The high life

Life above the clouds in Eagle River

Story by Mara Severin • Photography by Dave M. Davis Photography

Winding up to the top of Skyline Drive in Eagle River, I was cursing the cloudy day. I’d been told that the views from the spectacular mountain lodge where Mike Johnson and his family live were unparalleled. But I needn’t have worried. After the car pushed through the cloud-line, and I arrived at the home, I realized something: When you’re this high up, there’s no such thing as a bad view. The clouds lay like a blanket below, illuminated by the sun that was hiding from the rest of town. It was a bit mystical somehow, dreamy and otherworldly. At this elevation, you’re not just king of your castle; you’re king of the whole kingdom.

General contractor

Neil Nichols
Yukon White Spruce log frame & SIPS panels
Robert Caywood, CMM General Contractors
Marty Raney, Alaska Stone
Kitchen, dining & bathroom cabinets
Solid quarter-sawn white oak with American
cherry stain
Kitchen & bar appliances
Viking, Allen & Petersen
Granite countertops
Tan brown granite slabs, Granite City Alaska
Hurricane-rated windows with aluminum clad exterior, interior trimmed with fir
Gieno (Canadian company) through Summit Windows & Doors, Inc.
Custom oak spiral staircase
Alaska Wood Moulding
Wrought iron
Adam Chiffy
Solid oak floor trim
Puhr's Custom Cabinetry
Plumbing, radiant heat flooring & sprinklers
Frank Newman
Garage, main floor bathroom & basement finish work
Copper River Construction
Exterior Palladium wall coverings
Installed by CMM
General Contractors
Master Gardener,
Cindy Johnson
Exterior concrete patios & Walkways
Copper River Construction

The house itself, a gracious and welcoming timber frame construction is, by contrast, very much of this world. Massive and sturdy, it brings a sense of stability and permanence that (literally) sits well when you’re perched on a mountaintop. It’s a house that can stand up to the elements. And with its mix of grandeur and rusticity it is, says Mike, “the perfect Alaskana home.”

Basketball, home brews and a bouncy house

Neil Nichols, the home’s original owner was a full-time pilot with a life-long passion for design and an architectural degree. He designed the home himself and began building in 2007. Personal circumstances led him to leave Alaska before he completed his vision. He needed the right owner to step in and pick up where he left off.

Enter Mike Johnson, an experienced Alaskan builder with the knowledge, the skill, and the energy to complete the daunting undertaking. “When I purchased it, there was no garage and no bathroom on the main floor,” he explains. “I added the bathroom, finished out the basement, did all the patios and built the garage,” says Mike.

These were not minor additions. The garage is a 1,500 square foot space – enough for 6 cars (though Mike prefers to use it as a basketball court – the ceilings are designed to clear a basketball thrown from just about anywhere within the space).

The “basement” houses a high-tech home theater room, a pottery room complete with kiln, a room where Mike works on his home brews, a game room, plenty of storage, and – what every modern home absolutely must have – a room for his daughter’s bouncy house.

Think big and think smart

The house is… let’s just say… spacious. And when you think big, says Mike, you also have to think smart. “The house is 10,000 square feet and the garage is an additional 1500. It boasts 10-foot ceilings and massive windows. So the insulation job had to be epic. The eight-inch thick Structural Insulated Panels (SIPS) made from condensed polyurethane foam give the walls a value of R40 (the ceilings are R60). The windows are aluminum clad triple-pane storm windows to withstand the occasionally punishing winds that come with mountain living.

“The house is incredibly tight for having so much square footage,” says Mike. And the proof is in the gas bill. “It’s no more than $400 a month in the winter and that’s with everything going.” And, he adds, “I never turn the heat on in the basement. Ever. It gets heated by everything else.”

More than meets the eye

The home is a plumbing and mechanical engineering marvel. A well-hidden sprinkler system is designed to protect every inch of the house. There are 11,500 square feet of radiant floor heating. And below the ¾ inch wood floors are 1 ½ additional inches of plywood to protect the wood from cracking. “The house is totally overbuilt,” says Mike, with unmistakable satisfaction.

And for temperature-control fanatics, this house has your back with 32 different thermostat zones.

“Neil just did a tremendous job of taking the extra time for even the invisible things,” says Mike.

Imaginative iron work and Italian inlays

Neil’s attention to detail isn’t all below the surface. The fanciful, wrought iron scrollwork throughout the house was custom-made from his drawings. A magnificent, gothic chandelier that dominates the front entrance is also the result of his active imagination and irrepressible creative streak.

Other design aspects of the house are from farther afield – a set of stunning chandeliers from Eastern Europe illuminate the main living area giving it a slightly Moorish feel. Intricately inlaid Italian Travertine tiles dominate the main floor. The most important European import may have been the three generations of Serbian tillers who flew to Alaska to do the work. “It’s the work of true artisans,” says Mike.

Lighting the dining room is another piece of history. “The dining chandelier is over 100 years old,” notes previous owner Neil. “It was a gas-lit fixture before electricity. It was wired at some point and hung in the Archbishop of Chicago's manor."

“Nothing (in this home) is from a package,” adds Mike. “This all came straight from Neil’s head.”

Solidly Alaskan

Despite the hint of exotic lands the house is – at its very heart – Alaskan. Locally sourced white spruce logs support the structure and give it warmth and authenticity. The custom dovetail cabinetry was built and installed by Eagle River craftsmen. And, on a clear day, the views encompass more of Alaska’s most beautiful sights than you would think possible from a single point: the whole city of Anchorage, Denali and Mt. Foraker, Sleeping Lady, the Eagle River Valley, Turnagain Valley and Mt. Baldy.

“I’ve been building in Alaska my whole life and I’ve never seen a piece of land quite like it,” says Mike. It’s a special spot and it inspired a very special house.

And when you live above the clouds, the sun is always shining.