Coeur d'Alene Magazine: Italian Beauty

October 2005 | Press

Story by David Kilmer | Photography by Joel Riner

She is absolutely stunning. A work of art throughout, a delight in every detail, a grand retreat of perfect proportions - this splendid Tuscan belle on the shores of Lake Coeur d'Alene.

With her Italian-inspired porticos and Bocce court, her suspended staircase and gorgeous sunken bar, this home is a masterpiece all the way down to the 3,500-bottle wine cellar hidden below her red birch floors.

More than 300 people worked for two years to make this owner's dream a reality, including many of North Idaho's finest craftsmen. Throughout the twenty-three rooms and eight baths of this 13,000-square-foot marvel, their exquisite touches are evident everywhere the guest might turn an admiring eye.

Owner Ron Nichols has long dreamed of a lake retreat like this. Of a place where he and his wife Cheryl could retreat from their busy lifestyles, but stay in touch with the world through high tech means. A place where they could entertain a hundred guests if desired, or simply sit beside one of the home’s beautiful fireplaces and enjoy each other’s company.

And then they rediscovered Coeur d’Alene. Both had a previous connection to the region. Ron’s family comes from Mountain Home, Idaho, and Eastern Washington, and Cheryl used to live in North Idaho over two decades ago. When two of their good friends moved here, it was time to revisit their roots. They had such a good time that they left one of their wooden boats for their friends to enjoy. The boat became their connection to Coeur d’Alene.

“Those boat trips out on the lake and times spent here with good friends renewed a bond to the area that became stronger with each trip,” Ron says.

The owners’ vision was clear. They wanted a place where they could work hard, play hard and entertain in a home that was warm and comfortable, yet open to the beauty of the landscape.

The building site was a rare find - a blend of forested slope and beachfront within walking distance of downtown Coeur d'Alene. The land held spectacular views, a rich variety of landscape along the beach and a remarkable level of privacy. From the street side, one could drive right by the front gate and never see the house. But in back of the home, where the big windows open to let in the blue skies, wind-kissed waves and green pines of Idaho, the home embraces the out-of-doors.

Architect Rann Haight, a personal friend of the owners hired for his “imagination and insight,” was tasked with the formidable job of doing this site justice. It was important to display the majesty of Lake Coeur d’Alene with strong site lines from every possible part of the home. Ron wanted things “big” – high ceilings, large spaces and big windows. Cheryl wanted it open and warm enough to feel cozy on a winter’s day. They asked for a large home with an intimate flavor. 

“They wanted to have those spaces where they could entertain and have people around them,” Haight says.

They also asked for a bit of Italy. Cheryl’s grandmother is Italian, and the owners had spent enough time in the old country to fall in love with its architectural style. Rather than move to Italy, they decided to bring a slice of Italy back to the Northwest.

“We were looking for that feeling we have in a villa in Northern Italy, but with the spirit of place that is so uniquely Lake Coeur d’Alene,” Ron says.

The illusion is achieved in remarkable fashion. The home’s plaza patios, water features, gardens, outdoor fireplaces and Bocce court blend the outdoors and indoors into one fabulous estate. Under the 100-foot-tall Ponderosa pines and tamarack trees, a park-like setting prevails.

Rising up from a waterfall falling over stones, the home’s tall porte-cochere curves in a comely half- barrel toward the massive front door. The door is hewn from mahogany, inspired by the owner’s beloved collection of Italian Riva wooden boats. Eleven feet tall and nearly 600 pounds, the dark textures and craftsmanship of the door hint at the richness within.

And when the front door swings open, a vision of loveliness is framed within its boundaries. The guest can see all the way through the house. Perfectly poised past polished wood floors, stone fireplace and hugely timbered ceiling, through gigantic picture windows, three Ponderosa pines stand watch at the edge of the lake. They could be the subject of an Italian sonnet.

By design these sentinels of the shore were kept within the sightlines, three simple trees dictating the entire footprint of the home. It’s a graceful touch to welcome the guest across the threshold.

On one hand, the blue tones of the lake are an ever-present companion from nearly every room. On the other, the front walls of the home protect and preserve the privacy of its inhabitants.

The round entryway makes a statement of individuality and style from the beginning. Intriguing masks from around the world greet the guest, selected from Ron’s extensive collection. 

