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Modern Awakening

In Salt Lake City, a place not renowned for progressive architecture, Brent Jespersen built a luminous canyon retreat—using his architect father and a famed Utah modernist as his guides.

The Jespersen residence sits in virtual isolation atop Emigration Canyon. With its oversize sliding glass doors, flat roof, and meticulous attention to geometric principles, the recently completed home creates a haven in the mountain wilderness.

I am standing outside my hotel in Salt Lake City, when a silver Audi screeches to the curb and Brent Jespersen bounds out. My first impression is that this is a man who is no stranger to the bungee cord. We peel out of the valet area and he eagerly begins to describe his recently completed modernist home. A massive Ford F-250 roars past us, blaring what I come to understand as New Country. Jespersen shakes his head.

“You see that a lot,” he laments. “But please don’t write about suburbanites in their SUVs, drinking laws, or Mormons.” While the suburbanites or drinking laws could be downplayed, the Mormon presence proves harder to dismiss. Salt Lake City has a population of only 182,000. Of that number, 45 percent are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Founded as a religious utopia in 1847, and practically walled in by immense mountains and the Great Salt Lake that glitters like a mirage in the distance, Salt Lake City was designed as an immense grid that extends outward from the ten-acre Temple Square, the spiritual and literal heart of the city. The most prominent structure is Salt Lake Temple, which broke ground in 1853 (and was not finished until 1893), whose finial spires create an imposing presence. (“No Tours” says the brochure, firmly.)

It’s a clean, preternaturally calm city. Jespersen points out a light-rail system, one of many civic improvements courtesy of the 2002 Winter Olympics. It rolls by, empty. We drive down Main Street, the aptly titled downtown artery. Several commercial buildings sit vacant but the closest thing to urban blight is an unleashed Labrador.

Jespersen’s new home is in Emigration Canyon, roughly ten miles from downtown and about 6,000 feet   above sea level. I soon learn that besides being an avid surfer, snowboarder, and fan of the bands who once graced the stages of Lolapalooza, Jespersen has a passion for architecture, perhaps an inherited one. His father, Earl Thomas Jespersen, was a prominent architect in Texas in the 1960s and  ’70s, where his forward-thinking and artistic approach to architecture (he was also a painter and craftsman, but only recreationally) bolstered the popularity of his design studio, particularly among the astronauts of NASA’s burgeoning space program. In fact, Jespersen Sr. had the distinction of designing Neil Armstrong’s Texas beach house.

Entranced by architecture at a young age (“I loved going to the office,” he effuses, “playing with the models and drafting”), in subsequent years Jespersen, who now makes his living as a partner in an executive search firm with his wife Jill Perelson, found himself exhaustively studying the International Style as executed by Mies, Neutra, and Koenig. So when he stumbled upon a spare, elegant steel-frame home on the base of Emigration Canyon in early 1998, he decided he had to own it.

He describes the simple joys of the 1,800-square-foot dwelling: floor-to-ceiling glass, an open floor plan, and a spacious backyard with a river running through it. The house was designed by renowned Utah architect John Sugden. A revered figure in the Utah modernist scene (a small scene, granted, but a scene nonetheless), Sugden had studied under Mies at the Illinois Institute of Technology when he returned from the war until 1952, and then worked alongside him, most notably on the legendary Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois.

Sugden later relocated to Utah, where he designed several noteworthy commercial buildings and a dozen private homes, including his own groundbreaking home/studio, the Cube House. Jespersen was floored by the progressive simplicity of Sugden’s 1957 design but underwhelmed by the subsequent renovations.

“You can’t imagine the heinosity,” he says, and then proceeds to describe an aesthetic nightmare: a pitched roof with cheap metal siding over Sugden’s timeless metal frame. Inside he found dated Santa Fe decor, turquoise carpet, and cheesy blue tiles. “There was black light in the bathroom,” interjects Perelson.

Jespersen spent three years refurbishing the Sugden house, removing the roof and installing rectangular vertical windows. “I gutted it. Gutted it!” he says proudly. But the space soon proved too small for the couple and their spirited young daughter, Berlin, who had a penchant for zipping around the open-space plan on her Razor scooter. Local zoning ordinances were complicated and Jespersen didn’t want to destroy the original footprint, so he decided to build an entirely new home. Drawing inspiration from the original Sugden house, his fascination with classic California mid-century-modern architecture and Mies van der Rohe, and working in collaboration with his architect father, Jespersen began the considerable task of building from scratch in early 2003.

Barreling up Emigration Canyon to the site of his new home, Jespersen discusses his decision to build. “I wanted to create a temple, something truly serene and calm.” For the exterior he chose cream stucco and lots of glass, and as we pull around a bend the one-level house comes into view, perfectly at home on the windswept bluff. The landscaping appears to be based on the mullet principle: business in the front (manicured grid lawn, with native vegetation sprouting in careful symmetry), party in the back (sunflowers and wild mountain grass growing in harmonious chaos).

Jespersen’s design applies geometric principles to steel, aluminum, stone, and glass to create a relaxed yet sophisticated modern space. The most distinctive feature of the house is a long travertine wall that runs the course of the building—inspired by Mies’s 1929 Barcelona Pavilion. The open floor plan recalls Sugden’s design, only doubled and bisected in a perpendicular fashion. The two main sections of the home, the living/kitchen area and bedroom and guest-room wing, are connected by intersecting hallways.

Jespersen took a sabbatical from work to act as the general contractor for the project, and was involved with every detail, from the recessed lighting plan to the vast cedar deck, which extends out into the canyon. High ceilings (10' 6") and six ten-foot-tall commercial-quality sliding glass doors create an airy, cross-ventilated space. The decor is an austere yet eclectic blend of old (vintage Eames lounges) and new (slick B&B Italia sofas). The freestanding kitchen features wenge cabinets with custom-made handles, maple flooring, and a Roman travertine-topped work island.

But the real decor is provided by nature, with the floor-to-ceiling windows framing views of a mountain landscape both familiar and ruggedly exotic. The natural beauty offers considerable consolation for living in a place with a reputation for cultural homogeneity. As night falls, an oceanic darkness settles on the property, and amidst the crickets and rolling wildflowers, one can see the benefits of the trade-off quite clearly. Jespersen points out his hot tub, in a recessed area off the main deck. “You’ve got the stars, you’ve got the canyon, you’ve got a beer in your hand—who wouldn’t want that?”

A Mormon, perhaps. But that is clearly beside the point.

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