Highlands homes are a mid-century treat

Long lines and large windows highlight this classic ranch-style design On page 26: Take a peek at another house featured on the Heritage Homes Tour - the Allen family home (above).

August 23, 2013 

Sometimes you just know."This is my house," said Cathy Rosera when she first walked into the Highlands home at the top of Ranch Road. "It just felt like my house."

As one of the houses on the upcoming Oct. 6 Heritage Homes Tour to benefit Preservation Idaho, this classy 1,900-square-foot home has a rather special history.

Ranch homes were all the rage when real estate developer Richard B. Smith began The Highlands in the late 1950s. In 1956, Glenn Buettner moved his wife and two young girls, Katherine and Priscilla, back to his hometown of Boise. Having grown up in the North End, he wanted one of those lots in the development and convinced Smith to sell him one that wasn't even for sale yet.

"The house sat alone at the end of a dirt street for many years while waiting for the other lots to come onto the market - and why we had to shoo cows away on occasion," said Katherine Easterling, a former chemical engineer who now lives with her husband on a sailboat in Australia.

The older of the two girls, Katherine remembers celebrating her fifth birthday in the newly completed house in 1958.

"The view up the creek valley into the Foothills was breathtaking," she said. "In 2013, that view is now shielded by trees, so there is no longer a panorama of the first nine holes of Crane Creek Country Club. I don't think my parents could have ever imagined the view would disappear like it has. It was still there in 1978 when they moved to Arizona. Up until then, the swimming pool seemed suspended on the edge of the cliff, with the Boise Foothills beyond … almost a precursor to the infinity pools that are popular today."

"We were the highest home in the Highlands at the time," said her sister, Priscilla FitzMaurice, a geologist who now lives in Loveland, Colo. "We grew up playing in the creek."

"As kids, it was fabulous to be able to play along a greenbelt that seemingly stretched for miles," Katherine said. "And on our side of Ranch Road, that long expanse of endless backyard abutted Crane Creek - which offered a plethora of exploration options, including our favorite pastime of re-enacting the Lewis and Clark Expedition (with the proverbial fight over who got to be Sacagawea)."

Indeed, Crane Creek is at the bottom of the steep drop-off, but you would never know it now. The backyard is now adorned with shrubs and trees.

TRULY A PRECURSOR

The ranch-style home Buettner built was so much more than the basic, simple floor plan that could be found regularly in Sunset magazine at the time.

With its long, straight lines and windows along one side of the house, the home resembles those designed by Joseph Eichler in California - clearly influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright. Buettner admired Wright for building structures that were in harmony with the environment and the people who lived in them.

Priscilla remembers the Frank Lloyd Wright wallpaper in the hallway and master bathroom, and knew that the idea of a center kitchen island with a stove and kitchen drawers on casters were special design features that were not common at the time. She was also struck by the uniqueness of an indoor barbecue.

"The kitchen was always a marvel of the design for me," Katherine said. "In those days, no one had ever seen a kitchen island, nor built-in stainless appliances such as the warming oven and refrigerator. Hidden inside one of the cabinets, there was an integrated clock, timer and coffeemaker. All the shelves inside the lower kitchen cabinets rolled out for easy access.

"A drawer in the adjacent family room housed a built-in turntable for LP records. The speakers were hidden behind the recessed wall unit. The master bath shower had a semi-circular glass enclosure. And there was a water softener and an electrostatic precipitator for removing air particulates (and decreasing the need to dust)," she said.

Both sisters - and their friends - felt as though they lived the life of the Jetsons.

"In that era, these features were the technology of the future," Katherine said. "I think I grew up expecting technology to do everything. I never even learned to cook until I left home and realized it was all a dream. Even the furniture in the house had a space-age quality about it. Growing up in that unique environment is what eventually compelled me to become an engineer."

Another modern aspect of the home was the lighting system. The Idaho Statesman ran a photo story on the home in 1959, and one of the photos shows a proud Buettner showing off the kind of light switches we almost take for granted these days.

"From three rooms in the house, you could turn the lights throughout the entire house on and off via the low-voltage switch panels. Plus, you could tell which lights were on and which were off," Katherine said. "This, however, was a bummer when we tried to stay up late at night without our parents' knowledge, because the lighting panel over their bed immediately alerted them, and they simply shut off the lights on us."

