There is something wonderfully anonymous about staying in a hotel. As far as the hotel is concerned, a guest is just a number. Use all the towels you want, come and go as you please, ask for a forgotten toothbrush without feeling guilty. But hotels can also be unsettlingly impersonal—better for visiting places than for visiting friends or family.
Staying as a guest at someone’s home is more intimate and convenient, but there are drawbacks as well. Many people are familiar with Myrtle Reed’s invocation, “May our house always be too small to hold all our friends.” And nearly everyone has heard the old saying about fish and houseguests. Enter the guesthouse—for when your hosts want you close at hand, but not too close.
The guesthouse is not to be confused with a guestroom, where you may end up volleying for position in the bathroom with teenaged daughters or find yourself nose to nose with the family dog in the morning. Guesthouses provide comfort, independence, and a modicum of privacy for both guest and host.
Following are four delightfully different takes on the guesthouse in the Wood River Valley. Each is distinguished by its architecture, the specificity of its intended guests, its history, or its unique ability to inspire guests with a sense of another place and time. Welcome.
Details, Details, Details
Well-reasoned and thoughtful architecture is what visitors notice first about this guesthouse on the bench in Gimlet. Architect Mark Pynn of McMillen Pynn Architecture in Ketchum says he used the guesthouse as a prototype for the main house. It was designed simultaneously but built first, so that details could be field-tested and refined. The materials, craftsmanship, and attention to minutiae are all on par with the main house, but on a smaller scale. This guesthouse is, in fact, one of Pynn’s favorite works. He explains, “I’d rather do a small house well…Big projects can get out of control and lose their human scale and intimacy.”
The genesis of the design came through observations of the site—a typical high-mountain desert landscape with rolling hills of grasses and sagebrush. The clients wanted their home to blend into the landscape while affording views from multiple rooms.
The guesthouse is sited so as not to interfere with the panoramas from the main house, while taking advantage of vistas of its own. The slope of the roof corresponds to the pitch of the hill and, inside and out, the color palette reflects the native vegetation. The long, sinuous lines of the structure, reminiscent of some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie Style homes, stretch out and ground the building in its site.
Separated from the main house by a courtyard, the guesthouse feels very private despite the proximity. Nearing it, guests pass by steamer chairs along a neutral concrete walkway on axis with an artful steel sculpture. The feeling is protected, yet open. Tall grasses, transplanted sagebrush, and great swaths of architectural plants were deftly used by All Seasons Landscaping to restore and embellish the original hillside habitat. What Pynn calls the “celebratory entry,” a glass door with an equally tall transom window above, is weighty yet unimposing.
Inside, the logic of the design emerges. The clients granted Pynn freedom in the detailing of the house, allowing him to design even the light fixtures as part of the overall concept. (Of repeat-clients’ confidence he says, “You have to earn that. You don’t just get it.”) A vertical system of measurement, based on an eight-inch-high module that relates to human scale as well as to standard building-component sizes, was employed throughout. The method dictated placement and sizing of such elements as exterior siding, windows, doors, and even light switches. As a foil to this regimented horizontality, towering columns of ashlar-laid Idaho quartzite both anchor the house to its site and make the interior spaces soar.
Exposed structural members and honest materials left little room for interpretation in the construction of the house, but Alan Gelet and Engelmann Inc. were up to the task. Having found the specified four-by-twelve sheets of structural birch plywood at one of the three mills in the United States that produce it, they executed apparently seamless and organic connections between built-in woodwork and stone. With Quantum Windows, they set difficult, insulated, bent-glass corner windows in place. And, in general, they achieved everything the architect and client envisioned.
Interior designer Sam Ewing furnished the guesthouse in a buoyant, informal manner. At the outset, he created a reference palette for natural color selection by pressing native plants and flowers that he collected on site. As a result, the prescribed hillside neutrals are punctuated with shades of wine and sage green. Playful fabrics and eclectic folk art add a bit of levity.
While hardly an inert backdrop, the architecture of this guesthouse allows both furnishings and guests to feel quite comfortable and at home. Everything, it seems, is in just the right place.
Sun Valley Memoir
A distant flag high on a hill is the giveaway to the home of Michael and Leslie Engl. Of the flag, Michael Engl explains, “The old-timers expect it to be there. If the flag is flying, everything is all right.”
People have been watching that flag for decades. Nestled in with the Engls’ more recently built primary residence is the original cabin that has served as the home base for this hilltop Shangri-la since 1936, when it was built by Charlie Davidson, a landscaper and architect for the Sun Valley Company. Davidson’s hand is also evident in such familiar structures as Trail Creek Cabin and the Roundhouse.
The Engls have done little to alter their guesthouse other than to winterize it and add a cold entry and a couple of windows. But, while remarkable for its faithful restoration and unpretentious presentation, the real beauty of this guesthouse lies in its personal history.
