|A Barn Reborn
By Jennifer Tuohy
Photos by Thia Konig
A striking American flag carved into the side of a huge barn door greets those who brave the mile-long driveway to Tom and Lara McLean's mid-valley home. An appropriate welcome to the home of two firefighters, this bold display of patriotism is merely the first step in a fascinating journey into the lives of this eclectic couple.
Inside the 16-year-old structure, the mood is flamboyant, yet reserved, colorful yet muted, eclectic yet stable, utilitarian yet wildly inappropriate (a stray cat lives in the bathroom sink). The couple's style and substance resonates through every beam, uniting in a harmony as surprising and serendipitous as the marriage it shelters.
Splashes of bright color and whimsical arrangements complement the earthy, wooden undertones of the interior's design. An arrangement of luminescent baubles resting in a handmade ceramic bowl, their shimmer highlighting the rich tone of the artfully placed vases behind them, could be straight from the pages of Elle Décor. The neighboring 1900s Belleville stove and assorted antique tools would perhaps be more at home in a miner's cabin. Organic and constantly evolving, this mesh of sensibilities endures.
For many, home is where the heart is. For the McLeans, their home is the beating organ of their union. Without peers and without pretense, the home is not carefully crafted to awe visitors or cow little children; instead it is the sum of successfully surmounted challenges.
Lara McLean, formerly Babalis, arrived in the valley in 1998. Ketchum was to be a stopping-off point on the way to San Francisco, where a thriving career as a death metal superstar awaited. Tom arrived from Bellevue, Washington, in 1985. He came to ski and stayed for the summers. Lara is vibrant, energetic and colorful (despite being regularly dressed in black). Tom is a man of carefully considered words. So Lara sums it up for him, "We're very different. Poor guy."
In 1999, the couple had been dating a few months when Tom bought the barn. "We wanted to have a home here, but we couldn't afford to buy a ready-made one," he said. "Considering a 'home with potential' cost upwards of $700,000 at the time, our best bet was to buy something that was beyond potential." So they settled for a barn "not fit for human occupancy" on two acres for $325,000.
For most, the prospect of bringing a rundown home up to potential involves at best a few licks of paint, at worst some minor structural work. For Tom and Lara, it started with digging under the foundations and putting in concrete supports ("I poured the concrete myself" the 5-foot nothing Lara claimed proudly).
The prospect of building a home nearly from scratch did not intimidate Tom. "I didn't have any experience with building my own home, but I knew I could find all the info I needed if I looked hard enough." He relied on a handful of friends and contractors, as well as Sun Valley architect Suzy Schick-Bille to help bring the structure up to residential requirements. But in essence, he built it himself while he was training in Boise to be a paramedic. One Thanksgiving, when faced with 16-foot-long wooden beams needed upstairs, but currently residing downstairs, he improvised. "I built this shoulder sling that I could put around the beam and over my shoulder to carry them up the stairway," he said. "Even being in pretty good condition, it was absolutely a struggle with every step. I got to the top of the stairs with one beam, and I hear Lara behind me." Tears welling up in her eyes, she pleaded with him to stop, stop trying to do it all by himself.
"There's a lot of personal satisfaction in being able to do a difficult, hard job by yourself," said Tom. "Thinking smarter than a piece of wood. There are elements of danger, and I guess foolhardiness, but it’s a lot of fun. Given a chance, I'd do it again because it's so interesting and rewarding."
Tom's building style is a torrent of clichés. From "necessity is the mother of invention" to "one man's trash is another man's treasure," his comment, "I'm a bit of a saver," is uttered with trademark understatement. His sources are varied, things he comes across in his line of work, scrounging around in wrecked buildings and burned houses (with permission). Every piece has a story. Some tell of Ketchum's bygone days, some of the couple's heritage. "I spent a very long night pulling those beams out of the foundation of Louie's restaurant." The bricks on the patio and the flooring for the Cape Cod-style potting shed came from The Buffalo Café, and the attractive track lighting in the kitchen once lived in a cowboy store on Ketchum's Main Street.
In the center of the house, wall-less windows salvaged from an old Ketchum home hang from the ceiling, separating the living area from the hallway and adjoining kitchen. The Victorian radiator doubling as a windowsill for some thirsty plants was salvaged from the Shoshone desert. An imposing, industrial 1978 Wolf range, occupying pride-of-place in the open-plan kitchen, belonged to Lara's aunt, Felisa Vanoff.
