Home & Design October 22, 2010
Log Cabin Legends

Through glamorization in legend and folklore, certain elements of the Old West have been elevated to icon status: The ten-gallon hat, the covered wagon, and the saloon come to mind. The log cabin, in a perhaps less sensational way, is also evocative of the untamed West—and several of these lowly but romantic structures are still standing, with enduring purpose, in our midst today.

Cabins, once common, are symbols of our ideal of the Old West, when the living was hard, the pleasures were simple, and, as pioneers, everyone was on a more or less equal footing. Architect Steve Cook explains their allure: “I would guess they remind many of us of better days gone by. They refresh our awareness of how simply our basic shelter needs can be met.” And while none is an architectural marvel, each cabin contributes to a sense of who we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going. It’s astonishing how quickly we assimilate histories of place into our own personal histories, adding to the vast web of collective experience and memory.

Three local cabins have recently undergone a combination of restoration and remodeling that has extended their useful life into the 21st century. All of the owners had in common a respect for the passage of time as they renovated their cabins. They did not meticulously reconstruct what existed before, but recognized that great respect for what has passed can be evinced through thoughtful changes. The owners may have come upon their cabins by happenstance, but they appreciate and actively cultivate the rich stories each has to tell.
The Clara Spiegel Cabin was for decades a relic of old Ketchum—worn and used, but with an interesting history. Clara Spiegel, best known as one of the founders of The Community Library, was a supremely literate and literary person who believed that books should be available to everyone. She has been described as a forward woman, ahead of her time. Clara and compatriots Elnora Seagle and Jeanne Lane Moritz rounded up donations, stocked shelves, and opened the doors to Ketchum’s first library in 1957. Their legacy, The Community Library, remains one of only a handful of privately funded libraries in the country.

Clara, who was born in 1904, began visiting Ketchum to ski and gamble shortly after the Sun Valley Lodge was built in 1936. She could have bought a piece of land stretching from Sixth Street to Sun Valley Road for the exorbitant sum of $5,000 in 1939, but she settled for half a block at the corner of Sixth Street and Walnut Avenue. The proximity to town and a prime location at the base of Knob Hill made it an attractive parcel. There was nothing near the site—nothing, that is, except a small, two-bedroom log cabin.

Clara loved to entertain, and she regaled the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Louis Stur, and other local legends. When she built her main house in 1952, she refurbished the old cabin just enough to make it usable as a rental. Although the specific list of the cabin’s inhabitants is elusive, sources agree that “everyone” lived in it at one time or another. Ski instructors, Sun Valley employees, and young families used the cabin as a jumping-off point when they were just starting out. That the cabin housed “everyman” is one of the reasons it is so valuable in local history.

After decades of almost continuous use as a rental, the cabin looked like…well, a rental. Fortunately, the current owners took it upon themselves to restore it to its former “glory,” hiring architect Steve Cook, Engelmann Construction, and Susan Witman of Center Q Interior Design to help with the reincarnation.

From the outside, the cabin looks very much the same as it has always looked. Evergreen trees planted by Clara in 1952 now tower over the house, and the resident hollyhock population so closely associated with the cabin continues to flourish. A green picket fence meanders around, separating the cabin and yard from the “dunes” of sagebrush and grasses near the street. Cook took particular care to preserve the old gate: “Over many years, friends, renters, neighbors, and family passed through it—coming and going. You saw it, yet you didn’t. Drooping from one tiny hinge, it had become permanently ‘frozen’ in an open position by the tall natural grasses on either side. Preserving the symbolism of this overgrown open gate became important to me. We made no attempt to repair or disturb it.”

One program requirement of the owners from the beginning was “not to lose the simplicity of the original cabin.” To that end, very few spatial changes were made. A small bump was added to the simple square plan for a tub in the bathroom, and a larger addition extended the kitchen. Low ceilings were removed to expose vaulted ceilings in the living room and built-in shelving and cabinetry were installed in keeping with the original character. Old linoleum flooring was replaced with additional recycled fir, and existing bead-board wainscot was extended throughout the house.

Cook says of the spirit of the renovation, “We were starting with an old cabin and wanted to end up with an old cabin.” The goal from the beginning was to “preserve the existing understated charm.”