Through the entryway, the home opens up into a wealth of rich woods, stones, plasters and leather furnishings. Here in the great room, the stone fireplace reaches twenty-four feet upwards. Across the birch flooring, large glass doors look out over a stone patio to the lake. The lofty ceilings are pinned by timber beams. These beams were added after the home was built – swung in through a window and fastened into place – then hand-distressed and stained. The result is a dramatic ceiling that enhances the effect immensely. One gets the idea that such huge timbers would be found inside every wall.

Wood plays a huge part in this home. Much of that inspiration came from the owner’s fleet of wooden boats, which led to the bold styling of the mahogany crown mouldings, trim and casework. In all, the home showcases mahogany, birch, walnut, Italian olivewood, madrone burl and vertical grained fir.

The leather furnishings, dark woods and fabrics create comfortable spaces. Most of the walls are done with a Venetian plaster style that adds dimension and warmth. Tall ceilings and large pine trees visible out most of the windows require sturdy and properly dimensioned furniture to match.

The home was eighteen months in the planning and twenty-two months in building. As word of the project spread, it became rightfully known as "The Big House."

To pull off a project of this magnitude, the owners needed a very unique team of professionals. They started with Steve Torres of The Torres Group as their owner’s representative and construction manager. He was asked to find the very best talent available, and then meld this group of architects, consultants, designers, suppliers, builder and owners into a cohesive group.

Building began in December 2002 and wrapped up in November 2004.

“We were stunned,” says Ron of walking into the finished home. “We had an amazing team – the best owner’s representative anyone could ask for, who found us the region’s best builder and a group of craftsmen who were remarkably creative and dedicated.”

Owner Ron’s business schedule precluded frequent trips to the site. He visited just seven times before seeing the finished home unveiled. He watched his home built remotely via web site, where he could track daily progress from a web cam mounted 75 feet above in a tree. His builders took more than 8,000 photos during the process.

His wife Cheryl committed nearly three years of her life to the project, making frequent multi-day trips to the site. She was an invaluable asset, often locating just the right piece or finish.

A home of this scale and design involves so many details that communication was key. There were thousands of decisions, consultants from California to Idaho and sourced materials from all over the country.

“The owners entrusted us with a remarkable task,” builder Jim Edwards says.  “We knew it would require the finest group of professionals and craftsmen we could assemble. The owners allowed those professionals to do what they do best.”

This talented group collaborated to solve problems and create new solutions. Everyone worked together to form some truly unique new features. "The owners gave us remarkable trust and confidence," Torres says. "They often asked, 'What do you think?' and then empowered us to be at the top of our game."

A prime example is the massive helical stairway curving from the great room to the second floor with no supporting columns. The structural engineer said it couldn’t be done. In the end, the craftsmen used a single curved beam, which didn’t flex a bit when several big guys bounced on it as a load test.

The curved railing is remarkable, its grand newel post comprised of nine square bars of iron twisted around one another. To accomplish this feat, ironworkers made the metal glowing hot and then twisted by hand to create the unique shape.

"It's just one of those touches that really do turn this into a spectacular house,” Torres says. “It’s those little details that happen over and over again."

The sunken bar is simply a work of art. The olivewood bar counter, its curve inspired by the bow of a graceful Riva boat, was created by bending hundreds of individual strips of wood to shape and then gluing them back together. The result is vastly pleasing to the eye and the touch. 

The sweeping lines of the bar are echoed through the kitchen with its vast granite countertops, three TVs and custom range hood. A gas-lit fireplace of stone and plaster separates the kitchen from a formal dining room surrounded on three sides by floor-to-ceiling windows.

Even a glass door in the kitchen is curved, which led to a unique conundrum. To create the curve, builders had to ship the door to one of two facilities in the nation that roll glass. The first door broke. It took eight months to finally get the door back again, curved to perfection.

The home’s hardwood floors of birch and walnut are meant to look like they’ve been here for generations. It took four men more than three months to hand scrape and micro-bevel the edges of each board. Like the rest of the fine details throughout this home, the effect is subtle yet resounding.

"We started by saying we're building a great house. We made some changes and we said we're building a really super house. By the time we were finished, it had evolved into just a spectacular house because of everybody's input,” Torres says. 

One of the major changes was creating a basement to hold the home's extensive mechanical system. With the addition of the basement came the opportunity to do something special.

Entrance to the lower level is gained either by stepping behind an Italian mural into the elevator, or down the stairs behind a secret bookcase door. How cool is that? Once the guest steps through the door, everything changes. The difference in design creates the sensation of traveling back in time as the guest descends. The drywall has been glazed and antiqued. The oak trim and wood stairs beneath are nicked and worn. There is the feeling of going down the romantic hallways of a hacienda.

