A home not built in a day
Two decades of patience and a lifetime of passion: One couple's journey to their dream home
Story by Mara Severin • Photography by Photo Arts by Janna
Building a house can be a necessity or a luxury. But for Pam and Alex Gajdos, who spent 20 years building their spectacular Fairbanks home, it was about something else entirely: Passion – a passion for design, a passion for architecture, and a passion for landscaping, art and décor.
Framing & trusses
Rodger Voigt, Gold Stream Enterprises
Birds Eye Maple, Vern Hartvigson
Sheetrock & painting
Sears; Lowes; Home Depot
Pam Gajdos; taught by Debbie Mathews, Expressions in Glass
The Plumbing Showcase; Frontier Supply Company
Shower & steam room glass
Partial help from Labrenz Landscaping
It’s a house that proves that you can’t judge a book by its cover. The graceful, prairie-style exterior is textbook Midwestern. The art-filled, neoclassical interior is an eclectic blend of European and Asian influences. And when you combine the two? The results are pure Alaskan. “Up here in Fairbanks, we don’t necessarily feel we have to follow all the rules,” says Alex with a laugh.
‘Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.’
– Matsuo Basho
Alex purchased the land in 1979 and in the first year he had cleared trees, installed the driveway, and built the pagoda-like archway and rock wall that formally welcomes visitors to the property. The first building on the premises was the garage where he and Pam lived for several years while building an attached apartment. For 10 more years, Pam and Alex called that apartment home while the house was slowly coming into being.
Construction on the house was finished in 1996. “It was a long journey,” says Alex, with more satisfaction than weariness.
“For Alex it was about the process,” says Pam. “He loved the process almost as much as he loves the finished house.”
Echoes of Wright: Copper and cantilevers
Alex’s fascination with design is a combination of nature and nurture. Of Hungarian descent, but raised in Brussels, his early years were steeped in centuries old European architecture. His hand-built, old-world library is a nod to the gracious amenities of historical homes. When he moved to the United States, he landed first in “architecturally rich” Chicago and became inspired by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.
The home’s exterior is a reflection of Wright’s influence. “The strong horizontal lines are emphasized with cantilevers,” says Alex. “It’s a sort of hybrid structure – a combination of steel and wood framing. You can’t get those types of cantilevers with just wood,” he adds. “There are a lot of beams that you don’t see.”
The horizontal lines are further emphasized through the liberal use of copper. “It’s a classic building material that has longevity,” says Alex. “And it’s correct with the prairie style.”
But the copper also ties into Alex’s European sensibility. “Alex has always loved the architecture in Florence with the beautiful stained copper so he wanted to incorporate it into his new home,” she explains.
Interestingly, the copper needed to be treated in order to produce its blue/green-weathered effect. “Up here there’s not enough sulfur in the air,” Alex explains. “You have to treat it a few times to create the patina.”
The mind’s eye
Alex’s professional life has also nurtured his love of design. “I do design work in oil and gas and power,” he explains. “Before I moved into physics, my training was in architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology,” he says. “Where Mies Van der Rohe taught.”
“He has a way of visualizing things,” says Pam. “It’s one of his talents. He could always tell how something was going to look from every angle of the house.” For example, she says, he envisioned the way the view would unfold from the top of the staircase – through the rounded French windows that open into the kitchen. “That was the only thing we argued about,” says Pam, with a laugh. “I couldn’t understand why the window had to be round,” she recalls. “I thought, how silly. We could save a lot of money if we abandoned it.” But, she says, Alex stuck to his guns. “He said, ‘Nope, it has to be round,’ and it turns out,” she says, “he was absolutely right.” Everyone, she says, always mentions and admires those windows.
Blood, sweat and tears
The couple’s vision was only hindered by the ambitious (and often costly) nature of their ideas. While they employed many talented local craftsmen, they would often find that their ideas outpaced their budget. When this happened, says Pam, Alex would do the work himself. “He worked on the house every day after work,” says Pam. “The tile took a year, some of the woodwork took a year, the library took a year,” she says.
The dramatic spiraled sapele wood banister that frames the central staircase is one of Alex’s greatest accomplishments in the home. Unable to find a craftsman who felt equal to the job, Alex decided to do it himself. He traveled to the Midwest to a specialized woodworking facility in hopes that he could buy the necessary components. When that proved too costly, he ended up doing all the milling himself in his own garage. But not before, he says, “he picked up a lot of tips” from the experts at the woodshop.
“If we couldn’t afford it, he did it,” says Pam. “It’s his blood, sweat and tears in the house.”
A feast for the eyes
Originally, the couple had considered doing the interior in a prairie-style to match the exterior. “But that can tend to be a little dark,” says Alex. “And we already have long, dark winters.”
Instead, the home’s interior is a delightful surprise – a welcoming and engaging space that embraces the timeless appeal of neoclassical design with none of the solemnity of the prairie-style. “Pam knows what she likes when she sees it,” says Alex, and she knew she wanted “big, fat trim,” he says. Once you choose a style, says Alex, “you then need to focus on pre-established forms and methods.” If you don’t commit to the philosophy behind the style, he says, “the effect can be a little bit trite.”
As for the décor, this is where Pam got to shine. “I’m all about decorating and the arts,” she says. An avid traveler, Pam gets her inspiration from yearly trips to Europe and further afield. “We are both so inspired by the beauty of old world cities such as Rome, Venice, Florence and Paris,” she says. “My artistic flare and love for color is all based on travel.” Every room in the house is richly filled with paintings, sculptures and objets d’art.
The pleasantly crowded walls call to mind the interiors of European estates that would display generations-worth of collecting – handed down over centuries. “Some of the stuff inside the house goes back quite a few years from my family,” says Alex. His grandparents had a home in Hungary, one in Paris, and another in Peking where his grandfather – a scientist – taught at the University (he, incidentally, developed the first typhus serum). “It’s a diverse collection of things including a lot of Oriental art,” he says. “It’s quite eccentric.”
Pam, who has owned an optical business for 30 years, has a natural love for glass and it plays an artistic part in her life as well as a professional one. “I created all the stained glass above all the transoms and all of the beveled glass windows in the kitchen cabinets,” she says. “I love the Victorian era of stained glass.”
For Pam, the family heirlooms, the deeply personal art, and the souvenirs from years of travel give the home a cozy and comfortable ambience. “I think it gives the house warmth, color and texture,” she says. “Life is all about texture and color and – here in Alaska – we need more of it.”
In fact the house is so inviting, that people literally don’t wait for an invitation. Recently, the house attracted a group of bicycling tourists who mistook it for an inn. They sat at the umbrella-topped tables on the deck and waited for someone to take their order. They were so nice, says Pam, that Alex rewarded them for their mistake with a few cold beers.
Like all great homes, it is a “work in progress,” says Alex. “It’s something that continues to keep us engaged,” he adds. “To me there’s work and then there’s work. If you enjoy your work it’s a blessing.”