Arboreal appeal:
A fresh face for an Alaskan home with history

Story by Mara Severin • Photography by Photo Arts by Janna

There's something special about a home that has been loved by the same family for decades. No matter how many changes it undergoes, no matter how many facelifts it receives, there's a comfortable solidity, a cozy permanence that you feel the moment you step inside. Caroline and James Bennett's lovely and distinctly Alaskan home, built in the 50s and inhabited by the family since the 70s, is a perfect example of this phenomenon.

Ivy & Co.
Joe Starr, currently with Taylored Restoration
Deford Masonry
Tree trunks in living room & stools
Cedar from British Columbia, Tom Blackburn
Tile and granite selections
Yamely Wallace, currently with Alaska Marble & Granite
Local Spruce (used for all trim, window trim, logs on fireplace)
Dave Poppert, Poppert Milling Inc.
2" x 12" Oak grab rail, Joe Starr, currently with Taylored Restoration; sheet glass, Capitol Glass/Northerm Windows; and metal bar, Alaska Steel
Kitchen and bath lighting
Nina Phillips, Phillips & Co
Handmade cabinetry
Red oak, Keith Simmons, Big Lake Log Works
Designed by Joe Starr, currently with Taylored Restoration; built by Keith Simmons, Big Lake Log Works
General Mechanical
Handrails, shelves, trimwork
Joe Starr, currently with Taylored Restoration
Wall and flooring tile and pebble flooring in bathroom
Distinctive Tile
Robinson Millwork

But there is nothing dated about this lakeside gem. A recent and masterful renovation has given the home a fresh face with rustic refinement and timeless appeal.

Raising the roof

The Bennetts hired architect Mark Ivy, whom they have known for years, to help them with the major redesign. The two families had several connections – their children attended the same preschool and Caroline remembers Mark bringing gingerbread "walls" to the school for a holiday house-building project. But Mark's relationship to the house goes back further still. "It used to be owned by my father's partner back in the 50s," he explains. "As a kid, we would spend weekends there playing on the beach. It was an honor to be asked to work on it."

"Mark had to do it," says Caroline. "He really thinks outside the box and he always has." Ivy's design solved some fundamental problems with the house. "The overhang blocked the view in winter and the sun in summer," he says. "The roof was going the wrong way." In addition, Caroline, an avid gardener, had a large greenhouse installed on the garage roof. "It looked like it had landed there from outer space," says Mark. "But it was oriented perfectly. It was the one piece of the house they didn't want to adjust," says Mark. "So that was the hand I was dealt." The roofline was changed to integrate the look of the greenhouse, to let light into the interior, and to "define the space internally," he says. "There's this undulating pitch roof that defines the master suite from the living space and kitchen."

Building with vision

With a plan in place, the Bennetts hired general contractor Joe Starr and it was a perfect match. Of the contractors they interviewed, "he was the youngest and least experienced," says Caroline. "But he brought a passion that I didn't see in anyone else."

Joe was equally excited. "I recognized early on that this was a great opportunity," he says. "That the homeowners wanted something special and beautiful and were willing to go the distance." Thus began a five-year creative journey. "I wanted to exemplify the pioneer spirit of Alaska," says Joe, who loves to investigate abandoned buildings throughout the state. "I wanted to create something that evokes an old mine, or cannery or old bunkhouse. Something that was carved out of the bush. Something enduring."

Blood, sweat and wear-and-tear

The Bennetts shared Joe's love for rusticity and the inherent mellowness of age. Caroline chose a soft cork flooring that is now "scratched up by the dog's toenails," she says with a laugh. "But I don't mind the look of wear and tear," she says. The 30-year-old kitchen cabinets – built by a friend – were removed, refinished and replaced rather than scrapped.

Joe wanted to bring in "elements that literally show the workman's hands on it," he says. "I like using logs that look like they were cut nearby and brought over." Joe favors chisel marks and grind marks on metal. A large piece of metal in the home's loft was rusting to a rich patina before the work was even done – the result of the sweat on the workmen's hands. "You can see where the craftsman was working, and the actual tool marks on the house," he says.

Arboreal artistry and creative cannon fodder

The elevated level of craftsmanship and creativity are in evidence everywhere. The unique staircase with the handrail milled down from a solid giant plane of oak, and red cedar treads are accented by young slender spruce boughs as balusters. Each of the screws is hidden by a 50-caliber lead cannon shot. "That was Joe's idea," says Caroline. "All Joe's."

The arboreal feel of the home is continued into the kitchen where Joe created a beautiful island inspired by one that Caroline had seen in a magazine. "I thought: 'I want to blow that one out of the water,' " says Joe. "I tried to make it very organic. It started with a spine – the natural shapes and natural forms that a body takes – and then the vertebrae. It has an arch. It has ribs. It kind of takes on a feel of whale ribs," he says. Topped by a spectacular piece of granite the results are naturally beautiful and provide an inviting place to pull up a stool and visit the cook.

The secret to the success of this project was that he and Caroline looked at each aspect of the house in two ways, says Joe. "First we would work out the logistics of the piece we were going to build. And then we would discuss it on an artistic level," he explains. "We would ask ourselves: 'What does this piece mean? What materials do we want to use? What is the history of the materials and what do they mean?' Using that formula, we turned each piece into a piece of artwork."

There was enough trust in the relationship that Joe had a great deal of freedom. When constructing a small lakeside deck off the kitchen, Joe took some artistic license, says Caroline. "He installed the decking in the shape of a leaf," she says. "He used two shades of wood – the darker one for the veins and the stem. He said if we didn't like it he would take it out but it was fabulous and I loved what he created. He was always thinking about how to make our house as great as it can possibly be," she adds. "You cannot buy that."

What the Bennetts brought

The home is also a perfect backdrop for the couple's objets d'art – eclectic items that complete the house in a personal way. Like the whimsical sandhill crane that hangs from the ceiling and presides benignly over the living room. Created by Alaskan sculptor Gina Hollomon, Caroline saw the piece in an ad for the Alaska Botanical Garden Fair and Art Show. "I went to the fair with one check in my pocket," says Caroline. "I was so nervous that it would be gone."

And then there's the lovingly crafted antler chandelier that James himself designed and made of souvenirs from years of hunting. "He had never made anything like it before," says Caroline. "And I love it. It just makes the room."

Then there's the iconic and immaculately kept wood burning stove that James, in his student days, rescued from the porch of an old man in Indiana (who had grumblingly conceded to his wife's demands for an electric stove). James offered him $50, says Caroline, and made 10 payments.

'You're only as good as the talent you surround yourself with' – Mark Ivy

For Caroline, talking about her home means talking about the people who made it possible. Caesar Garcia of Distinctive Tile did the ornate and artistic tile installation, design consultant Yamely Wallace (currently with Alaska Marble & Granite) helped her find much of the home's most beautiful materials including the kitchen's spectacular granite, Rex Cash of Deford Masonry did the dramatic fireplace stonework, and the list goes on. "The masonry, the excavators, the plumbers, and the electrician were all first class," she says. "We didn't have one bad subcontractor. Not one."

A house with open arms

Inspired architecture, passionate professionals, involved and committed owners conspired to make the Bennetts' home warm, inviting, natural and fresh. It celebrates the home's history in a way that is rare in Anchorage homes. A house that's been loved by its owners and by the craftsmen and artisans who have worked on it, the home sends that love back out. Mark Ivy puts it best: "When you walk in, the house gives you a big hug."

*The homeowners' names were changed.