The passage leads to a wine tasting room, furnished with what appear to be very old wooden tables, chairs and side cabinets. They are - and they aren't. In clever fashion, antiques have been matched with a brand new piece. The new cabinet was distressed to match the table, and to the casual observer the illusion is complete. 

By tapping a few keys on a control panel, the owners can coax the sound of violins from the hidden speakers in the walls, completing the charming tableau. They put on their favorite music while sipping wines from the next-door cellar.

"With this basement, we were able to create this really cool space that kicked things up a notch," says Torres with a grin. Everyone loves this space, and it's easy to see why.

Behind the tasting room, a hallway and gallery space leads to the brains of the home. This mechanical room, looking like a set from Mission Impossible, houses the security network, climate control, communications and video surveillance.

It has clean, precise lines, bright gray floors, shiny white walls and chrome diffusers on the lights. It’s one sexy mechanical room.

"The owners are very technically savvy," Torres says. "They wanted a smart house that was easy to manage, had sophisticated systems made simple by technology, and made a large home as manageable as a small one."

The owners can control and monitor the home with a few clicks of the mouse, even while traveling remotely.

Environmental systems heat and cool outside air to precise temperature and humidity, filtered to "perfect comfort." The home entertainment network has centrally distributed video and audio, XM radio, satellite radio and TV, as well as a music and DVD library.

The fully automated lighting system controls various moods with a built-in memory. Twenty-five miles of wire link it all together, and four computer servers make it work.

And then comes the piece de resistance, one of the truly fantastic features of this fine home.

Here in the wine cellar, 3,500 bottles are arranged in artful perfection. The presentation is superb. Lighting changes at the touch of a button in the cool climate-controlled space, where the wines are cataloged according to regions and varieties.

Custom Built Wine Cellar - Coeur d'Alene. The home continues to amaze as its details reveal themselves.

In the stairway railings, guests will see a truly special touch that, as much as anything, defines what this home is all about. The railings are supported by life-size hands emerging from the walls.

Cast permanently in bronze, they offer perpetual support. They turn a mere architectural detail into a work of art, a conversation piece and a lasting reminder of the hands that built this house – the hands of the owners, architect, owner’s representative, builder and superintendent. 

"The owners came to us and said, 'when the house is done, your contribution will disappear,’” Torres says. “We will always have the work of the craftsmen on display. We want a tribute to the management team. Something in the house that lasts."

Creates a spa-like atmosphere. His and hers vanities of alabaster-like counter tops at different heights match the owners’ varying needs, and overlook a stone-floored, covered deck with unobstructed lake views.

In the master bedroom suite, a see-through limestone fireplace separates bedroom from bath. A walk-in, door-less shower under skylight with remote shower controls creates a spa-like atmosphere. His and hers vanities of alabaster-like counter tops at different heights match the owners’ varying needs, and overlook a stone-floored, covered deck with unobstructed lake views.

Recessed TVs in the bedroom and vanity are linked to the house audio system, providing instant access to television, DVD library, XM radio and music CD system. An adjoining small laundry and kitchenette lead to a second set of private stairs, making this suite self-sustaining.

One fabulous feature is the custom-fit comfort in kitchen, bath and even closet spaces. Design professionals actually studied the owner's lifestyle and preferences, taking inventory of the minutest details. The amazing master suite closet, which has the area of a small apartment, is perfectly fitted to the owners' lifestyles. The designers knew how many pairs of socks, how many shoes and how many hats belonged here, and created space for each.

Throughout the home, the owners compromised on their individual preferences in style. She prefers a more casual approach, while he favors a more formal design. In creating their private office spaces, they used these differences to good advantage.

From her office next to the home's private gym, she overlooks peaceful pine trees from her balcony. The more casual style shows through in the cherry casework, birch flooring and craftsman-style casework.

His office is on the main level with vaulted ceilings and large windows facing the lake. This is the office that means business. The difference is clear upon entering the room with its walnut floors, sharp edges and mahogany trims. It is a masculine space with sports memorabilia and a scale model of one of the owner’s wooden yachts.

A mini-bar and kitchenette, as well as a private bathroom, complete this office space.

Despite its simple lines and forested surroundings, this is one very high-powered office. Satellite web link enables high speed, encrypted connection for the owner to conduct his energy utility consulting business nationwide.

