Architect: Buffalo Rixon of Ruscitto/Latham/Blanton
Interior Design Rhea Schwartz
Contractor Adam Elias/Elias Construction
They had just built a home in Washington, D.C., a few years earlier and were looking for a ready-to-move-in house here in the Valley. That was their intent, anyway, when Paul Martin Wolff and Rhea Schwartz were being shown around by agent Katherine Rixon during Christmas week 2005.
Wolff, a Washington, D.C., lawyer and sculptor, and Schwartz, a retired lawyer, were not interested in building yet another house.
Then Rixon showed them that snow-covered half-acre rectangle between Saddle Road and Saddle Lane, and they were smitten.
It was close to the Sun Valley ice rink, which delighted Schwartz, who founded and now chairs the International Skating Union’s adult skating program. And, like the Villager condo they’d bought a few years earlier, it was within easy walking and biking distance of Sun Valley’s new pavilion and Ketchum’s downtown.
“We had no idea the lot was even available—it looked like someone’s side lot,” says Wolff, who has been coming to Sun Valley since 1980. “By the time we left on New Year’s Day, we had a contract.”
Once they bought the lot, they faced a challenging task. They wanted a contemporary home that would blend in with a natural environment dominated by dramatic mountain peaks. But they wanted it to fit in to this neighborhood of more traditional homes.
They accomplished this with the help of architect Buffalo Rixon and contractor Adam Elias.
Together, they built a unique home with a mono-sloped roof, which thrusts into the sky, mimicking the mountains surrounding it. A combination of ledge stone and other horizontal planes evoke the desert.
“It’s an environment dominated by dramatic mountain forms, contrasting with high desert plain, sharp light contrast and seasonal climatic contrast,” says Rixon, a principal architect with Ruscitto/Latham/Blanton. “The intent was not to follow suit with the established mountain detailing but, rather, to relate contemporary design elements to the surrounding mountain environment.”
When it came time to build, the couple didn’t want river rock or logs—anything that could be identified as a typical Western or Sun Valley home. At the same time, they wanted something that would fit nicely into the surroundings.
Glass was a must to let natural sunlight in and allow them to gaze out on their environs. And they wanted lots of rooflines, similar to those they had seen on a home in the Adirondacks.
“We’re not ultramodern, but we are very modern,” Schwartz says. “We wanted something with clean lines and we wanted a modulated roof of different heights—something that would be well-integrated with the environment.”
They got everything they asked for, plus more.
The house itself is angled on the lot to offer them optimal views of Baldy, Penny Hill and Trail Creek Summit.
If the way in which it is angled makes it more visually interesting, the features that make up the 4,200-square-foot home only add to the intrigue.
Wolff’s bronze sculpture, “North Star,” greets visitors as they pull into the driveway.
It points upwards to the rooflines, which engage the imagination with interesting lines that seem to jut everywhere.
Galvalume metal fascia and roofing material strengthen the contrast between the horizontal and sloped plane and pick up the color of the sky.
Structural insulated panels, known as S.I.P.’s, placed over heavy glulam wood rafters and cedar soffits, give the roof planes a hint of traditional mountain post-and-beam detailing, while the steel columns and beams that support them exude a contemporary feel. >>>
Some of the elements were so experimental and unconventional that builder Adam Elias had to build full-sized mock-ups to ensure all the design elements came together properly.
At the same time, the structure is very functional.
The overhangs offer protection from heavy snowfalls during winter and the intense sun during summer, while allowing beneficial solar gains during winter months when the sun hangs low in the sky.
“We really like the multiple rooflines, the varying ceiling heights,” says Wolff. “The home has an openness that we don’t have in our home in Washington, D.C. It’s smaller, but it somehow feels bigger.”
Oakley ledge stone is laid horizontally. Visually, this anchors the upthrust of the roof, even as the horizontal gray stucco and horizontal window mullions accentuate the rising rooflines.
