One-of-a-kind homes are hard to come by. This one made history.
Nestled among large junipers, lush shrubs and deciduous trees, the Phillips House looks like nothing else in Boise — or any place else for that matter. Visionary Boise architect Arthur Troutner designed and built it in 1958 along with owner John Phillips, a psychology professor at Boise Junior College, now Boise State University.
Visually, the home is stunning: Its roof looks like elegant origami. The exterior is a blend of dark wood, stained concrete block and gray cement board. The windows open onto the expansive view of the lawn and a meticulously kept Asian garden. The interior simply breathes with modernist cool, with interesting angles throughout, sleek wood Euro-style cabinetry, a globe chandelier that moves on a track over the dining area and other interesting fixtures.
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When the home was under construction, its form was so unusual that when the neighborhood kids were told it was a missile silo — they believed it.
“My dad didn’t want a cookie-cutter house,” says Greg Phillips, who grew up in the house with his twin brother, Jeff. They both recently moved back to Idaho. “He wanted something different, and that was right up Art’s alley. They were a great combination, the two of them.”
John Phillips lived in and cared for the house until his death in June. He was 93. The decision to sell the house was difficult, but no one in the family was in the position to commit to the upkeep of the property, Phillips says.
The historic house is listed at $599,000 through Mid-Century Homes by Moniker Real Estate. The Boise company specializes in midcentury homes within the city limits. The house has been green-lit for the National Registry of Historic Places, says real estate agent T.J. Pierce, a hardcore fan of the midcentury movement in architecture.
“One of the contingencies of the sale is that the owner has four months to complete the process for the registry,” Pierce says “This is not a property you just own and expect it’s going to look this good without a lot of love and care.”
The midcentury style grew out of post-World War II optimism and prosperity that pulled families away from cities and into communities with tree-lined streets and large yards.
The talent of architects and designers who immigrated from Europe fueled the style that celebrated new technology, manufactured materials and a connection to nature. They brought with them the clean lines and smooth planes of the Bauhaus style that when blended with influences from American architect Frank Lloyd Wright gave rise to a new school of design.
In the West, Joseph Eichler and Richard Neutra led the way. In the Midwest it was architects such as Eero Saarien. In Idaho, it was Troutner.
There are about 11,000 midcentury homes in Boise, and more in the larger Treasure Valley area. Troutner designed 16 homes in what is known as “Troutner modern” — and only one looks like the Phillips House.
In 1972, Sunset Magazine photographed it for a full spread, but only three photos ran. Most of the photos were returned with a note reading: “These were taken by a Sunset photographer, but the S. editor decided they were (too) radical for its clientele.”
The architect and the professor
Born in Idaho in 1921, Troutner was a brilliant architect and innovator. An inventor’s inventor, he put Idaho on the map with his open-web truss design, a product that revolutionized the way wood structures are built.
Troutner trained as an airplane mechanic during World War II, and later as an architect at the University of Idaho. He was uniquely suited to create this early sustainable technology that turned raw lower-quality timber into a composite that is stronger than traditional lumber.
He invented not only the truss system, but also, in many cases, the machinery that tooled the product.
John Phillips and his wife, Elaine, moved their young family to Boise in 1955, when Phillips was hired to head the two-person psychology department at Boise Junior College. He would stay at BSU until 1988, when he retired as the chairman of the Department of Education.
Before he earned his Ph.D., he made a living playing trumpet and singing with big bands. He also served in the reserves during World War II and was known for his calm, even demeanor. During his academic career, he wrote nine textbooks on statistics, intellectual development and other topics.
He was the perfect collaborator for Troutner.
“My dad was really open to new ideas, and that was an open invitation for Art,” Phillips says. “Together, they came up with this house, which is one of a kind.”
Troutner and his business partner Harold Thomas would start their first company, Trussdeck Corp., in 1960. (Today it’s called TJI Joist and is a division of Weyerhaeuser.) But in the late 1950s, Troutner worked out of a shop in Garden City and employed his inventions for the first time to build the Phillips House, and then Klein House on Warm Springs Avenue the following year.
“He was experimenting. That was the Troutner tradition,” says Dwaine Carver, an artist, designer and associate professor of architecture at the University of Idaho.
Carver owns and lives in a Troutner home.
“He (Troutner) liked to take something traditional — an Idaho vernacular, like the A-frame — and then turn it on its head. So the house is very familiar and unfamiliar at the same time,” Carver says.
The Phillips House may be an A-frame, but it’s certainly not typical. It’s his translation of folded plate structures.
“With that shape you can take something very thin and make it strong,” Carver says. “It was a very modern development in architecture and he combined it with the vernacular A-frame.”
Troutner’s invention of the open-web truss deck allowed it to happen.
“The floors and ceiling are supported by only three beams,” Phillips says. “It’s all open floor space in between.”
The roof features three folded triangles that meet at the top around the chimney. Their tips swoop and extend to the ground with dramatic effect. The result is a three-gabled house that is identical on every side.
Those angles carry on throughout the home, externally and internally.
“It’s a unique approach to the idea of no corners,” Pierce says. “There are very few 90-degree angles in the house.”
Troutner would later use this same technology on dozens of commercial projects, including Boise Little Theater’s domed performance space and U of I’s Kibbie Dome with its then record-setting 400-foot wood roof span.
A design adventure
Construction took place in the summer and fall of 1958, and the family camped on the property.
“We lived in a chicken coop while the house was built. And over there we put together a shower,” says Phillips, pointing to a large elm in the backyard. “My mother was very adventurous. I remember it was fun. We had a wonderful time in this house.”
Many of the home’s innovations weren’t in the original design. Eventually appliances were plugged in on the back porch and set up as a makeshift kitchen near the construction site.
“They kind of made it up as they went,” he says. “Art wanted to do all these creative things, and my dad as a professor at a junior college had a budget. Art would come up with these ideas and my dad would find a way to cut costs so they could do them.”
Troutner and Phillips took out a $25,000 loan to build the house.
“It was a challenge to get the money,” Greg Phillips says. “They went to every bank in town because the design was so unusual. They finally found one that would give them the money. I think Art lost money on this project.”
To cut costs, John Phillips did a lot of work himself. He spent hours sanding the wood surfaces before they were varnished. He stained the concrete blocks with iron oxide to give them their dark, burnt-orange color. He laid the flagstone in the entryway with free stones they got from Troutner’s brother who owned a quarry.
“I remember my brother and I helped by handing him the stones,” Greg Phillips says.
The interior of the house feels perfectly period. Much of the furniture used for staging was the Phillipses’ original. It’s also filled with original artwork, mostly from his fellow Boise State professors, such as painter Louis Peck, and from neighbor Francesca de Csipkay, who did a woodcut of the Phillips yard.
The downstairs contains the living and dining room spaces, a classic galley kitchen, a half bathroom and a small office where Phillips wrote. A stone fireplace is at the center of the house. The bedrooms, family room and full bathroom are upstairs.
The twins Greg and Jeff shared a space that was divided by a double closet that left several feet between its top and the ceiling.
“We would talk over the top of those closets for hours at night until our parents would holler for us to be quiet,” Greg says. “It was great for us because it was like being in the same room but we had our own space.”
The walls are covered with large panels of an unusual hollow-core chipboard — a fabricated wood product that allows wiring to run through the walls. It has a rough surface that would catch on fabric.
“My brother used to toss his socks way up high,” Greg says. “It drove our mom nuts.”