After much unsuccessful searching for images of the original interior of the cabin, it was decided that the furnishings would represent an example of what might have been. The owners and Witman collected most of the pieces at local antique fairs over the past few years.
Exposed hinges, unlined curtains, and stand-alone plumbing fixtures are just a few of the period details incorporated by the owners. The vintage kitchen sink with double drain boards was found online. The kitchen and bathroom sinks are fitted with skirts made of old tablecloths—the kind of space-creating innovation a renter might have devised. Galvanized sheet metal covers the bathroom’s tub deck, shower surround, and ceiling, evoking a time when the mere fact of indoor plumbing was a luxury.

The simple materials and uncomplicated construction give the Spiegel cabin a certain authenticity, as if a miner’s family might have assembled it through a series of weekend projects. With careful restraint and great attention to detail, the small house has been preserved as a Ketchum landmark. Clara would have been proud.

Craney Crow Cabin, as it was originally called, holds the distinction of being the first cabin built on historic Pettit Lake. Long before Averill Harriman began luring visitors to Sun Valley with his European-style ski resort, tourists and locals alike recognized Pettit as a premier vacation spot. In the 1920s, when the promotion of tourism in the western national forests was in its infancy, the shores of the lake were designated as a summer-home tract. Only 23 lots were plotted, with future development limited to maintain the “primitive” character of the lake—and the spectacular views of the Sawtooth Mountains. Even today, strict Forest Service covenants regulate any improvement to the sites.

James McDonald II, a wealthy developer from Hailey, located Craney Crow Cabin on the most unusual site on the lake. The “point cabin,” as it is now known, was placed at the very tip of a peninsula on the north shore in 1922. Constructed with abundantly available lodgepole pine and river rock, the cabin took full advantage of its extraordinary 270-degree view. Window headers were set relatively low to focus views on the lake rather than on the mountains. McDonald and his wife spent considerable time at the cabin, including the winter of 1929-30, when they played host to a multitude of guests and were re-supplied every two weeks by dogsled.

Craney Crow Cabin and several others in the McDonald compound changed hands when Mary Peavey Brooks (who later became Director of the U.S. Mint under Presidents Nixon and Ford) purchased them in the mid-1940s. To the point cabin she added a dining room off the kitchen, a porch, and a cold entry. Brooks sold the cabin to Dr. George Saviers, beloved Ketchum family physician, in the 1960s. Finally, in the fall of 1998, Doug and Ann Christensen took the helm.

A lifelong builder, Doug’s first instinct was to replace the sadly deteriorated cabin with a new one—until he and Ann learned of the cabin’s nomination for designation as a historic structure. An architectural historian from the U.S. Park Service was scheduled to inspect the building, and his recommendations would govern any changes. Doug explains his and Ann’s change of heart: “By the time the historian arrived, we had come to appreciate the cabin for the sense of pioneer history it conveyed. We were ready to follow the Forest Service requirements.”

The Christensens explored their options with retired architect Bob Holly. After much debate, and working in close collaboration with the Forest Service, the team developed a scheme that would preserve the character of the cabin while improving the functionality inside. Although the extent of the changes to be made was largely decided for them, preservation became increasingly important to the Christensens as the project progressed. “We fell more in love with this place the more we were involved,” says Ann.

Many of the cabin’s original features, such as the stone-faced concrete piers and foundation walls, built-in cabinetry, and hand-blown window glass, were preserved. Aside from strengthening the roof, most repairs to the exterior were made to the Mary Brooks additions of the 1940s. In bringing the cabin up to current codes, the Christensens were able to add present-day conveniences, some unapologetically modern: recessed lights in the ceiling, baseboard heat, pressure-treated rafters, and an eco-friendly Danish refrigerator.

Some structural changes were made, perhaps to the greatest effect in the upstairs sleeping area. The two modest bedrooms were expanded by opening the ceilings to the steeply vaulted roof space and removing furred walls. The Christensens shifted a bedroom wall into the room just enough to add a common bathroom and a place to pause at the top of the stairs. The minuscule bathroom exhibits an incredible economy of space, reminiscent of a bathroom on a boat.

