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Solon Springs couple transform greenhouse into wedding venue

The Johnsons and a hired "army of high-schoolers" deconstructed and rebuilt what is now the Atrium, a sought-after wedding spot, already fully booked for 2023

Couple in a room.
Al and Lyndsey Johnson talk with visitors at The Atrium, the wedding venue they created at a former nursery near Solon Springs, on Tuesday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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SOLON SPRINGS — Sometimes, what you’re looking for is right in front of you. That was the case for Al and Lyndsey Johnson.

Years into running a wedding photography business, the couple wanted to open their own venue. After scouring properties across the state and making an offer in Hayward, their dream spot ended up being close to home. It's a half-mile from the house they built, actually, and their dream location: a fully functional greenhouse, on the market for two years.

Wooden beams face an outdoor ceremony space enshrouded by green trees.
Wooden beams face an outdoor ceremony space shrouded by green trees on the Solon Springs Atrium.
Contributed / Samantha K Leven Photography
Sign on a wall.
A backlit sign hangs at The Atrium.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“We were constantly looking. It took coming here,” recalled Lyndsey Johnson. “Moss and green stuff was growing on the walls. …This will be huge, but we were hungry to do it.”

After a lot of work by the Johnsons and a hired “army of high schoolers,” they now operate The Atrium , a set of indoor and outdoor wedding sites, two suites, a courtyard and a large reception hall.

The sellers and others were skeptical at first, Al Johnson recalled, but a couple years in, they’ve hosted more than 120 ceremonies, and they’re fully booked for 2023.

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Ivy Black Wedding & Events in Saginaw is now booking reservations for October and beyond.

On Tuesday, fluffy snow gathered on the see-through rounded roof of the greenhouse. Clumps slid en masse, hitting the ground with a soft thud. The couple aimed to create an outdoors-inspired space, and they succeeded.


Woman standing in a room.
Lyndsey Johnson stands in the reception area at The Atrium on Tuesday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
A converted greenhouse.
Al Johnson used sections of logs to decorate a wall at one end of a converted greenhouse.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Massive wooden discs cut in different sizes lined the wall. Across the greenhouse, striking weathered wood vertically lined the front of the ceremony space.

Almost everything you see has a weird story, he said.

They deconstructed a slew of plant benches — leaving hundreds of 2-by-4s weathered by years of water and fertilizer, which they repurposed into the doors and accents.

Plants hang from metal rails on the ceiling above guests seated during a wedding ceremony. At the altar is a backdrop of vertical weathered wood boards in various shades of brown.
Plants hang from metal rails on the ceiling above guests seated during a wedding ceremony at The Atrium in Solon Springs.
Contributed / Rachel Elle Photography

One of the wedding party suites touts a collection of striking wood carvings and accent pieces — all returned or rejected items from a local warehouse. A wall of framed, full-body-length mirrors used to function as a neighbor’s closet doors.

They landed their feet-long chandelier from an estate sale, and a round rusted orange couch from Craigslist.

In The Atrium, large wooden spools serve as standing guest tables, complements of a powerline worker connection. Al Johnson built the rows of long tables from wood on their land.

Three people walking in the snow.
Al and Lyndsey Johnson walk with a visitor through archways at their wedding venue Tuesday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Leftover greenhouse material supports dreamy floating mirrors, wall-lining wisteria vines and a dramatic archway accenting a clearing in the trees leading to the outdoor ceremony space a short walk from the main buildings. This location is cupped by trees, which mask a trail and entrance of the wedding party.

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This site featured in numerous ceremonies and wedding photographs is a former farm dump spot that used to house tractor pieces, dozens of tires, and half of a truck.

Man in the woods.
Al Johnson talks Tuesday about moving lumber used as a mat beneath a crane into the woods to be used as benches at marriage ceremonies.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

To furnish the space, the couple “mistakenly won” a series of crane mats and outdoor seating for $5 at an auction. They later discovered they’re worth more than $1,000. “A bigger power was at play,” Al Johnson said.

Asked about their design choices, he said it stems from necessity and creative problem solving. “We’ve got a problem, we need to fix it. We don’t have anything, so let’s see what we got," he said.

Lyndsey Johnson.
Lyndsey Johnson.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Lyndsey Johnson grew up in Solon Springs and Al grew up in Esko. They met while attending the University of Wisconsin-Superior. After working as directors at Luther Dell Bible Camp, they launched their wedding photography business.

In their years traveling to Costa Rica, Jamaica, Maine and Idaho, they noticed ceremonies migrating out of the church — a location not necessarily built for the occasion, said Al Johnson.

Al Johnson.
Al Johnson.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

And the trend led to hotel ballrooms, conference centers or community spaces, and eventually, folks wanting more garden-like ambiance. “It’s timeless,” said Lyndsey Johnson.

In the early days, they felt like they were in over their heads, but they moved past feeling annoyed or disappointed, focused on what they could do and they were able to survive and make it through.

Now, they feel content in their planted roots and in their original venue.

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“Just like a wedding dress, we’re not for everybody,” Johnson said. “We'll repel some, and they'll be happy in a more classical environment. We learned that in photography: You're not for everyone and that's OK. You can't be.”

More info

 Solon Springs Atrium event space
The Atrium event space features living walls and tables, built from materials located on-site. The space is a former greenhouse, renovated by Al and Lyndsey Johnson.
Contributed / Samantha K Leven Photography
A converted greenhouse.
Chairs sit in a corner in a converted greenhouse at The Atrium.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
A converted greenhouse.
A section of greenhouse converted to a changing and waiting area at The Atrium.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
MORE BY MELINDA LAVINE
“Watch out for your fingers,” said Dan Krisak, part-timer at Litchke Farms. “We haven’t lost any yet, but every one of us gets a Band-Aid and keeps going.”

Melinda Lavine is an award-winning, multidisciplinary journalist with 16 years professional experience. She joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2014, and today, she writes about the heartbeat of our community: the people.

Melinda grew up in central North Dakota, a first-generation American and the daughter of a military dad.

She earned bachelors degrees in English and Communications from the University of North Dakota in 2006, and started her career at the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald that summer. She helped launch the Herald's features section, as the editor, before moving north to do the same at the DNT.

Contact her: 218-723-5346, mlavine@duluthnews.com.
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