Of course, there are many other memories: jumping off the flat roof into the swimming pool as teenagers, watching the riders on Motorcycle Hill (now the site for the former J.R. Simplot home), the Highlands' Christmas house-decorating competition or the homeowners association that gave each house in the subdivision two flowering peach trees to plant in the front yard. Buettner also organized the neighborhood to build the privately owned bomb shelter ($100 per family) in response to the Cuban missile crisis. The girls knew where the keys were kept and often sneaked their friends in to sample the ration barrels, but that's a story for another day.

When it came to the house, though, Buettner was clearly ahead of the times. (The flat roof was his only design regret.) About the same time the house was built, he was hired by longtime friend Joe Albertson to be his chief engineer. Buettner used his engineering skills to great effect in that position and even shunned the idea of patenting a truss design he created for friends. (With Buettner's permission, those friends later patented the idea and started their own company.)

"The man should have been an inventor," Priscilla said. "He had so many ideas."

And while some of the "hidden nooks of convenience" may have been influenced by their mother, Grace, what is clear is that the home has stood the test of time.

THE HOME TODAY

Cathy Rosera fell in love with the home the moment she walked in the door. The unassuming front entrance and the home's Arizona sandstone grab your attention as the front door opens outward and you step into the classic mid-century house.

Sure, the blinds were a little frayed and the shag carpet was unimpressive, but Rosera saw past all that and absolutely had to have the home.

She was crushed to discover there was already an offer on the home, but she crossed her fingers. The offer fell through and it was now hers. She didn't even wait for her previous home to sell.

"I moved everything in, then moved everything back out," she said. "Nothing fit."

Her Victorian-style and golden oak furniture just didn't work in a mid-century setting.

Of course, when you buy a home "as-is," there are going to be some bumps along the way.

"It needed a new roof, and it needed a lot of work," Rosera said. "The air conditioning and furnace went out in the first month."

And remember that low-voltage lighting system Buettner was so proud of? Oops. They don't make 'em like that anymore. Tri-State Electric came to the rescue.

"They bought all the relays they could find in the United States just for my house," Rosera said. They now sit in a box in her house at the ready.

As a military kid who grew up around the world and had lived in nearly every state, Rosera was particularly suited to the challenges of bringing the home back to life.

She had started her own company at age 21. The Hammack Management Co. would become the largest property management company in Idaho. When she sold it 28 years later, she had 65 employees and was working 80 hours a week. Now she is a real estate asset manager, broker and an interior decorator who recently finished a million-dollar renovation project on Crescent Rim.

At the home on Ranch Road, she ripped out some of the shrubs in the backyard and added a deck and a hot tub. There's a whole outside living room and dining area among the greenery, too. The home is ideal for entertaining.

For the dining room, she found some marvelous mid-century teak furniture at Jillopy, a small used furniture store in Boise. That included a long, 10-seat dining table that fits perfectly in the space.

When showing visitors her home, she likes to show off the little nooks and crannies, like the fold-down sewing table or ironing board in the small but efficient laundry room. The slate around the fireplace came from recycled pool tables.

And then there is another special stop on the tour.

"I take everyone to my bathroom," Rosera said. The original wild, geometric tile design is still in place around the sunken tub. It's an eye-catcher, for sure.

That's not the only thing that comes around full circle for Rosera, who is only the third owner of the home.

She had barely owned the home a month in 2003 when two women showed up at her door unannounced and asked if they could see the home they grew up in.

It was, of course, Katherine and Priscilla. One of them was in town attending a high school reunion, and they had brought the Statesman newspaper clipping and other photos. Katherine and her uncle had also worked up a three-page history of the home.

Needless to say, the three are now good friends and keep in touch regularly.

"We were astounded to find so much of the house's funky '50s decor still intact," Katherine said. "Cathy has an amazing eye for melding unexpected elements - something that the house really responds to. I think it demonstrates that the design really is timeless."

"I've got a great view and a great floor plan," Rosera said. "I love the layout."

And the house obviously loves her back. Her eclectic sense of style and interior design brings even more character to a home that was already born with it.

"I can't imagine living anywhere else," she said.