Wireless technology allows both owners to stay connected to the web, printers and data servers from any room in the home, or even any corner of the property. 

One night the owner was working under deadline, bothered by the fact that he would be missing a full moon rising over the lake. Realizing the possibilities of his new office, he moved out to the beach side fire pit, built a fire, picked a quiet jazz recording on the sound system and lowered the volume coming from the rock-disguised speakers so he wouldn’t disturb the neighbors. It was a magnificent moment as he sat under the full moon by the fire, preparing his PowerPoint presentation. When he was done he hit ‘Print’ and from 100 feet away, looking through the darkness of his office, he saw his printer come to life.

“It was a dream come true,” Ron says. “It is the perfect office and the ideal environment for creativity. Work and pleasure combine very quickly with this technology, this site and this home.”

The house has plenty of room for vehicles and toys in multiple garage spaces. A detached three-bay garage offers pull-through access with doors high enough to pull in with a boat and trailer. On the home's other wing, a four-car double wide, double-deep attached garage ensures plenty of covered parking.

Cheryl’s Koi pond is a favorite retreat for owner and guest alike, and also draws the attention of a pair of osprey nesting nearby.

Italian Style Home - Coeur d'AleneThe grounds include a sunken garden paved with large flagstones. There are two fire circles, one gas and one wood-burning. A stone wall connects the grounds with the beachfront. The home's sound system carries into the backyard, with seven zones hidden in rocks and other garden features. From any zone, an owner or guest can change the music with the tap of a button or two.

One of the all-time favorite outdoor features of the Tuscan retreat is the Bocce court and patio, where guests can enjoy the traditional Italian lawn bowling game.

They have experience magical moments where indeed owners and guests seem to have been transported to the Old World, times when strains of Vivaldi or Belleni are floating over the grounds as the Bocce balls collide.

The owners have been generous with their magnificent retreat. Soon after completion, they hosted Tails to Tuscany, a fundraiser for the Kootenai Humane Society. During the event they also raffled off a dinner at their home for twelve, and a supper cruise in one of their Riva yachts. They realize the house is a gift they can enjoy sharing.

After construction was complete, the owners hosted dinner for everyone who had worked on the home. It was a chance for woodworkers, electricians, masons, and every one of the 300 people who had a hand, large or small, in creating this place. They brought their families to show them what they'd been working on these last two years.

"Every workman, every subcontractor, every craftsman made this home a success,” Torres says. “There is a remarkable level of craftsmanship in North Idaho. Everybody had stock in this house. It's the best of everyone's effort. Together, they thought of things nobody else had thought of."

Perhaps an inscription on the patio fireplace says it best.

During construction, one of the carpenters scribbled a unique hieroglyphic on the floor. The design was covered up, but the builders remembered. They picked an unusually shaped rock that didn’t fit anywhere else. They had the carpenter redraw his mysterious symbols and cut them permanently into the rock. Then they put a tarp over the inscription and lied like crazy. 

"Cheryl kept wanting to see the fireplace under that tarp," Torres says. "We told her all kinds of stories."

Finally, the day came when the home was finished and the inscription could be revealed: "This house was crafted with love for the beautiful woman who lives in it."

"We told her, 'That's for you, from all of us.' It was great because we actually made the owner cry.

That’s as good as it gets.”

Not long afterward, Ron gave them each a handwritten note. It said simply:

I have dreamed my whole life about having this home. Thank you for making my dream come true.

“This was the ultimate in custom home building with a team approach,” says builder Jim Edwards. “We had clients with a vision, an architect who translated that vision to form, and the right team to bring it to reality. We thank Ron and Cheryl for the opportunity to have been a part of this extraordinary project.”

Architect - Rann Haight

Construction manager/owner’s representative - The Torres Group, Inc. 

Builder - Edwards Construction, Inc.

Landscape Design - Clearwater Summit Group 

Lighting Design/Home Automation - Juarez Design

Home Automation Controls - Vantage, Inc.

Network Design - Media Joe 

Kitchen/Bath Design - MK Designs

Interior Design - Lisa Staprans

Audio/Visual - Audio Obsession

Interior Plaster/Exterior Finishes - Able Wall

Exterior/Interior Stonework - Delevan Masonry

Wine Cellar Design - Vintage Wine Cellars

Flooring - Country Plank and Metro Design

Painting - Frank Smith Painting

Front Door - Aageson Millworks

Wrought Iron - Blackrock Forge and Cimmaron Lofting

Casework - Tapley Cabinet Works