Many of us have waxed poetic about climbing out of our cubicles and eschewing the soul-crushing density of urban centers to live the freewheeling life of a ski bum, but few of us actually do it. Then again, recovering New Yorker Ruth Hiller isn’t exactly like most people: After visiting Winter Park, Colorado, for weekend ski jaunts, the 44-year-old artist and corrective-exercise specialist fell in love with the small mountain town—and decided to move there.
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"I was living in New York, working as a graphic designer, and one day I just decided that I wanted to ski," Hiller says, casually. While lacking the celebrity cachet of nearby Vail or Aspen, Winter Park has proximity to Denver, a higher volume of snowfall, and a small-town sense of community that Hiller cherishes. "I like the local feel. It’s not overdeveloped," she explains.
Once she decided to relocate permanently, Hiller needed a mountain home to match her predilection for all things modern. "I found this 1,200-square-foot ranch house, built in 1962. It was," she pauses to ponder her word choice, "dumpy. But I thought, Oh, I can just remodel the inside. Then I found an architect I liked and thought, Why not just redo the whole thing?"
To start over, she sought out Arizona-based designer Michael P. Johnson. "I knew I wanted glass and steel with wraparound windows," she says. "He came out, saw the property, and did a sketch. We decided on the design in five minutes."
On Hiller’s lot, Johnson had only a 20 percent footprint to work with. A steep, 30 percent slope added to the problem, rendering half the property a no-build zone. Johnson proposed using the existing footprint as a base for the first-level basement and car park. He then designed the living, dining, and kitchen space to be suspended and cantilevered over the backyard ravine, essentially building over the no-build zone and offering views of a winding mountain creek. Johnson recounts, "It was Mies van der Rohe who said, ‘Architects have been fighting weight all their lives.’ So we just wanted to suspend everything."
The new 1,948-square-foot house is top-heavy, with the elevated main living areas almost doubling the square footage while embracing the natural beauty outside. Of the heavy reliance on glass, Johnson explains, "I like to build glass buildings. It works from an environmental standpoint. Quite simply, the glass heats the house." With the inclusion of aluminum storefront windows and sliders with Pittcon baseboards, the space gets excellent solar gain and, not coincidentally, quite a number of houseguests.
"The second floor feels like you’re in a tree house, which is very cool, especially when it’s snowing," Hiller says. The house has received an overwhelmingly positive reaction from her ski pals. "It’s funny, I have a lot of friends who don’t like modernist architecture, and they end up loving my house. They say, ‘We didn’t know it could be so inviting and warm.’"
And they mean it literally. Beyond the solar gain through the many windows, the entire house has radiant tile floor, creating a let’s-sit-on-the-floor-and-play-Boggle vibe. When she’s not entertaining, the house is also a retreat and a place of solace for Hiller, who devotes her nonskiing time to painting.
Johnson describes the inspiration behind the bright, airy first level, where slanted light wells pour sunlight into a bedroom and studio. "I grew up in Wisconsin, and basements were horrible spots. We had the existing basement, and I knew Ruth was a painter and needed a studio, so I just borrowed light by pushing the lower floor plate in four feet, which allowed the light wells to light up a guest bedroom and her studio. It’s a logical solution for making a wasteful space worthwhile."
Before receiving zoning approval on the project, Hiller and Johnson had to approach Winter Park’s architectural review board.
"What they wanted me to do was put some ‘log accents’ on the house," Johnson says with a laugh. "I suggested to the chairman of the committee that that would be like your wife going to a formal event with a dress designed by Ungaro … wearing ski boots." Johnson waits a beat. "Then he asked me who Ungaro was."
Missed haute couture references aside, Johnson and Hiller were able to circumvent the system. "One way that I’ve succeeded with these committees is by selling them the idea of individuality," Johnson explains. "Are we an America of rugged individualists who want to have a personal identity or are we sheep that follow? If you get one or two people on board who support the opportunity to be creative, you can get what you want."
An architectural veteran of 50 years, Johnson has a clear passion for the modern aesthetic. "We live in a contemporary society. And to build architecture you have to be within the modern world. Otherwise it’s not architecture. It’s just some sort of imitation."
Happily, over time the community has embraced the home. "They’re all interested, and they seem to really like it," Hiller says. "People drive up just to check it out."
Perhaps Hiller’s house will start a movement in Winter Park. Johnson hopes so, and his passion for bringing modern architecture to the masses is palpable. "You can’t have everything be beige," he says.