08 Apr Meadow Magic
A young political science major becomes interested in Montana politics, travels there to research her thesis, and ends up falling in love with Big Sky Country. Years later, when she visits the Bitterroot Valley with her husband, he falls just as hard. Soon, they’re dreaming aloud of buying land. After spending a year looking, they find their perfect property and spend the next 10 years vacationing at a nearby ranch, all the while getting to know their little slice of Montana and envisioning their future home. Needless to say, by the time they hire an architect and contractor, they already have ideas about how they might live on that piece of land.
The 20-acre property — since augmented by the addition of a neighboring property purchased to protect an elk travel corridor — features a large, lush meadow that runs up against a line of trees. The site boasts spectacular views of Trapper Peak to the southwest, as well as the Sapphire Mountain Range. In close proximity to the town of Darby, and within a half-mile of the Bitterroot River, the land is scenically blessed and teeming with wildlife. “We fell in love with the Bitterroot Valley,” says the wife. “There was something magical about finding a place like this, about having a place you can escape to that didn’t feel like back home, a place where you can just look outside and breathe.”
The owners assembled a team — Garber Construction and architect Jesse Vigil of Cushing Terrell — and quickly agreed on placement, materiality, and massing. “The main challenge was that it’s a beautiful site with an open meadow, and the owners didn’t want to plunk a house down in the middle,” says Vigil. “They wanted to be respectful of the meadows and the neighbors’ sightlines. They wanted to create a beautiful home that responded to, and was respectful of, their site.”
The house was designed to blend into the natural surroundings. It’s tucked into a niche in the treeline, where the steep topography allows for a lower level to open directly to the outdoors. Reclaimed wood siding, a shed roof, and minimal fenestration and ornamentation limit its visual impact on the front, while expansive walls of glass looking to the mountain views on the back and sides create a voluminous, nature-forward interior. The ground level — offset from the main linear volume so that both spaces benefit from views of Trapper Peak — houses an open living area and the primary bedroom suite with a spa-like bathroom. The L-shaped deck has a lounge area with a spiral staircase that creates a light well to the patio below. And the outdoor cooking and dining spot features a built-in counter with a waterfall edge and a pass-through window to the kitchen. Downstairs, there’s an office, TV room, and guest quarters that include a bunkroom with an en suite bath and a cozy daybed tucked under the stairs.
The interior is contemporary and bright, with white walls, black-trimmed windows, and a monumental black fireplace element. The kitchen furthers the theme, with a black backsplash and cabinets that contrast with the white quartz island. Wide white oak floor planking and box beams made of reclaimed material add warmth and texture.
The house is modest in scale (a guest house/party barn is currently in the works) but lives large. “In thinking about how to really capture the views,” says Vigil, “we came up with the concept of a linear living space centered on the great room windows framing Trapper Peak. We could capture the view through the kitchen, living, and dining room, where we raised the ceiling and used volume and light to make the space feel bigger than it is. The side framing the trees has the deck, which gives it the feeling of a treehouse. We wanted to make every room feel light and energized, and to capture that Montana feeling that accentuates a sense of calm.”
For the owners — parents and working professionals who lead busy lives in Los Angeles — this was crucial. “For 10 years we talked about what it would mean to us,” recalls the wife. “It was really important to us that, if we were going to do this, we would take hold of the environment. It was the only spot I really saw my husband able to relax. It’s serene; it’s magical. We spend a lot of time just sitting in front of the large windows looking out at Trapper Peak.”
Now, after many visits to the area, the owners have found that the more time they spend there, the more they find to do. “The activities are really spectacular: river rafting on the Bitterroot, horseback riding, archery with hay bales in our backyard, spending time around the fire pit,” she says. “We’re big hikers, and the hiking is unbelievable in that area. … We might pack a picnic and walk around Lake Como, or maybe we’ll just drive somewhere and have an adventure in a new town. And right before sunset, every night after dinner, we take a walk. You see owls swooping down looking for prey on the ground, there are deer and, at certain times of the year, there’s a herd of about 75 elk in our front yard.”
Fortuitously, the house was completed in the spring before COVID hit. “We moved in for a few weeks and stayed for a year,” says the owner. “The environment and nature are what brought us there, but when we lived there, we branched out into the neighborhood and the community and got to know the area better. The light is magical, the wildlife is magical, and the people are lovely. We became members of a farm and got all our vegetables and fresh eggs from there; we went to farmers’ markets and met the local vendors. It was a completely different lifestyle, and it brought us back to the basics and to what’s important, which is family and the environment.” Ultimately, she adds, “We bought 20 acres, built a home, and found a community.”