Big Sky Country was working its magic on Houston architects William Curtis and Russell Windham. Their client had bought a Montana ranch, and the ranch manager was giving them a tour of the spread. "It's the most heroic landscape in the world. We were seduced by it," says Curtis. "We were standing on a mountaintop at one point, talking excitedly about how great it would be to put a house there, when the ranch manager, one of these sullen ex-rodeo-riding cowboys, said, 'See where all those houses and barns are down there? That's where your house is going to go.'"
You can't get to the mountaintop in the winter, the Montanan explained. It's cold, and the wind blows a hundred miles an hour. The buildings need to be close together. If it's 26 below zero, you're not going to run from one to another. "He put us in our place," Curtis admits. "But that gave us respect for how difficult it is to live in that environment."
It also reminded them of a guiding principle. Whenever the pair approaches any design project, they ask a central question: Is it appropriate? That goes for style, scale, color, furnishings, landscaping, and more. Once they began to understand what was appropriate for a Montana ranch, given the weather and social history of the region, a vision began to form about how to achieve their client's goals.
Their client wanted a vacation home and fishing retreat, but he also wanted to maintain the working ranch. But what do you do when you're faced with an existing collection of almost two dozen structures, from a modest 1940s log house to barns and tumbledown sheds of all shapes, sizes, and functions? The architects knew that if they tore everything down and added a big house and a garage, they would no longer have a ranch, just a house with a garage.
"Russell and I are not troubled when a modest solution emerges," Curtis says. "We don't have to do that clichéd response. If we're going to do a log cabin, it doesn't have to be 35,000 square feet." The context was already so strong that "to be more demonstrative would have been out of place."
And then there was the experience itself. "If you live in a 20,000-square-foot house in River Oaks in Houston, why do you want to go to Colorado or Montana and sit in another 20,000-square-foot house that has exactly the same amenities, only rendered in log?" Luckily for them, the client also wanted the changes to be appropriate.
The plan? They would rehabilitate the modest main house and "edit" the outbuildings down to half a dozen, maintaining the ranch's function and feel. "Like so many things that happen over time and that are not architecturally inclined, the outbuildings were junky and confused," says Curtis.
So the pair removed buildings and moved roads to reinforce the idea of a ranch that might have been in its infancy, with buildings yet to come. It was as if they went back in time to improve on history.
Then they renovated the horse barn and transformed it into a saloon and game room, with hewn-timber rafters and king-post trusses in the ceiling and rough sawn wall paneling to resemble a traditional barn finish. They converted the blacksmith shop to a service building housing electrical power boxes and generators. Near the river that flows through the compound, another structure became a fishing shack fitted out with cabinets and hooks for hanging waders.
The pair had their work cut out for them with the main house, known as River House. A small, one-and-a-half-story WPA-era structure built of unexceptional lodgepole logs, it had low ceilings and no fine detailing. Curtis and Windham spruced up the peeled-log exterior, replacing the lime-and-sand chinking. They ripped off a lean-to shed in the rear and added a bright new breakfast porch, with windows facing the river. Just inside the front door, they added a beefy timber-and-plank staircase that gives the room a rich character. They updated the fireplaces by stacking rustic blocks of Colorado moss rock, which fit together tightly without an exposed mortar joint.
"Log homes can be dark, plodding, heavy, and out of proportion," says Windham. "We wanted the living room to be an inviting, comfortable space." For a balance of fresh and cozy, the architects had the interior logs stained a golden amber and installed salvaged oak flooring in random widths. They added a bright red rug and painted the ceiling off-white. In other rooms, such as the dining room, walls are not log but rather 8-inch-wide horizontal planks painted celery to contrast with the dark beadboard ceiling. The plank molding around the doors is as simple as it gets—and appropriate for a house of this style.
Curtis and Windham also designed the interiors, making inspired choices such as schoolhouse light fixtures and even bare-bulb Edison fixtures with pull cords to give the place a consistent 1940s vintage feel while also meeting today's building codes. The furniture is a collection of old and new pieces—some of which they designed—including antler-stand tables, painted tables and dressers, leather chairs, and iron beds, all chosen for their western charm.
The level of appropriateness extends even to the visitor. "If you're standing in the house in a blue blazer, you're out of place," Curtis says. "But if you have a nice western shirt on and boots and belt, you're part of the experience."
"That sense of what's appropriate goes back to the beginning, when we stood on that mountain," he says. "We looked down and [with a little help] realized 'that's where our project is, because that's where it has always been.' If you're open enough to observe, sometimes projects will tell you what they want to be."
Logan Ward is a freelance writer living in Virginia.
All images are from Creating a New Old House by Russell Versaci (Taunton Press, 2003).