Of all the Christensens’ design decisions, their most astute may have been the use of white—everywhere—to enlarge the space. A fresh, cheerful, and vaguely Scandinavian feeling is reinforced with white walls, white window trim, cream muslin curtains, and cream bead-board ceilings throughout the house. In the kitchen, a pickled wood table, blond maple spindle-back chairs, and original white-painted cabinetry set off the only colored piece in the room—an extraordinary, smoky blue Gold Medal Glenwood Stove, circa 1919, found on the Internet by Doug.

Bright sun coming through a picture window into a dark room can be disturbing to the eyes. That problem is circumvented in these pale interiors, which actually modulate the sunlight and draw the eye outside, where the views have hardly changed in decades.
During the many iterations of its restoration, the Christensens’ appreciation of the worth of the Craney Crow cabin steadily grew stronger. And through careful study of the cabin’s history and thoughtful interpretations of local regulations, they were able to ensure that this Pettit Lake landmark would be enjoyed for years to come.

The cabin owned by Lynn Campion had humble beginnings as a nineteenth-century jail. When the Campions bought their Ketchum property in 1972, the log structure came as part of a collection of recycled buildings that included another cabin moved from a west Ketchum site and the former Stanley Dance Hall, which would become their house.

At the time, the old jail was little more than a shell, a rectangular log frame with holes where bars had been. But with the help of a single carpenter and Lynn’s vision, the cabin was rebuilt. A wood floor and split-log roof were added, the logs were re-chinked and the windows replaced (without bars).

Inside, Campion imagined everything in unfinished pine. Pine paneling follows the contours of the sagging roof beams. A modest bench skirts one of the walls. A high pine platform bed of her design is built in beside an old wood stove. Sturdy red calicos, plaids, and red geraniums warm the dark wood interiors. The diminutive scale of the low door and small windows evoke warmth and coziness in the dimly lit room.

The effect is very “Little House on the Prairie.” One imagines uncomplicated contentment in these surroundings. The cabin is neither rugged nor overdone, but sparse, simple, and comforting.

When the Campions moved from Ketchum to Deer Creek several years later they could not part with the cabin, so the log structure embarked on yet another journey. Under cover of night and without a permit, the little cabin stole its way down Highway 75 and was safely home in its new nesting ground by dawn. Lynn explains, “I loved the cabin. It had character. And that wasn’t its original home, anyway.”
The Campions poured a new concrete pad on the hundredth anniversary of the cabin’s original construction, carving the commemorative dates into the concrete by the front door: 1886-1986. The structure survived the journey admirably, becoming fused with its new location as tall grasses and wildflowers enveloped the perimeter.

In 1992 the cabin underwent another transformation—this time in the form of an addition. The builder, John Lloyd, took care to replicate the exterior of the jail. Log siding, split-log roofing, and small windows repeat the theme of the original building. The addition rises slightly above the original roofline, but its simple gable roof is in keeping with the casual, if not slightly haphazard, building style.

A modest kitchen, bathroom, and sleeping loft complete the components of a fully functional guesthouse. A hidden sauna is an unexpected luxury. While the addition is loyal to the sentiment of the original cabin, its inside is a newer, fresher variation on the theme. Campion again chose unfinished pine for the interiors. “That’s why it smells so good,” she explains. Entering the kitchen from the dark bedroom, a state of cozy hibernation is exchanged for one of joyous, sunny inspiration. Light floods the room.

Small touches such as the plain muslin curtains and a punched-tin chandelier recall the Old West without seeming forced. The space is furnished with only a minimum of necessary objects and a few well-loved personal effects. A small horse print by Lynn’s husband, artist Ted Waddell, is installed on one wall. Bouquets of dried roses and peonies from Lynn’s abundant garden hang upside down throughout the room. In this family of accomplished horsewomen, the pair of worn chaps on a horseshoe rack in the kitchen is more than a mere prop.
The cabin becomes a very special place to anyone who stays there. “It’s been host to many trysts and midnight escapes,” says daughter Ashley. “Everyone who visits wants to come back.” After their own wedding on the Deer Creek property, Ashley and her husband, Matt, secretly sneaked back to spend their wedding night in the cabin. In her words, “It’s a magic place…and there was nowhere else we wanted to be.”

Gretchen Wagner received her Master’s degree from the Yale School of Architecture in 1998 and is currently employed by McLaughlin & Associates Architects in Ketchum. She lives in Hailey with her writer/mountain guide husband Erik, and new daughter Sascha.

 

 

 

This article appears in the Fall 2003 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.