Heritage Homes Tour preview: Home is a Boise Bench gem

It takes a certain kind of family to move into a historical home. Not everyone can do it.

Sometimes not even your friends or family understand.

“They didn’t get it at all,” said James Steele. He and wife, Christin, and their two kids moved into “The Mack House” in 2013. “But now that they come here, they get it.”

The original owner of the home back in the 1920s was a landscape architect who made his mark on both the home and the city. A couple of generations of Macks in the home also included an outstanding gardener. Today, James Steele, who followed his father’s footsteps as a second-generation financial adviser, is happy to spend time working in the yard, too.

“I think the house chose us as much as we chose the house,” he said.

While the home and lot seem quite large and spacious, it only sits on seven-tenths of an acre.

“It’s urban living, but it’s kind of in a park,” James said. “It looks bigger than it is, probably because of the big trees on it.”

Fred Mack, who lived in the house for most of half a century, talked about two landscape eras of the home. The first was by landscape architect J.A. “John” Jensen, the original owner of the home, and the second by Mack’s wife, which he calls the Mona Era.

Mack mentioned the white birch tree in the backyard — planted by Jensen — which is a good 3 feet in diameter. Birch trees generally don’t always have long life spans, but this one is probably at least 80 years old. Not bad for an area that had been sagebrush less than a century earlier.

The yard also boasts one of Boise’s few sequoias. Mona had to nurse it along the first winter, but it is tall and strong now. She also worked to establish the weeping cherry tree out front. There’s also a 12-foot honeysuckle that pays tribute to her gardening skills.

“I’m going to count the species some day,” James said. “It’s a lot.”

The trees seem part of the home, even from inside the house.

“Everywhere you look out, there’s a tree,” Christin said while giving a tour of the upstairs rooms. “It’s like being in a treehouse up here.”

The house chooses them

The Steele family had been living in Eagle for 12 years, and the North End before that, but they wanted more space, and they wanted to be closer to work.

“I was really hoping to build my dream home,” Christin said. Their Realtor pushed them to look at the Bench. When they found this house, everything seemed to fit.

“This just immediately had a good feeling to it,” James said. “There was so much light coming into it.”

And James could have a large yard. At this home, one of his favorite parts is a dedicated garden shed.

The location also made their family more functional. The couple met on the tennis team of Bishop Kelly, and they are very active with the BK Foundation. They have a strong core belief of giving back to the community. In addition to the foundation, James is also a former president of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival and is involved with The Arid Club, Idaho Business for Education, the Boise Chamber and more. The shorter commutes for everything fit their lives so much better.

And so, in the middle of a snowstorm, they moved in during December 2013, just a few days before Christmas.


But as is often the case with older homes, it was time for someone to give back to this house, as well.

“James promised me I could finish it to my taste,” Christin said.

And there were plenty of structural and design challenges.

“We went through three layers of flooring, and we found a concrete floor we didn’t even know was there,” James said. It wasn’t very big, maybe 4-foot by 2-foot, and it was in the middle of the kitchen floor, where there was likely once a porch. There was also a drain that ran straight to the sewer line, which explained a certain smell.

“There were lots of little surprises,” Christin said. “It was nice, but it wasn’t us.”

During any remodel, it is very common to reveal parts of a home that now have new code parameters to meet. (Code requirements have changed significantly over the years). And, like the three layers of flooring, one can never be sure when changes occurred over the decades. Even Mack, who lived in the home for several decades, said he discovered brass air vents that had been painted white at some unknown time in the past for some unknown reason.

“We wanted to take the little quirky things people had done and make them right,” James said.

The dining room was purple. And much of the house had a dark craftsman style to it.

“And I’m ripping it all out,” Christin said. “We’re just kind of lightening it and brightening it. I’m ripping out almost all the light fixtures.”

“And the hearth,” James said. “It’s a restoration with a functional, modern twist.”

Designer Hailie Thomas of Design Vim said the goal was to stay true to the character of the home, and the reworking basically “simplified” it from its previous look.

“It’s classic architecture and close to its original form, but with modern amenities,” she said.

“I’m proud that I’m recycling a house,” Christin said.

The hearth’s design, for example, has been simplified yet modernized by using the same theme found in the kitchen.

“We used some of the same design features from the kitchen — the Calcutta marble slab porcelain,” Thomas said. “And we used a similar mosaic tile around the face of it.” (Also of slab porcelain.)

Of course, not every quirky aspect was re-imagined.

The “Harry Potty — The Bathroom Under The Stairs” remains. As does the upstairs bathroom.

“It’s very Laura Ashley — that English country look,” Christin said.

There’s still an old-fashioned laundry chute, as well as a classic Romeo and Juliet balcony off the master suite. And the door to the wine cellar is an antique heavy commercial refrigeration door.

Becoming a home

Overall, there is almost 5,000 square feet to deal with. A special space with a special lighting fixture was created for their daughter, a fourth-generation University of Idaho Vandal. The basement is the realm of their teenage son. (There’s also a bathroom and steam shower down there.) The later-day second-floor addition has room for an office space next to the master suite and the modern master closet.

The three-car garage out back has also grown over the years. Mack’s father used to build boats and things in the building next to it. And later, a second story was added for extra living quarters. (It served as the Steele family’s “home” during the remodel.)

“I love old houses,” James said.

“It’s got lots of cool rooms,” Christin said. “I love having lots of separate rooms. Every room has its own terms of endearment.”

The separate dining room is one of those places. “I like a dining room where you can’t see any TVs,” she said. It makes for better family time.

“We’re traditional in our tastes,” James said.

“It’s super traditional,” she agreed. “And that’s part of our lifestyle to have the family together.”

The kitchen was one of those challenging spaces that now blends traditional with modern.

“It was like two overlapping squares,” Christin said.

It’s now white with brass handles. Very traditional.

The countertops combine that traditional look with a contemporary material — the slab porcelain.

“There are only a few houses in town that have it,” Christin said. “Just like we’re one of the few houses with a sequoia tree.”

But here’s the kicker. While there is no television in the dining room, you’ll find a large-screen TV in the kitchen for Mom.

“She’s the only wife I know who orders the NFL Sunday Ticket,” James said.

Sit back and relax

While the cars buzz down around them unaware of this fine example of a Boise Bench home, life seems to slow down in the backyard and patio among all the trees and plants. It has seen its share of parties over the years, buried in this parklike setting.

It’s also a relaxing neighborhood. There’s a community pool not far away, and the Vista Neighborhood works to keep the area vibrant and friendly.

With the remodeling project just complete, Christin praised Thomas of Design Vim with bringing the right styles and taste of design to the project. Thomas lives on the Bench herself in a home designed by noted Boise architect Arthur Troutner. So when it comes to older homes, she gets it, Christin said. Stuart “Buster” Dancer of Buster Built was in charge of the remodel. Buster even lived up to his name by taking a sledgehammer to that concrete slab they discovered in the kitchen floor. Christin credits them both for handling the daunting challenges.

“Hailie and Buster are my therapists,” she said. “I’ve had all these really talented people help us make this house work for us.”

Now more than 90 years old, this is an interesting historic home that deserves the attention it will receive during this year’s Heritage Homes Tour.

“I have nothing but fond memories of that house,” Mack said.

But at the same time, when you’re sitting on the back patio, it’s hard to tell whether the landscaping enhances the home or vice versa.

“The best room in the house is actually right where we’re sitting,” James says, as a light summer breeze drifts through the backyard.

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