other daughter and her children. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

Mostly, it’s a shift of perspective, and they’re adamant to identify as co-owners.

“I have to feel like I’m living in Buffy (Elisabeth) and Paul’s house, and I’m living in Jacque’s house because that’s the respect part,” Mark said.

After initial concerns, all feel secure moving forward. Their values and beliefs are all compatible.

With one naysayer.

Mark said his son doesn’t want anything to do with the social experiment.

“He knows we’re all stubborn, but he really thinks the kitchen is going to be an issue,” Mark said.

Mark suspects the biggest concern will be trivial things like what type of bacon or milk they buy, or someone eating someone else’s food.

“I will never care if the kids eat the food that we purchase,” Susan said.

“Except the cherry popsicles,” Mark said.

Mark Brown walks through the living room of his house on Birch Lane Thursday morning, April 22. Brown and his wife Susan are planning to move into a home with their daughter, her husband, their three kids, their other daughter and her children. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Mark Brown walks through the living room of his house on Birch Lane Thursday morning, April 22. Brown and his wife Susan are planning to move into a home with their daughter, her husband, their three kids, their other daughter and her children. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

‘THE LONELIEST YEAR’

The Browns went from a very busy social life — playing trumpet in community bands, attending church regularly and spending quality time with family — to just the two of them during the pandemic.

“It’s been the loneliest year of my life, our lives,” Susan said.

The retired nurse helps care for her elderly mother who lives in town, so she and her family were extra diligent with the distancing.

They managed with socially distanced outdoor gatherings with benches, fire rings and straw bales. The mild winter helped, and they had a July 4 event outdoors under a tent.

They did a micro version of their Christmas dinner in her mom’s garage.

They also insulated and replaced the windows on their porch, and were able to host distanced meals with their kids and grandkids.

But it was hard. The Browns were used to meeting with their family regularly, and they missed their camping trips and overnights with their eight grandchildren.

They acknowledged this loss of time with them.

Mark Brown walks into his log cabin workshop Thursday morning, April 22, at their home on Birch Lane. The couple is selling their house and will move into a home with their daughter, her husband, their three kids, their other daughter and her children. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Mark Brown walks into his log cabin workshop Thursday morning, April 22, at their home on Birch Lane. The couple is selling their house and will move into a home with their daughter, her husband, their three kids, their other daughter and her children. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

“They’ve grown up in the past year, and you don’t realize just how much when you don’t see them,” Susan said.

Mark often traveled for work, so he missed a lot of milestones in their children’s lives.

“Sue raised them; she was in control of everything, so I like the idea of seeing these kids change and grow up.

“I’m not afraid of this at all,” he said.

All adults are vaccinated, but there is some concern with the kids going to school. The couple said they are somewhat protected with the vaccine but don't take it for granted that it's guaranteed. Susan said they'll have to accept the risk. Plus, the house is big enough to offer some separation if need be.

While the couple had planned to move to town in about 10 years, they said they’re thankful it’s happening sooner than later.

You don't think you’ve aged until you try to put the pedal to the metal, Susan said. And, moving closer will make it easier to help support and care for her mother, who will soon live 1 mile away.

As for the new home, Susan can’t wait to construct the family’s craft room for glass fusion projects, beading, watercolor and more.

Mark is excited for “the commotion,” teaching his grandsons about yard work and “just being together.”

And, there’s little to do. They’ll build another room for Jacque’s son in the basement, and craft a family room in a nearby shared space. Also on deck are roof repairs and elevator maintenance, all a far cry from the work they put into their lake home 30 minutes outside Duluth.

THE LAKE HOUSE

As do-it-yourselfers, the Browns tackled the electrical, drywalling, insulation and more in their lake home before moving in the early 1990s.

Walking through their home of 30 years, they recalled buying pine paneling for the ceiling on “the muckiest day”; their latest update to a four-season sunroom; and something about a cement project gone wrong.

Mark Brown talks about the lighting in his log cabin workshop Thursday morning, April 22, at their home on Birch Lane. The couple is selling their house and will move into a home with their daughter, her husband, their three kids, their other daughter and her children. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Mark Brown talks about the lighting in his log cabin workshop Thursday morning, April 22, at their home on Birch Lane. The couple is selling their house and will move into a home with their daughter, her husband, their three kids, their other daughter and her children. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

What remained was a four-bedroom, three-bathroom home on 2 acres, with a log-cabin workshop, a flood of natural light and front-row access to the water.

Rustic with a little bit of bling, she said.

“People say, ‘You’re moving into a mansion,’ and I always felt like I lived in a mansion,” she said.

The Browns listed their home on a Monday, and it sold after two days, 18 showings and eight offers.

She hopes the next homeowners will appreciate the space as much as they did.

“There’s so much of us as a family invested in this. I don’t mean money; I mean time and care and love. I want somebody else to feel that way about it,” she said.

Mark Brown chuckles with his wife Susan as they reminisce about living in their house on Birch Lane Thursday morning, April 22. The Browns are planning to move into a home with their daughter, her husband, their three kids, their other daughter and her children. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Mark Brown chuckles with his wife Susan as they reminisce about living in their house on Birch Lane Thursday morning, April 22. The Browns are planning to move into a home with their daughter, her husband, their three kids, their other daughter and her children. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

Susan will miss the sound of the grandkids running the length of the dock before jumping in, and their visits to swim, fish or boat, But, they’ll have to find different places to do it, she said.

Or, different things to do, added Mark.

As you get older, it’s a lot of work to take care of docks and boats and the yard. It’s time for somebody else to do that, Susan said.

Asked about tips for families who may want to follow suit, Susan said to ask them in a year: “We do all have differences, but it’s a very close family in the sense that we have a lot of respect and love for each other.”

Up next: The sister + her two kids