Channeling Frank on Gastineau Channel

A tranquil, Wright-influenced sanctuary takes shape along the shore

Story by Mara Severin • Photography by Chris Beck Photography

When William and Cris Zack chose a Frank Lloyd Wright style for their spectacular waterfront home on Douglas Island, it was more than an aesthetic decision. It was an expression of their personal histories – both individually and as a couple.

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Cris grew up just 26 miles away from Taliesin – Wright's famous Spring Green, Wisconsin estate. As a child, she even used to see the great architect occasionally. "He was the grouchy old man we were so afraid of," she recalls. Her family lived in a "forward-thinking" home built by one of Wright's disciples, but it was years before Cris would realize how much she was influenced by the organic, landscape-integrated style of Wright's work. "It's my environment," she explains. "My comfort zone."

Years ago, William (who goes by "Zack") was stationed in Northern Japan and lived in traditional Japanese homes rather than on base. "I loved it," he says. "I loved the people. I loved the art." And so began his collection of Japanese antiques – a striking table, an antique scroll, an antique wedding kimono and the Japanese prints that Frank Lloyd Wright also loved.

The Zacks' home, which sits across the water from downtown Juneau, was designed with this accomplished and eclectic collection in mind. The architect, Travis Miller of jTravism Art & Architecture in Juneau, even dubbed it "The House of Wondrous Objects."

A structure with substance

To help them achieve their vision, "Travis really tried to get inside us," says Cris. "He visited us at our house in Haines to see how we lived. He emphasized that this was our house and it had to have meaning to us."

"It was created to be a home where generations could come together," says Cris. "Our children and grandchildren are an integral part of our lives."

Miller designed three rough concepts, the Zacks chose one, and "never looked back," she says.

Miller, for his part, loved working with the Zacks. "We clicked from the start," he says. "Cris has a really deep understanding of architecture. She wanted to do something of substance," he says. "And as an architect – those are the clients we dream of."

Looking inside out and outside in

Essential to the design, says Miller, is that each room has a connection to the grounds. Most rooms have doors that lead directly outside.

A network of outside living areas is cleverly connected to the house. A deck off the dining room wraps around the front of the house and ends with a bridge over a garden area, connecting to a back deck where there's a patio for grilling. "There's a romance to the bridge and the garden below and the wonderful landscaping," says Miller.

Views across the channel are in nearly every room, says Cris. "There's a feeling of living outdoors. The windows showcase everything and you are drawn into the space," she says. "There's this gorgeous energy that pulls you in."

The organic aesthetics of a Wright structure also demand integration from the outside in. "Architecture should fold into the landscape," says Cris. The house, she says, "feels like it's coming out of the ground – like a gray mushroom."

So camouflaged is the house that the couple witness the occasional course-adjustment of birds in flight. "They veer at the last minute," says Cris, as if they didn't see the house for the man-made structure that it is.

The couple even christened the home "The Aerie" because it seems to attract eagles, a powerful symbol to the couple since Zack was the first park ranger for the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve in Haines until his retirement in 2002. And from their avian vantage point, they observe an enviable array of Alaskan wildlife – bears, river otters, eagles, even a humpback whale and calf. "We keep a dozen binoculars around," says Zack.

Space, subtlety, serenity

Inside, the home is a study in serenity. Hard surfaces and warm tones create an earthy, organic environment. High timber frame ceilings and a total of 60 windows throughout the house allow natural light to pour inside. The floors are subtly stained concrete; the frame is Douglas fir, which contrasts gently with the pinkish hue of the alder wood cabinetry throughout the kitchen and great room.

"We don't have a lot of furniture," she says. "We're not about furniture. We're about the essence of the house." The dramatic pot rack that hangs over the kitchen like a modern sculpture appears built into the structure of the home. "It was totally our architect's idea," says Cris. "It left you with this incredible spacious feeling but brought down to a human scale. It gives you both a high and a low ceiling."

When asked to actually count the home's rooms, Cris finds herself at a momentary loss. "We didn't want rooms," she says. "We wanted spaces with a dual purpose. We wanted flow." Cris points to the shoji doors that allow spaces to be closed off and opened back up. "It's not a blank wall," she points out, even when the doors are closed. "When someone's behind the shoji door, there's still a glow of light that creates a sense of life."

An uphill battle

The calm atmosphere of the house today belies the tenacity, ingenuity, and sheer brute strength that the project's construction phase demanded.

"The biggest logistical challenge was the site," says contractor Steve Burnett. "We had to access it from the top." It took a whole summer to pour the concrete for the home's three different levels. And the layout of the site demanded that the concrete be poured from a height of eleven feet. To install the siding while accessing the structure from a "really steep hill," they needed an extendable forklift with an 80-foot reach.

And then there were the jobs that no machine could do, such as carrying a jackhammer down the hill (not so bad) and then carrying it back up again (quite another story).

Recreating a vision

Burnett proved master at executing the more cunning and intricate of the Zacks' plans. While visiting a museum the couple was struck by a lit glass ceiling designed to display Dale Chihuly's glass artwork. "We picked up our cell phone and called Steve," recalls Cris. Not allowed to take pictures, the Zacks described it over the phone. From just their description, he created an indirectly lit false ceiling of tempered glass where the couple displays beach glass, collected glass hearts, and Japanese fishing floats.

"So much of this house is a credit to the contractor," says Zack. "To take the concept and make it reality… we couldn't have done it without him."

Architectural artistry

For his part, Burnett appreciates the Zacks' confidence. "I had some very talented people working on the place," he says, "and everyone was given leeway to come up with ideas."

There was John Carlson, the Haines woodworker who re-created the authentic shoji doors; John Engle, from Infinite Interiors, the granite worker who presented the couple with a whimsical hand-made chair in his own likeness; Carl Carlton, the sheet-metal worker who sheathed exposed beams with copper and then fashioned a perfect rose from leftover copper scraps; Roman Frey, the furniture maker – and Cris Zack's uncle – who crafted the Asian-inspired wooden lamps with wooden shades.

"Everyone in the house was an artist," says Cris. "If they weren't, they wouldn't have wanted to work on it. We wanted their expression and they gave it to us."

A family feeling

There were almost 80 people at the house-warming party that followed the conclusion of construction. "By the time we were done it was a family feeling," recalls Cris. "We were happy it was finished, but at the same time we were breaking up," she says. "We realized, 'You're not going to be here tomorrow!' It was a wonderful way to finish the house."