A charming double Dutch door (that once stood in Ketchum's Old Colonnade) welcomes visitors into the home. And while it's hard to imagine Lara channeling Betty Crocker and doling out cherry pies through the open top to vagrant neighborhood children, the door’s New World aesthetic completes the home's rugged Wild West character.
Ensconced by wainscoting from a downtown Ketchum building, the living/dining area is a collectibles cave, from the old fire department lounge chair to the exquisite handmade dining room table (made by Tom's hands). Here Lara threw in a few of her mod touches. "It's my couch,” she said. Peppered with monotone squares, the space is funky and functional. "I’m totally into black and white right now. This came from Pier One," she whispered conspiratorially over the striking area rug.
When asked if the home is finished, shouts of "No" bounce off the original log walls. A large workshop occupying a third of the home's square footage is evidence of this. Earmarked to be the great room, it is currently the creative hub of Tom’s homemaking. Scents of mingled wood emanate from the found treasures littering the concrete floor, all lying in wait for inspiration to strike. "These balusters are from a stairway in the Alpenrose hotel in Ketchum, which stood half-abandoned for the best part of a decade,” said Tom. "They need to find a home, be something special but I'm not sure what yet."
A row of weathered wooden planks balance just above head height. "Wood is always interesting to me," said Tom. "If you look at these two boards you’ll see numbers stamped into them." Sitting a pre-McDonald's American butt width apart, the numbers once directed rodeo patrons to their narrow seats.
What this barn has taught Tom is evident in its new ambience. From the first piece he ever built (a rickety side table, whose worth is manifest in its continued existence), to the most recent addition (two spectacular armoires that are the centerpiece of the main living space), his education is tangible. "He built these armoires and hutches for me completely from scratch," said Lara, adding, "He hasn’t finished them yet—there should be a piece in the middle. He built the island, all the kitchen cabinets, the grandfather clock. Actually, most everything in here."
Whereas the ground floor is a marriage of the two distinct, yet harmonious personalities that inhabit it, upstairs is a different story. Divided by an invisible line, the attic bedroom is one half her (sparkling, cluttered, charming) and one half him (sparse, neat, uniform). Brought together by a magnificent bed—built by Tom, decorated by Lara—the room reveals many secrets.
A passionate animal activist, Lara displays photos of her many creatures on her Pier One lingerie cabinet, nestled snugly next to her sparkling bridal veil and glittering pillows. Her bookshelves groan under the hefty weight of mind-bending medical texts (for her career as a paramedic alongside her continued education in fire science and psychology), jostling for space with thrillers by novelists such as Dennis Lehane and Robert Crais. Animal behaviorist Temple Grandin’s work has pride of place, albeit a crowded one, next to works on horses, dressage, languages, design and history.
Fittingly on the left side of the bed, Tom's space is sparse but fulfilling. The few items speak volumes. His uncle’s desk is literally etched with the character of Leo Hammond, an Idahoan who participated in the development of the Frank Church Wilderness and worked on the Alcan Highway. A simple table displays three McLean Tartans, and a stark white stool occupies the ample space in front of an austere dresser, ornamented plainly by the numerous certificates Tom has earned in his career as a firefighter and paramedic.
Tom estimates that over the past decade, he has spent 20,000 hours working on the house ("Or on knowing that I should be."). His intuitive use of other people’s cast-offs to create his dream home is both timely and timeless. In the decades of excess and consumption that preceded us, the concept of waste was throwaway. Today, more people are looking to re-use, reduce and recycle, returning to sensibilities rediscovered in America’s last Great Depression.
Tom's trusty tools—including an antique combination square that belonged to his uncle and his favorite wooden mallet—unite with Lara's instinctive style, peppered by her rock-star roots, to create a habitat that celebrates family, heritage, substance and heart. In much the same way as the first intrepid settlers of this land—who pulled considerably more than 16-foot beams over their broad shoulders—may have done, the third-generation Idahoan and the death-metal-rocker-turned-firefighter/paramedic have found their utopia in hard work and a deep connection to this land and their hearts.
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"Wood is always interesting to me"