Michael Engl is the son of Sigi Engl, legendary character of Sun Valley Resort. Sigi and his equally notable friend, Sepp Froehlich, were two of the Austrians that Averell Harriman and Hans Hauser recruited early on for the nascent Sun Valley Resort. Even then, the resort cultivated a multicultural population to simulate a European feel. Sepp’s first wife bought the cabin from Charlie Davidson, and Sepp and Florence, his second wife, owned the cabin from 1946 to 1986. Friends of the Froehlichs and numerous guests of the Lodge were entertained at the cabin, and Michael Engl spent many days of his youth there.
He fondly recalls visits with Pete and Jack Lane, during which Sepp would launch clay pigeons over the pond for them to shoot. They would stay up late telling tales in the crowded dining room while eating Sepp’s “Wurst Salate,” a salad of bratwurst, onion, cucumbers, vinegar, and oil. For Michael, the property was an oasis in the hills, with a pond fed by a natural spring, forested trails, and a wealth of friends and memories. As a child growing up in the Sun Valley Lodge, this cabin became, in some sense, the closest semblance of home he knew.
When he was twelve years old, Michael told the Froehlichs he would like to buy the cabin and had $500 to spend. (Florence Froehlich remembers it as $25.) With a straight face, Florence politely replied that they were not quite ready to sell. Persistence paid off, however, and eventually Michael bought the cabin—for a slightly higher sum—and proceeded to restore and decorate it.
The inside of the cabin is a living testament to Michael and Leslie’s personal past, as well as Sun Valley’s; the two are inextricably interwoven. In the living room, exquisite examples of Nez Perce dyed cornhusk bags hang on the walls alongside dolls from Mexico, Russia, and Africa. Authentic Sioux and Cherokee dolls, and Blackfoot dolls made by Rhonda Holybear, adorn the mantle above original andirons from the Union Pacific Railroad. Archie McMeekin, an Idaho painter, did many of the paintings in the house. The rugs are Navajo, Chinese, and Polish.
Upstairs, the smaller guestrooms have built-in bunks and 1930s cowboy posters by Jo Mora. Games, books, toys, and photographs reveal that these snug rooms have been happily lived in. The master guest bedroom boasts an impressive two-story porch with an unpeeled log railing and bent-willow chairs overlooking the pond. Wrought-iron chandeliers and gold-framed artwork give this room a more luxurious flavor.
Throughout the house are photographs of friends, family, and significant figures from the Sun Valley skiing community, most of them frequent visitors to the cabin. The walls catalog a veritable “who’s who” of early Sun Valley—similar to the gallery at the Lodge, but with fewer movie stars. The people on these walls were teaching the movie stars to ski.
The people who built Sun Valley’s reputation in its infancy came here to retreat and reclaim a little bit of themselves. It was summertime, and the livin’ was easy. For Michael Engl and for many of the guests who visit this high-desert oasis now, the cabin triggers an instant remembrance of good times in our collective history.
Get Along, Little Dogies
The effect you experience when approaching the guest quarters at the Suzy Q Ranch in Picabo is so hyper-real, so complete, and so perfect, it is almost not to be believed. Driving down the gravel road, it’s easy to imagine yourself in a robin’s-egg blue 1957 Ford pickup—arm out the window and a straw in your teeth. To the left and right are old barns, sheds, and other structures replete with colorful metal signs displaying nostalgic, enduring logos such as Coca-Cola and Chevron. A perfectly unintentional-looking allée of trees and a lodgepole pine fence lead gently down the path to your resting spot for the evening.
There, under an old, gnarled box elder tree that is the stuff of legends, sits a sheepwagon. Too refined to be merely a place to rest your tired bones after trailing sheep through the mountains since daybreak, this is a place to escape and imagine yourself in a simpler, idealized time. The wagon is named “Querencia.”
William F. Buckley explains the meaning of the word in his book Racing Thru Paradise: Claire Turner, an interior designer for over 25 years, took the sheepwagon on as a project after receiving it as a birthday gift from Pat Millington last year. A 50-year-old Studebaker in poor repair, the wagon was disassembled down to the wheels, box, and bows, and completely rebuilt. Along with Tom Hale, a carpenter, and Jay Bailet, a cabinetmaker, Turner whipped the sheepwagon into shape in only four months—almost exclusively with recycled materials and collectibles from the Susie Q Ranch. Most of the stained glass was salvaged, as well as the barnboard siding, corrugated tin roof, and antique hardware.
According to Turner, sheepwagons were traditionally six-and-a-half by eleven-and-a-half feet. She added three feet to the back and one foot to the ceiling to make it slightly more comfortable. The original canvas cover was replaced with a subtle sage green, storage compartments were added underneath, and electricity was installed. Aside from these things, every element serves to suggest an idyllic Old West, where seldom is heard a discouraging word and the skies are not cloudy all day.
