Down by the River
A couple finds retirement bliss in a modern home in Montana’s Flathead Valley
Photos by Karl Neumann Photography
Hal and Mary Williamson spent a lot of time thinking about what their retirement home would look and feel like. Above all, they wanted to be close to nature.
The couple was ready to leave Missouri, where Hal had spent three decades at the University of Missouri as a physician, faculty member and vice chancellor of the health system, and where Mary had retired from her psychology practice. On a cross-country trip a few years earlier, they stopped in Montana—and the pull was strong. Mary had spent summer vacations in the state as a child and treasured the time riding horses and roaming the forests.
A wall of south-facing windows captures views toward the river.
With Mary’s nephew’s help, the Williamsons found a 15-acre parcel of land just outside the resort town of Whitefish and knew it was the perfect spot. At the confluence of two waterways on a bluff surrounded by wildflower-filled meadows and wetlands, the location is close to civilization but a world apart.
Next, it was time to build. “They had imagined a home and a couple of guest cabins for their family and friends, so we tested variations of that,” says the Williamsons’ architect, David Koel, a design principal at CTA Architects Engineers in Kalispell.
An avid woodworker, Hal Williamson built the boat that is displayed on the covered terrace outside the main residence. Vertical-grain western red cedar and local stone were used on the home’s exterior.
Koel created separate but connected living spaces joined by a flat roof that makes the simple, modern structures blend into the flat, grassy landscape rather than compete with the views. The main house is parallel to the Whitefish River, and a guesthouse overlooks Haskill Creek, with the buildings connected via a covered outdoor terrace.
Stained western red cedar, local stone and concrete pathways were used for the buildings. “We liked the idea of it being quiet and disappearing into the landscape,” Koel says. “It’s surprising how remote it looks and feels, yet it is less than five minutes from town.”
The kitchen’s waterfall-edge island is white quartz; the tile above the sink is Bedrosians’ Wave, a blue-green nod to the nearby river.
The 2,000-square-foot main house has a living room with fireplace, dining area adjacent to an open kitchen, a study, mudroom and pantry, master suite and a piano room for Mary. The palette is muted throughout, with whitewashed Douglas fir ceilings and ground concrete floors. Splashes of color appear in blue glass tile in the kitchen and master bathroom.
—Architect David Koel
Hal Williamson picked out the slab of western cedar for the dining-room table and finished the piece in his workshop.
The guesthouse features two master suites that can be adjoined, or utilized as a second study. The third building—one that visitors see first—is a detached garage and workshop sited so that it blocks views of the road, creating a private interior courtyard. “We wanted it to look like an abandoned railway shed on the Montana prairie,” Koel explains.
Using sustainable materials and practices was a priority. The residence has radiant floor heating, more than 600 square feet of solar panels and low-maintenance landscaping with native drought-tolerant plantings.
At the confluence of the Whitefish River and Haskill Creek, the Williamson home blends into its Montana prairie setting.
The Williamsons stay busy with multiple interests—they hike, canoe and birdwatch, pursuits they have enjoyed together since their college days—but are also content to while away the hours on their viewing terraces or at the fire pit on the peninsula tip overlooking the water. “We see moose swim across the river, and one day, a black bear was on her back reaching up to eat chokecherries,” Mary says, pausing. Hal finishes her thought: “We love the land and the things that live on it.”
A few steps from the main residence, the guesthouse has two master suites and a study-and-exercise room.
“When we lived in Missouri, we moved towards using more native plants, and the idea of rain gardens, where you collect the rain and use it,” Hal says. Wes Baumgartner, senior landscape architect at CTA, designed a streambed that flows through the courtyard, echoing the movement of the river nearby. It collects rainwater that pours onto it from scuppers on the roof. Strategically sited boulders, and plantings of grasses and such perennials as Alberta penstemon and wild bergamot, meld into the surrounding prairie ecosystem.