Weather Forecast


WATCH: You don't need to be a hobbit to live in this River Falls earth-house

1 / 8
Wooden stairs lead up to the front door, nearly hidden from view behind the large tree trunk and twisting branches. Rachel Helgeson / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 8
A look inside the home reveals spacious rooms, including this seating area just outside a bedroom. A wood-burning fireplace is pictured bottom left. Rachel Helgeson / RiverTown Multimedia3 / 8
Magazines such as the "Smithsonian" and others had covered the peculiar house when it was first built in the 1970s. Here are a few publications laying out on display inside the house for viewing. Rachel Helgeson / RiverTown Multimedia4 / 8
Edina Realty Realtor Dale Antiel beneath a sky light window in a bedroom flipping through a few magazines highlighting the house he has been showing. Rachel Helgeson / RiverTown Multimedia5 / 8
Realtor Dale Antiel said the garage, flat-roofed and serving as a porch fit with wooden benches, is strong enough to build another structure on top. Rachel Helgeson / RiverTown Multimedia6 / 8
The wood-burning fireplaces are installed near living spaces in a design similar to that of a tree trunk. Behind the bookcase on the right is the opening to a bedroom and to the left is the entrance to a hallway. Rachel Helgeson / RiverTown Multimedia7 / 8
The overall design of the house is marked by the ribbed walls and curved ceiling insulated with hard foam, along with concrete floors and sky windows installed in the ceiling throughout the floor plan. Rachel Helgeson / RiverTown Multimedia8 / 8

News stations across the state, magazines like the Smithsonian, lifestyle websites and niche design companies have flocked to the fairytale-like image of a peculiar 1970s earthbound house that has recently gone up for sale.

"People are always thinking of a mythical creature that might live here," Edina Realty realtor Dale Antiel said during a recent tour of the place.

It shares an inclined driveway with another residential property and hides at the top of a tree-covered hillside.

Winding inset wooden stairs lure visitors up to the front door, tucked beneath a curved steel frame, built just inches from a large tree. Its entrance can be likened to an eye of the earth, half-open to nature.

Edina Realty Realtor Dale Antiel. Rachel Helgeson / RiverTown MultimediaWhere does this house lie? Is it located somewhere exotic? A past movie set similar to The Lord of the Rings? A secretive middle-of-nowhere countryside?

"Google 'hobbit house Wisconsin' and see what comes up," Antiel softly chuckled.

Surprisingly enough, this enigmatic little building sits near the south edge of River Falls.

Its two female builders, Patricia Clark and Emogene Nelson, were professors at the university which lies just two miles from the earth-sheltered house.

Up to Nelson's passing from cancer in 1984, Clark and Nelson lived in the house. Clark moved to the west coast after some years.

Clark said during a phone call Tuesday the house was built at a time when there was an oil shortage.

"It was one of the greatest experiences of my life to be part of a movement that was really trying to do something with housing and the oil embargo," she said.

Clark added that the house was a common gathering place for UW-River Falls faculty to be entertained or to have faculty senate meetings. Nearby neighbors also found safety in the house when the weather was dangerous.

In a recent phone interview, the house's Stillwater, Minn. architect Michael McGuire said it was a pleasure working with the builders who were interested in building a place with a rich relationship to its environment.

"I appreciated dealing with the two wonderful people," he said.

He added he is happy to have had Jacque Foust, a retired UW-River Falls professor, own the home for many decades not long after its creation.

"This building responds to the environment," McGuire said. "A lot of people think it's underground. Once you go in the house it isn't dark and gloomy and it's a very unusual space but it has big openings. You have a sense of the inside and outside, not buried underground."

The outer shell appears very cramped and hunkered into the hill, but inside there is an entire 2,236 square feet of living space blanketed and insulated with hardened spray-foam with an aggregate concrete floor.

"The heating bill (at the time) was almost nothing," Clark said.

To establish the relationship between the inside and the outside, there are windows in the ceiling which Antiel refers to as "sky bubbles" or "sky domes." They are convex pieces of plastic which protrude from the ceiling.

Windows at the end of the house stretch across the entire wall, allowing natural light to flood the space.

The house offers two bedrooms, a full bath and a three-quarter bath, a spacious kitchen, a laundry room and three wood-burning fireplaces. Living spaces also have long benches already built in.

The garage was built with a sturdy roof capable of serving as a foundation for another building, Antiel said.

"It's very practical," Antiel said. "But it does need some work."

Since its early 1970s construction, the house has seen two new furnaces and air conditioners.

The house has been on the market for 88 days according to the Edina Realty website.

There are a few serious lookers from all over, even as far as California, Antiel said. Some of those interested have had ideas of turning the place into a unique Air BnB or using it as an art studio.

This hidden gem in River Falls is no longer truly hidden with all the attention it has attracted, but maybe another friend of the university or the town will adopt the earth-house.

Rachel Helgeson

Rachel Helgeson

(651) 301-7864