Walking up the narrow steps to the front door, you notice a small plaque that reads, “Oklahoma—Home of Miss America, land of beautiful girls.” An antique kerosene carriage lantern, now lit with a bulb, illuminates the elk head lockset—new, but not altogether inappropriate. Inside the wagon, the economy of space is compelling. It’s small, but not confining. A Jøtul woodstove heats the room, tended by antique leather bellows. Patsy Cline croons from built-in speakers. You feel warm and comforted.
Vintage Western literature, with titles such as Chumley’s Post and The Outdoor Girls in a Winter Camp, lines the antiqued knotty-pine shelves. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West playing cards sit next to the bed, flanked by a horsehide bag with three tiny liquor bottles inside. A chamber pot has been placed in a bottom cabinet more for effect than for use. A miniature cappuccino maker hidden in another cabinet, however, is doubtlessly meant for more than effect. After all, you are on vacation.
The bed occupies half of the interior space, wearing a covered-wagon-and-cowboy print bedspread and matching pillows with fringe. Kitschy props such as a smiling, bucking bronc alarm clock and a cactus thermometer reinforce the cultivated Roy Rogers-era bliss. Turner, with extraordinary attention to detail, has created a faultless rendition of the bucolic Old West in which her guests can indulge their fantasies of being at home on the range.
The only things missing from the illusion are a roaring campfire, a quartet of cowpokes to sing you to sleep, and coyotes howling on cue. Then again, maybe Claire Turner could arrange those for you, too.
Over the River and Through the Woods
When Jo Reynolds, an interior designer, imagined her guesthouse in Greenhorn Gulch, her children and seven grandchildren were the guests she had in mind. Paskevitch and Associates from Cleveland, Ohio, designed the house with a tall, steep roof and timber accents in the Adirondack tradition. Dembergh Construction skillfully executed the design.
The guesthouse is a scaled-down and informal version of the main house, of which it is a part. In this place, children are not only accommodated, but celebrated. On the landing at the top of the stairs is a playroom where framed artwork by the grandchildren is put on equal footing with friendly paintings of pigs and cows. A small wooden table and chairs are joined by a kid-size bench upholstered in cow-print fabric. In this playroom, the kids are centrally located and connected with every part of the house.
The living room holds comfortable, scaled-down furniture in chunky plaids and horse patterns. Wooden toys peer down from atop armoires and shelves. A stuffed bearskin rug invites little people to cozy up next to the fireplace. Even the porch, a narrower version of the grown-ups’ terrace at the other end of the house, recognizes the scale of its occupants. Webb Landscape, continuing the theme, created a flat, grassy play area at the business end of the backyard.
An unguarded sense of fun is cultivated in the kitchen, where a sign by the door reads, “If you’re smoking in this house, you’d better be on fire.” David Harris fashioned the steel pot rack, which was designed by local artist Bonnie Vincent Garman. It tells a story, followed clockwise, of cowboys at camp, furtive sweethearts, and mischievous dogs. Stools by local artist Glenn Carter take the form of cowboy jeans and the tail and legs of a horse’s rear end. Red bandanna napkins and the china, a copy of a 1920s railroad pattern, complete the scene.
Throughout the house, the walls are brought to life by Garman’s painted murals. Reynolds calls them “the icing on the cake.” The murals conjure the environment of a favorite children’s book with shy animals and familiar landscapes. In the kitchen, for example, a sly fox watches a clever raccoon stealing from a basket of ripe red peppers. On an armoire in the living room, a contemplative ewe stands next to a barrel of apples and a magpie surveys the scene from his perch in a nearby tree. In the “grown-ups’ room,” landscapes in painted frames give the illusion of windows on walls where there are none. In the bath, simple brick and branch patterns carry the theme through.
The bunkroom, where three peeled-log bunk beds line up in summer-camp fashion, is freely given over to the grandchildren. Stuffed animals and tiny cowboy outfits adorn every bunk. A teepee offers an alternate berth in the corner, and the well-worn bench in the center of the room has surely served as the stage for countless bedtime stories. Garman was at her most creative in this room. Tracks of moose, deer, raccoon, bear, and fox have been painstakingly re-created on the wall opposite the bunks. Even better, the “tracks” of the grandchildren who visit the house are imprinted on the bathroom walls—a historic treasure for years to come.
It appears that Reynolds knows her audience well. Through small scale, visual reassurances, and comfortable, lighthearted decoration, she has created a guesthouse that engages and excites both the young and the young at heart.
Gretchen Wagner holds a Master’s degree from Yale School of Architecture. She lives in Hailey with her writer/mountain guide husband Erik.