Best Seat In the House

A tattered sofa sets the stage for a dream house.

Log home entryway

Charlie Ryan’s northwest Montana retreat was built around a ragged, gold flower-print couch. The Memphis businessman with interests ranging from real estate development and music publishing to ownership of Memphis’s popular Blues City Café, took no chances in deciding exactly how to situate his 4,500-square-foot dream home overlooking the Swan River: He placed the old sofa—all that was left from a house he had torn down at the site—outside and moved it around the property to gauge where he could sit with the best views of the Continental Divide to the east and the Swan River to the west. “I positioned the sofa exactly where I’d want it to be in my living room, then I positioned my house around the sofa,” Charlie explains. “Everything was about being able to turn my head from the sofa in my living room and see both incredible views.”

On a Mission

Charlie waited three decades to build his very private Swan Valley haven; he had first visited Montana to help a friend build a ranch in 1974, and had resolved to someday return for a home of his own. Having briefly studied architecture, and with a background in real estate development, Charlie also had a clear image of what he wanted, and that included timber framing, a vaulted ceiling and a lot of glass. He enlisted the help of Kate Sutherland, an architect with Decker Architecture, to draft the plans.

“In addition to preserving the views, we had two almost opposing goals in designing the home,” says Kate. “We wanted a house with a sense of spaciousness and graciousness but also a sense of intimacy, so that Charlie didn’t feel the house was cavernous when he was there alone.” The wings of the four-bedroom home would be conventionally built by Bishop Builders in Condon, Montana, but the home’s center, the great room, would be timber framed. For that task, Charlie turned to Timber Builders in Hamilton, Montana, to help Kate complete the room’s design, and then to raise the timbers.

View of the great room and open kitchen.

“What Charlie was looking for in the great room was a lot of arches, curved work,” notes John Perry, an owner of Timber Builders. “He likes Craftsman style detail and a polished finish.” Using radio frequency kiln-dried Douglas fir, Timber Builders created a structure with an elegant truss system that features modified king post trusses with 24-foot spans and elliptically curved double bottom cords; the main ridge peaks at 24 feet. Details, such as hardwood keys on the bottom cords and a pendant at the peak of the valleys where the dormers are located, add further refinement. The timber frame is traditionally joined, but primarily because of the plethora of windows, it is reinforced with embedded steel rods through the lower knee braces. The timbers are sanded and simply finished with clear oil.

“The artistry and quality of the timberwork is outstanding,” Kate says. One wall of the 36-foot-long great room features a Montana Chief cliff stone fireplace accented by a striking 7-by-5-foot sculpture above the mantel. The sculpture was crafted by Memphis artist Wayne Edge from iridescent Tennessee River mussel shells that mimic the sparkle of the Swan River winding through Charlie’s 141-acre property. And, exactly as planned, a plush, strategically placed leather sofa offers Charlie a seat from which he can view both the Continental Divide out the room’s east windows, and the Swan River and Mission Mountains out the windows facing west.

Dining area of the log home

Big and Small

The bright and airy living room opens to the dining area and kitchen for easy entertaining. The transition from living to dining area is marked by a sleek canoe that hangs overhead, suspended from the timbers. The canoe, handmade by Montana craftsman Greg Morley, is cherry with black walnut accents that complement the warm tones of the Douglas fir timbers and the browner hues of the home’s quarter-sawn black walnut floors. The dining area overlooks the back balcony with a panoramic, quarter-mile view of the Swan River and the Mission Mountains beyond.

Above the antique French dining table is an unusual chandelier that Charlie had made from an 1800s wrought-iron window guard taken from a home in Paris. The scale of the large and heavy chandelier, which has hand-blown glass globes, “honors the timber frame,” Charlie notes. The dining room is open to the sage green kitchen, which features a vaulted ceiling and an oversized bank of windows with stunning views of the Continental Divide’s 9,000-foot peaks.

More about this home was published in the magazine.