MOORHEAD - Everything in Robin Allebach's life has been big.
She has a big, bubbly personality. She has a big voice - big enough to make a living as a professional opera singer for most of her career. Even when she opted to downsize, she chose to do so in the biggest way possible.
In August, Allebach moved into a tiny sugar-cube of a house in north Moorhead. At 324 square feet, this diminutive domicile could be one of the smallest in Fargo-Moorhead.
In case you can't quite visualize this home's Tom Thumb-sized footprint, consider that it would take seven of Allebach's house to equal the square footage of the average, 2,700-square-foot home in America. It is only slightly larger than the square footage of the largest travel trailer. And Allebach says she couldn't be happier.
"I needed a safe place to live, where I could be surrounded by beauty, art and music, a place to sleep and a bathroom," says Allebach, sipping strong coffee from dainty china in her pint-sized living room. "Everything else is negotiable. This is my own little heaven on earth."
From professional singer to professor
Yet Allebach still can't quite believe this tiny house at 217 16th St. N. is where she chose to hang her sequined hat.
The Minnesota native spent years singing in Chicago-area opera productions. "I just had the disease," says Allebach, whose bell-like voice hints at her musical training. "I needed to sing."
A dramatic coloratura soprano, she performed with leading conductors, opera companies and performers around the world.
At the same time, Allebach knew her performance career had a limited shelf life. "In opera, you're washed up by the time you're 50," she says, without a trace of bitterness.
After a divorce, she wound up in Fargo, where she taught voice at Minnesota State University Moorhead and Valley City (N.D.) State University. She also started the Fargo-Moorhead Festival of Singing, a monthlong festival of performances featuring local, regional, university and professional talent.
"I wanted to create something new and continue my passion of singing," Allebach says. "We have to find a way to bring beauty into the world and be creative, or else we become angry."
Allebach was living in a tiny but charming studio apartment in Fargo when she saw a classified listing for the Moorhead cottage. She was intrigued. In Chicago, Allebach shared a huge condo with her then-husband, but some of her friends lived in efficiencies no bigger than walk-in closets. She'd always been impressed by how they managed to maximize minimal space.
"I'm fascinated by architecture and unusual kinds of things," she says.
The bungalow was a rental, but the owner said he was interested in finding someone who would rent to own. Ironically, the 1948-built houselet was located on what Allebach jokes is a "football field-sized" lot. (According to the City of Moorhead's property search, the value of the 6,000-square-foot lot- $17,200 - is almost as much as the $18,100 value of the house). The Hobbit-sized house didn't have a basement or a garage, although there was a small storage shed in the backyard.
Allebach loved it. "You're not supposed to have any emotional connection when you're buying property, but I felt like it was supposed to be," she says. "It just all worked out. I basically paid what some would pay for a nice pickup truck."
When showing guests her house, Allebach quips: "Would you like the grand tour? OK, it's done."
Indeed, everything she loves and needs is right there, under one small roof.
Allebach has decorated the house in a sumptuous, lived-in style, with overstuffed antique furniture, plenty of satin and velvet fabrics and Persian-style rugs. She calls it "shabby chic - nothing's perfect, everything's a little beat up."
Many of her paintings were antique shop or thrift-store finds. The common theme is women playing piano, including a very large canvas of a little, ponytailed girl in fancy frock, performing on a grand piano.
Allebach says some friends have asked if the painting was of her as a child. Not likely, she says, as she was the 10th of 11 children in a Mennonite family.
"Even when I was little, I wanted velvet and sparkles," she says, smiling. "At least my dolls could wear it, even if I couldn't. This (painting) was me dreaming as a little girl."
The powder room is pocket-sized. Although the kitchen is tiny, Allebach says it's actually slightly larger than the one in her previous studio apartment.
Despite considerable space constraints, the creative Allebach has found a way to divide the main living area into different, functional areas. A gleaming, black Yamaha piano delineates a music area/dressing room. An antique table indicates her dining area and a Turkish sofa doubles as a sitting room/sleeping area.
An adjacent, extra-deep closet serves as a combination storage area/laundry room.
Allebach says she keeps an eye out for furniture pieces that are tall and narrow, so they provide lots of vertical cargo space without hogging precious square footage.
She points out that the previous owners wisely raised the ceilings to expose wood beams, which provides an overhead loft for storage and makes the cute cottage seem slightly larger.
'This is a palace'
But her favorite addition may be Matty, the tiny dog she adopted from 4 Luv of Dog Rescue.
The 7-pound poodle-terrier mix was found in the freezing cold with patches of hair missing. When Allebach decided to get a pet, she knew she couldn't get a large one.
Now Matty rules the roost from a dog bed beneath the oak dining table.
The affectionate toy dog is the perfect companion in Allebach's toy house. "He's the most loving thing in the world," she says. "He's the perfect-sized pet for my tiny house."
Allebach has found her small space to be extremely green and affordable. Her monthly bill for electricity, heat, water and utilities is about $100 total.
And she's found her mini-environment has helped her prioritize what she really needs and what she doesn't.
"It's a continual process: Do I need this?" she says. "It's continuing to let go of things. It's cleansing though."
And, in the process of getting rid of physical things, she's let go of emotional baggage as well.
"Why do we always think bigger is better? I'm at a time in my life where I'm just not into stuff. I'd rather put my energy into my friends, my interests, traveling," she says. "I just want to enjoy the moment. This is a palace."