Gunda Starkey fell in love with her house long before it belonged to her. Like a cottage straight from Europe’s old country, this summer getaway offered a new home to someone who could embrace and preserve cabin architecture. “As soon as I walked in the front door and saw the living room logs, stone fireplace, the high ceiling, I loved it. It looked so warm and cozy,” she says.
The 1930s cabin suffered from all the ills of time: drafty windows and poor plumbing, a sinking bathroom floor and frayed roof. But charm could not be overlooked. Perched like an icon of Swedish folk architecture on the side of a mountain, the high ceiling and hand-hewn beams beckoned. Cheerful red shutters and stands of aspen trees added an allure.
And, Gunda, who is allergic to many of the chemicals used in modern homes, recognized a home “built from honest materials,” she says, “wood, concrete and glass.” Gunda pleaded with the owners to think of her should they decide to move. When that day arrived, they contacted her and the deal was clinched. This was the house, she instinctively recognized, that would be hers forever.
Unlike other mountain cabins, with front porches, single stories and a bungalow look, this cabin is straight from European fairytales: a Swiss farmhouse or German Alps retreat, the grandmother’s home in “Little Red Riding Hood.” A home with the aroma of gingerbread and Gruyere fondue, it sits squat on a mountainside with a high roofline, one small bedroom built into a second story.
Tall pine logs rise high, as high as two stories, but with a lofty open airspace. For only about 1300 square feet, the large main room creates a spacious and central living area, with a small kitchen, bathroom, two bedrooms and an entryway circled around the big room. The home remained an architectural mystery in her mountain town until its builder knocked on the door one day.
An elderly man stood in the doorway and announced that he was the carpenter. In 1932, he was a 21-year-old Swedish immigrant, who built the summer home for a wealthy family. His only pay of room and board lasted for one year. The logs had been felled from a forest fire, which he shaped with simple tools and pulled by horses to its current location. By himself, he had designed the house exactly as he had learned in Sweden.
“He was slightly built, not a big, huge Swede,” Gunda says, “and he did all this by himself. He was 92 when we met him and he was so proud of this house.” Just digging a foundation in mountain soil tests the limits of current day machinery. The daunting tasks of building in the mountains during the Great Depression can’t be overlooked. Talent, experience and sheer determination must have been driving forces.
Despite only two bedrooms and one bath, the house originally sheltered parents and their six children. By today’s standards, with Gunda’s husband and two children, space was tight. A single bathroom remains, the only drawback of the home. But now that her children are grown, Gunda says the cabin is perfect for two.
Gunda’s original reason for purchasing the cabin lies in her near deadly brush with pesticide spraying more than a decade ago. Since that encounter, she has struggled to minimize her exposure to chemicals and allergens. She added formaldehyde-free insulation, put on a new roof, installed additional plumbing and replaced the bathroom floor. Workers removed anything that contained allergens like carpet or chemically drenched building materials.
With each change, Gunda researched to find the most environmentally friendly way to rehabilitate the cabin without changing the original charm that first attracted her. The woodstove is a distant memory. A new pellet stove, one that emits little pollution, was installed. It’s a cozy fire, she says, without the problems of wood burning or the misery of wood chopping. Propane is kept only for a backup generator.
The front porch was redesigned to be a master bedroom, while the original parent’s bedroom now serves as an entry way. The original front door opens on the side of the house, perhaps evidence of changing foot patterns over time. Now that door opens to a side deck, with holes cut to accommodate aspen trees.
An old stove, given a new life as a storage unit, adds heft to a tiny kitchen, The newer, sleeker stove sits tucked modestly in a corner. Gunda has chosen to put off window replacement for now until she can find wood windows that she likes.
The informal architecture was intended to be a retreat and escape from city life. A few steps away would lead to wildflower walks and mushroom hunts. Stars appear brighter without the wash of city streetlights. The air is thinner and clearer away from highways. The reasons to live away from city hustle and bustle may remain, but these mountain cabins now are lived in year around. It only makes sense that upgrades in electricity and well water have to change with the times, too.
When holidays arrive, the cabin glows with antique ornaments, pine boughs and berry sprigs. A red and white tapestry sets the colors of the rooms, with a cheerful red and white quilt thrown over a couch. Red skiis and collected Ponderosa pine cones, red-and-white checkered tablecloths, red candles holders and European folk art sets the stage for a long winter’s night. Just outside, a frosty world envelopes the mountain town in silence until the spring thaw.
Gunda describes her home as “primitive but well-crafted. It came with a sense of history, and at a time when so many houses look alike, with this one, you feel connected to the environment around you.”
When Gunda’s cabin was built, only the hardy and durable survived winter in these mountains. Logs for cabin walls and large stones for a sturdy fireplace were all that were needed. Times have changed and we demand more comforts, but these old cabins provide a stalwart comfort that’s hard to beat and impossible to replace.
“This is a solid house with a lot of character, obviously built by someone who know what he was doing and did it right with the honesty of materials. I know there are no wood shavings held together by glue,” Gunda says. When character often takes a back seat to square footage in many new homes, an old mountain cabin defies current tastes and comforts. But for those who love and cherish these rugged buildings, continuity and rustic style are prized and protected above all.