“We were initially just going to use the stone to build a wall next to the home. Then we realized how beautifully it lays out horizontally,” says Wolff. “It was not an easy decision to go with it because it was so expensive and difficult to lay. But it was worth it. We think it truly is beautiful.”
Where interior walls interrupt window facades, metal panels have been installed as false windows to maintain the contemporary form of the home.
“Our clients wanted a maintenance-free house. There is no such thing. But this is low maintenance,” says Rixon. “Metal, stucco and stone are the three elements exposed to weather. They’re proven to weather well.”
The home has a feeling of openness from the moment a guest walks inside it.
A soaring space, called the gallery, serves as the entry point. Ostensibly, it’s a hallway that extends from the kitchen and great room to the bedrooms. But it doubles as an art gallery.
Paintings line one side of the gallery featured by suspended rail lighting, while lights focused on the ceiling offer indirect light for an intimate setting.
Mementoes from the couple’s travels occupy glass and steel cantilevered shelves embedded in stone columns on the opposite side.
The hallway is situated for a northern exposure so no direct light falls on the artwork. Still, abundant natural light filters through the high clerestory windows.
The gallery leads to the kitchen and great room on the southwestern side of the house and the master bedroom on the northwest side. Two staircases lead off it to guest bedrooms.
“We wanted all our living space on one floor, designed with old age in mind, and this feels open and easy to move around in,” says Wolff. “Our guest rooms for friends and family are on the second floor, designed in such a way to keep them separate from us and separate from each other.”
Black, white and gray colors dominate throughout the house, save for an occasional splash of color, including a golden wall in the dining nook and a vibrant blue wall in the master bedroom.
The kitchen boasts a red composite countertop made of Silestone quartz. A certified Greenguard material, it offers built-in Microban® antimicrobial protection. >>>
The cabinets have been treated with a special type of stain called aniline dye, which gives oak, maple, ash and cherry hardwoods a translucent contemporary look.
The fireplace in the great room features gray Porcelanosa tile resembling raw steel. The product is considered one of the highest quality tiles on the market. A gas flame emerges out of black glass, eliminating the need to burn wood.
A small sitting room off the great room features an LCD-TV surrounded by bookcases in custom-made, built-in cabinetry boasting vertical grain firs with a reed-patterned door front.
Past it is the couple’s office, filled with tapestries, curios like old wooden ice skates, a printer and his and her computers. Perforated aluminum blinds allow Schwartz and Wolff to see out, even while the blinds shade the room.
The master bedroom features a soffit overhang, which mutes the ceiling lighting to allow a relaxing ambience while watching TV. Small reading lights on swing arms are mounted above the bed to illuminate bedtime reading.
An expansive multi-room bathroom boasting white woven porcelain tile offset with squares of green, black and gray glass tiles opens off the master bedroom.
The bathroom features a NordicTrack exercise machine from which one can watch TV, and an Air Jet tub and shower.
The bathroom opens into walk-in his-and-her closets with built-in shoe drawers, and laundry facilities.
“We keep different schedules—Rhea gets up first to go ice skating. This set-up enables one person to stay in bed, while the other gets up, exercises, showers and dresses, going on about his or her day without waking the other,” Wolff says.
A stairway near the master bedroom leads to a guest master suite on the north side of the home. It features a mechanically lifted TV hidden in a base cabinet, which allows guests to use the cabinet top as a shelf when not watching TV.
The bathroom has soaring windows, which frame the towering aspen outside.
The staircase itself boasts a plethora of windows through which Wolff, Schwartz and their guests can view the stars through a telescope trained on Dollar Mountain.
“It’s the perfect spot for a telescope because nothing blocks your views,” says Elias. “Sometimes you forget how beautiful those hills are. This offers a unique look at them.”
A second staircase, further down the gallery leads to two smaller guest rooms, as well as a sitting room. The sitting room provides a sanctuary for the guests and a place from which to watch TV, read books or simply sit and relax.
In case guests can’t agree on what to watch, there are additional TVs inside the bedrooms.
