A Forest Glen in Downtown Ridgway
Here is a story from the current Shelter magazine:
“Little kids love this house. They call it the Hobbit House.”
Bob Mann sat at his kitchen table in Ridgway with the morning light, filtered through a million leaves, painting the windows behind him.
“Strangers once walked right up and peered in the windows as if they thought it was abandoned,” Mann said, delighted.
“I told Bob, ‘Go mow the lawn!’” his wife Darlene chirped. They share the same sense of humor. Their front yard – there really is no lawn – looks like a forest glen; you’d never know you were in downtown Ridgway. The house sits at the back edge of the property almost completely hidden from the street in summer when the leaves are full. It is vaguely European-looking, a cottage with steep shingled roofs and river-rock walls, like something in a deep wood in a Disney movie.
Bob loves Disney. And he’s a stonemason. Darlene is a seamstress. They ride motorcycles. She grew up in Ouray. He grew up in Ridgway. They’ve been together over 40 years.
“This house is playful,” Bob continued.
“That’s you two,” said Lynn Kircher, who designed the Manns’ house in 1991 and remains a close friend. Lynn was at the table, too. And with that short sentence, she pretty much summed up her design philosophy.
Kircher doesn’t have an architectural agenda. “It’s their home,” she said of the Manns and the roughly three dozen clients she has designed for, from Norwood to Paonia, including projects in Telluride, Ridgway and Montrose. “I’m the filter through which they express their dreams, how they live. I’m the puzzle putter-togetherer. The houses are for the individuals – and for the site.”
Kircher asks a lot of the relationship. I know. She designed my house in Colona. Over weeks and months she asked my wife Ellen and me a lot of hard questions. Like, how do you live? What makes you happy? What makes you feel safe? What do you want?
At first the Manns weren’t sure what they wanted. They knew they loved the three corner lots they had bought on Clinton Street, which were covered with trees, including at least one huge cottonwood, some aspens, and several apples – the place had once been the orchard for the 1890 Walther House next door. Bob remembered a day sitting alone, in the rain, in the middle of the trees. “And I thought, this is an incredible place. It was begging for a really special home.”
Kircher started with what Darlene calls “our forest.” “I tend to create a world through the arrangement and placement of the structures,” Kircher said. She placed the house as far back on the lots as she could, facing south, into the thicket. She placed the garage (with its studio apartment) on the east side nearer the street where it would shield the neighbors on that side. And she designed a third structure, a lych gate, right at the sidewalk, to define the path into the Manns’ world. (A lych gate is a roofed gate, typically seen in English churchyards.)
“The form grows out of the site,” Kircher said. “And the light. The light is so important. Bobby and Darlene love waking up in the sunlight. Others might take a bath late in the day and want a bathroom on the west side. Or a bathtub outside!
“Darlene wanted a sewing workspace with really good light. And she wanted it tucked up where it felt safe.” So, Kircher designed the sewing room at the top of the stairs, under multiple rooflines, with north-side skylights for illumination.
The house, like most Kircher houses, is small, smaller anyway than the grand edifices erected by so many newcomers to the mountain west. For Kircher, scale is a matter of economy – what is necessary to live well – energy efficiency and, most importantly, what feels right. She grew up on the Hudson River in upstate New York not far from an estate belonging to the Astors. “I was struck at an early age,” she said, “by the European influence, the steep roofs, the French doors.” But the spaces she related to best were the little ones she explored in trailers and boat cabins. She was “taken,” she said, with the “intelligent use of space, the clever arrangements” necessitated by smaller envelopes. “I always try to bring one section of roof down to where you can touch it,” she said. “To give the house a human scale.”
The Manns’ house (Kircher wouldn’t have chosen the moniker “Hobbit House”) makes good use of built-in corner couches, bench seats, surprising nooks and crannies; no space is wasted. (A granddaughter’s current favorite playroom is up under the rafters, with a door that requires visiting adults to get down on hands and knees.) Lynn and Darlene shopped for fabric together for the colorful couch pillows – “We’ve got a seamstress, right?” Lynn designed, and then stained the cabinets herself, and the front door. “We shared a lot,” she said, a tenet, it seems, of all her client relationships.
The interior flows from cozy dark places to light expansive ones, from low ceilings to high, from indoors to out. Perhaps the best example of bringing the outdoors in, is Bob and Darlene’s ground-floor bedroom, where French doors open to a hidden stone patio. In the summer, with the doors open, “It’s like camping,” Darlene said. After nearly 20 years, Darlene said, “I wake up every morning and think, I love this place!”
Kircher drew the exterior elevations to feature lots of stone, “because Bobby is a stonemason.” (She still draws her plans by hand.) The two had, in fact, worked together on previous Kircher projects.
“Lynn set me loose designing and building the fireplace for her own house out in Pleasant Valley,” Bob said. “Kurt Quadri (of Quadri Construction in Montrose) built that house. He built our house, too. Lynn and Kurt work really well together.”
Bob did all the stonework on the Hobbit House. He found the river rock – “an unusual, softer, warmer sandstone” – at a defunct placer works on the San Miguel River near Nucla, and hauled it himself in an old dump truck that broke down “regularly, every hundred miles.” After coffee at the kitchen table, Bob led the way outside, where he patted the stone with strong, dry hands. “Lynn likes materials that age gracefully,” he said.
Both Bob and Lynn agreed that the line of the walls should flare slightly at the base, giving the house “weight.” It’s called battering. “It gives the house a connection to the earth,” Bob said. “Like the base of a tree.”
As if the house, too, were growing out of this enchanted Ridgway forest.
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