Western Design: Historic Haven

Down a tranquil, tree-lined road there is an iconic mountain camp on Swan Lake that hearkens to a bygone era when times were simpler: It’s the Kootenai Lodge.

If the walls of the historic lodge could talk, they would tell of raucous times during the entrepreneurial heyday of Montana. They would chuckle, recounting the stories of artist C.M. Russell’s tall tales of fishing and big game hunting amid industrialist cronies who “lit up” America with Montana’s abundant copper mines. The trophies of Butte’s Copper Kings still hang in the glorious Montana lodge built in 1900s. Within its walls the memories of some of America’s most powerful people reside.

Originally an 1880s homestead in the Flathead Valley, the property was eventually purchased in 1916 by Lewis Orvis Evans, one of America’s wealthiest men thanks to his ventures with the Anaconda Copper Company. He and partner Cornelius Kelley built a spectacular family idyll at the confluence of Swan Lake, Swan River and Johnson Creek from early homestead cabins. Here these industrial giants welcomed colorful characters including artists, diplomats, politicians and celebrities to enjoy the beauty of lakeside living in Flathead Valley.

Honoring the roots of that luxurious retreat, Paul and Robert Milhous of the Milhous Group embarked on a meticulous restoration of the Kootenai Lodge and 42-acre waterfront property in 2006 to bring those good times back to life. The classic rustic camp includes the lodge and 10 historic cabins, built in 1919 the Kootenai Lodge has been revived with a restoration that applauds its original glory. Painstakingly refurbished by Tim Fox Construction, the historic Kootenai Lodge displays a collection of antique wildlife mounts on the hand-peeled log walls. San Francisco interiors firm, Warren Sheets Design, was brought in to decorate the lodge, embodying its former elegance, with early 20th century flair. Along with the iconic main lodge, three historic cabins were also reclaimed with remarkable attention to detail, worthy of original architect Kirtland Cutter’s design.

That luxurious Old World lodge feeling extends to the nearby Evans Cabin, which bears the same hand of opulence, yet with a nod to contemporary living. Named for Copper King Lewis Orvis Evans, the once simple layout of the cabin was deconstructed and then restored with perfect authenticity. With a new foundation and a few of the round larch logs replaced, the two-story building was structurally sound. Numerous modernizations were made, including plumbing, an electrical system, radiant floor heating, a contemporary kitchen for entertaining and a sunken wet bar in the great room.

In charge of interiors for all the homes — including the main lodge, historic cabins and new custom homes — Warren Sheets Design emboldened the original details of the Evans Cabin and then added appropriate elements to enhance ambiance. The firm set out to craft a rustic elegance that alludes to the property’s history. The details throughout are lush, including the upholstery — sophisticated patterns and snappy stripes offset the dark earthy tones of logs and timber. Splashy colors in the kitchen and living area bring out a European elegance gone Frontier West. The result is layers of uncommon refinement in a relaxed setting — the same spirit that embodied this lakeside camp at its height.

The 5,300-square-foot cabin was recently purchased for $5.9 million. The price reflects the remarkable level of detail added to the cabin, from original custom-cut molding, state of the art home systems and the most elegant of contemporary amenities. But more than anything, the purchase offers entré into one of the most uncommon living experiences in Montana.

The exterior shell and interior log walls defined the period style of the home, but Warren Sheets Design brought the most opulent elements of 20th century panache to create an atmosphere fit for the American business moguls who once retreated to this country getaway a century ago.

Inside, the cabin was refurbished for entertaining. In the great room a sunken bar overlooks the Swan River. Custom-made rugs adorn the original hardwood floors and a collection of classic Western art completes the story of the region. Crisply painted true-divided light windows add contemporary contrast to the original log walls. The low-slung, wrap-around porch both shelters from the outdoor elements and beckons guests to come outside.

General manager Tim Fox oversees a team of expert craftsman who have contributed a rare level of expertise in every facet of construction and continue the same excellence in the new homes. Fanning out from the historic lakeside residences, new homes are cropping up on the property, including some along Johnson Creek, which runs through the center of the development and others along an oxbow of the Swan River. Architecturally, the 32 new homes are an intentional departure from the classic cabins on the property, but the inspiration is evident in every detail.

Aside from the history, the central focus of life at camp is recreation. Sunlight filters through fronds of towering larch and tamarack trees onto the cluster of old log cabins with low-slung roofs and wide porches. A breeze sways through the treetops as laughter echoes in this cul de sac of Swan Lake. Canoes sit along the shore and trout leave rippled feeding rings on the glassy surface of the cool green water.

Located near the bustling summer community of Big Fork, Kootenai offers the mystique of a private retreat without being too remote. Homeowners enjoy amenities including horseback riding, boating on Swan Lake, a spa and pool, nature center, museum, an ideal gathering place in the historic lodge, and a resident recreation and concierge service by Jennifer Vert, whose exuberance for living in Montana is evident to anyone who talks with her.

While Fox is as likely to offer tips on how to fish Swan Lake, Vert is the Kootenai guru on where to fish, which guide to hire and which fly patterns to pack. Whether casting for feisty Northern Pike in the depths of the lake or for colorful rainbows in the clear waters of Johnson creek, this lakeside community is a haven like no other.

“It’s so tranquil and beautiful here,” Vert asserts. “You are just five minutes from Big Fork — then the historic aspects of the property and all the outdoor equipment available to help owners and guests get outside to enjoy this place makes it all pretty magical.”

It’s no stretch to imagine the Copper Kings saying something much along the same line: The Kootenai is magical.

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