Black bamboo flooring provides the magic carpet that takes guests to each nook and cranny of the home, perfectly accenting the various tones of black, gray and white spread throughout the house. >>>
“Bamboo is all the rage right now, but we didn’t know it,” says Schwartz. “We like it because it’s as strong as any wood we can put down, and it’s a green material that grows quickly and is therefore easily replenishable. We wanted the black look because it was unusual, and it just jumped out to us as the absolute best way to integrate all our design elements. What draws the cabinetry and other elements together is the black floor.”
The exception to the black bamboo is the staircase leading to the guest quarters above the garage on the southwest corner of the house. Each stair tread sports a different color of stained bamboo, from red to blue and colors in between.
Schwartz suggested the colored stairs as a way to add punch to a home that majored in shades of black and gray.
“We realized that this was an open staircase that we were going to see all the time,” says Wolff. “And we realized it would be a great place to have color to grab people’s attention and add a little warmth.
“We went through some 40 colors available in the bamboo and picked these colors to give the stairs some splash and whimsy. After all, we don’t want our home so formal that guests won’t feel comfortable. We want a place where friends and family can hang out in their flip-flops and shorts and the color makes it a little more relaxed. Rhea loves it and says that every time she walks past it, she smiles.”
The garage boasts soft-frosted glass on the garage door, which allows the inside light to shine out without outsiders being able to see in.
Locker-sized cabinets offer storage, while open walls feature hooks for snowshoes and other outdoor gear. The mudroom sports a yellow rubber floor for easy cleaning.
Tucked away off the garage is Wolff’s pride and joy—his sculpting studio.
The first design of the house featured a one-car garage with a studio where the second car space would have been.
But because the house sits on a significant slope, excavators had to dig out an enormous space to “level” the house.
By the time they were finished, Wolff and Schwartz not only had room for a large storage space for patio tables and bicycles, but also Wolff’s sculpting studio and a wine cellar.
Wolff’s sculpting studio features a built-in exhaust, built-in vacuum and built-in power tools with track lighting above the workbench. Since it has no outside windows, it requires artificial light, which is better for sculpting, anyway, says Wolff.
“When you’re chipping away, you don’t want a glare or reflection because it can make you miss. You can make a mistake in a second,” he says. “The whole thing turned out wonderfully. We gained a wine cellar we hadn’t planned for, and the extra storage space is a real bonus.”
Outside, the slant of the yard and the excavation it required led to creation of a very interesting patio arrangement that, like the roof, features varying lines.
A breakfast nook on the west side of the house catches the morning sun, enabling Wolff and Schwartz to peruse the morning paper as the sun’s warming rays spill over them.
Around the corner is a patio in front of the great room. The patio, full of chaise lounges, sports Hydro-Press concrete slabs formed under pressure to resist cracking or damage.
Stairs lead down from it to a larger patio with a barbecue. Sheltered from the street noise and the evening sun, it’s the perfect place for dinner or an intimate cocktail party.
“Due to the slope of the site, the downhill portion of the house was elevated above the ground level. This created an advantage for the lower barbecue patio area, resulting in a more private and sheltered outdoor gathering area,” says Rixon.
Wolff admits he has trouble getting on with his golf game—or his hike—when he spots his home from Sun Valley’s new White Clouds golf course and hiking trail.
“It was love at first sight. We’re totally taken with it. Here you can be inside the home yet have a feeling of all the wonderful outdoors coming in,” he says.
“We give a lot of credit to Buffalo and to Adam. Buffalo was focused on designing the house we wanted and not the house he wanted for us, like so many other architects. Adam and his team did everything in their power to ensure the success of our ideas and Buffalo’s design. They were great and we are grateful to them both. A testament to both of their professionalism is that we are all still friends.”
“It was the collaboration that dictated the success,” Rixon says. “And it was made all the easier because both Paul and Rhea were intimately involved and decisive throughout the design process.”
Karen Bossick is a freelance writer who writes for a variety of publications, including the Twin Falls Times-News, The New York Times, USA Today and a variety of magazines, including Western Horseman.