The whistle of a locomotive lures New Jersey natives to discover the West

Story by Mary Charest Iorio
Photography by Roger Wade

There’s a stretch of railroad in the southwestern corner of Colorado that once carried ore from the mining town of Silverton to Durango. Its narrow gauge was just wide enough for a small train to lug its load of precious cargo. Today, an old locomotive still runs that track, carrying visitors back to a time when cowboys ruled the range and the gold rush lured thousands across the Mississippi River.

Russell came to Durango a little more than a decade ago to ride that train with his 5-year-old son. Though the train’s whistle still inspires him, the land drew him in. He bought a piece of it five years later in a valley just below the San Juan Mountains and set out to build a house there. It had to be a house worthy of its surroundings, nestled between two mountain ranges and overlooking the daily movement of a herd of more than 100 wild elk. It’s a Western house through and through.

“I wanted logs or timbers. I wanted to see the posts and beams that held the house up,” Russell says. “I’m not talking about pine 2-by-4s. I’m talking about mahogany logs. My father worked in a lumber mill for 35 years. I grew up hearing all about good wood and fine craftsmanship. We’d bought existing houses before, but when it came time to finally build a home of our own, I knew I’d be disappointed if I built a conventional home.”

With the support of his wife Kathy, Russell made designing and constructing the house his pet project for the next five years.

However, the New Jersey native found himself in unfamiliar territory. “When you buy a house in New Jersey, it’s a house that exists. It’s on a lot with city water. Out here in Durango, you can’t take the water for granted,” he says. “I needed access to the road; I needed a well; and I didn’t know how I’d deal with snow removal.”

Russell looked for the best architects and builders in the area. “The people I decided on had a high level of professionalism and experience that made me feel I could trust them,” he says.

Mike Shave of Technical Building Services in Durango was hired to design the house. “Mike went out to the property with me. We talked about how we’d locate the house and the views it would have,” Russell says. “He introduced me to Alan Bernholtz of Wind River Timber Frames.”

Although his Mancos, Colorado, company is relatively young—in business just four years, with some 20 houses built from frame to closing—Alan had a reputation for beautiful workmanship. “Talking to Alan gave me a lot of confidence,” Russell says.

Mike and Alan collaborated to design a hybrid house—part timber frame, part conventional framing. “If you look down from above, the house is shaped like the letter T,” Russell says. “There’s a barn-shaped open area that’s all timber frame. It has a great room, dining room, kitchen and loft.” The remainder of the house includes three bedrooms, a den and the baths. That portion of the house is conventionally framed with timber and wood accents, making it a challenge for the untrained eye to tell where the timber frame ends and the stick framing begins.

Construction began in September 1999. General contractor Terry Dyer of Dyerbilt Construction in Durango built the foundation for the house, then framing for the conventional portion. By November, the site was ready for the timbers to go up.

On Alan’s recommendation, Russell chose Ohio Valley oak for the post and beams, which would become the home’s exposed framework. Alan typically orders the wood to arrive just six weeks before construction so it is cut and still somewhat green when delivered to the home site.

“In the shop, we lay out everything by hand,” Alan says. “We use mortise-and-tenon joinery in the Amish tradition. We don’t do any pre-assembly. Then we sand it and seal it.”

Wind River used a natural finish, citrus-based preservative. “It works well on the timbers, as far as sealing everything and slowing down the drying process,” Alan says. And that means less checking—the natural cracks that timbers get over time.

Erecting the frame took just three days. Wind River uses 1-inch hickory pegs to hold the nearly 150 braces, purlins and posts together. “We use a technique where the hole we drill through our tenons is offset a little from the hole in the mortise,” Terry says. “It pulls everything together very tightly. You couldn’t slide a piece of paper through those joints. Everything fit together perfectly,” Terry says.

Because of the fantastic views in every direction, Russell worked with Mike and Alan to design a house with broad windows and a wraparound porch on three sides. The great room has the wide-open feel of a ski lodge and is centered around an old-fashioned, wood-burning stove. “It really warms the whole great room,” Russell says. “You can load it with wood and let it run all night.”

Russell and Kathy filled the great room with light-colored Ernest Thompson wooden furniture made in a Southwestern design in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Several hand-woven Native American rugs in deep red, black and brown give the room a depth of color against the warm wood tones.

In the kitchen, the owners played off the same color scheme, choosing granite countertops in charcoal gray with red specks. “My wife loves to cook,” Russell says. “I talked her into a stove like the chefs use on television. They have that heavy, old feel.”

The couple matched the remaining appliances in the same stainless steel as the stove. The cherry cabinets follow a simple Shaker design. Alan gave the kitchen special detailing by adding posts and arches to better define the space.

The floors throughout most of the house are made of 4-inch wide Australian cypress planks, but Russell and Kathy used 18-inch square tiles in a natural color in the kitchen. All of the floors in the house have radiant floor heating.

Above the kitchen, a loft brings visitors close enough to the timber trusses to touch them and high enough to gaze through a curved window to the mountains beyond.

Russell wanted the feeling of the timbers in the conventionally framed bedrooms. “The ceilings in that area are covered in aspen wood,” he says. “It’s a light color with a lot of knots. I also wanted big beams running across the ceiling, so we put them in just for aesthetics. Almost all of the people who visit cannot tell it’s not a true timber frame in this section.”

Russell’s favorite space, though, is the deck on the west side of the house. “The idea is to sit and watch the sunset,” he says. “But the best part is, I can hear that train whistle echoing across the mountains as it returns to Durango in the evening.”
Truly, that is music to his ears.

Wind River Timber Framing   photos/Styled by Debra Grahl