A house like a buffalo

A carpenter muses on dismantling and recycling tumbledown buildings

  • Charles Finn

  • Istock

When I think of Western architecture, I think of bison, monumental in the face of everything. I think of the landscape, the whole improbable overbite of the Grand Tetons, or of Montana, all that famous sky hanging over it, with weather as roof. Along more traditional lines, I think of the teepee, made for travel, as well as improbable cliff dwellings, arrayed like buckshot holes sprayed into the side of a mountain.

I suppose the log home is what I should think of, thanks to a forest of ponderosa pine notched and chinked, dust and cobwebs hidden in geometries three stories high. Then there's the architecture of our clothing, the build of the cowboy hat.

For a day job I spend my time dismantling buildings. It's tough sometimes, being a burglar of history, but I always feel better salvaging all that old timber, and, even if for just a while, allowing the birds a little more room to maneuver. It allows me an intimate look into the past.

I arrive at barns leaning into the sunshine as if that was the only thing holding them up, their weathered boards and sagging roofs as tell-all as the faces of the men who built them. Driving to each job I realize just how much of the West is a place of open spaces, and I like the open pole barns where ranchers store their hay, all ceiling and no walls, the naked honesty of them, the "what you see is what you get" truth of the matter. I want my house to have grown out of the land. I want it to be lean and a little bit mean and face into the wind. I want it to creak and moan, like our history. With the wood I save I build small cabins people call micro-homes, modeling them after sheepherder wagons and piecing wood from a dozen different pasts into a coherent whole. A quilt of wood.

Dismantling buildings all day gives me time to collect stories. I like to think of the people who lived in them before there was electricity or the road was pushed through. Place begets us. Taking a break at work, I sit on a sawhorse and my eyes follow the patterns in the grain of the wood in the rafters, and I travel with the sawyers and loggers and men who gutted our forests. I think how the Rocky Mountains sit on the land. Our houses are thick and chunky for this reason, set apart, and not because we're unfriendly; we just don't like people that much. And why go up when you can go out? The only thing a second story might gain you is the exercise of climbing the stairs. Adobe walls can be two feet thick while fences of barbwire run for hundreds of miles and are a quarter-inch wide.

We're not particular in the West about taking our shoes off inside, and we like clear boundaries. When painters arrive they dip their brushes in shades of russet, mustard, sunset and hellfire. But it's the shadows that really give shape, the low roof and the thick eave of the ranch house. I like sitting on the front porch at the end of the day, a glass of whiskey and the sun going down together, slowly, like they should.

Last winter, I worked a job in Anaconda taking down a 140-foot-long brick building, where back in the day they used to service trolley cars. Word around town was that you used to be able to drive a school bus (or a team of horses four abreast) around the rim of the copper smelter that lit up the edge of town. Boom and bust, that's what built the West, and I guess that's why, when I think of our architecture, I think of buildings with false fronts like saloons, with doors that open like a blessing and slap you on the ass on the way out.

The first time I flew over Phoenix I learned the word cul-de-sac. It felt like marbles in my mouth. The last time I needed to set myself straight, I hitchhiked to Montana's Yaak country in the northwest. There's a cedar forest there, 1,000 years old, and someday, when I come to build my own house, I'm going to take my architect there. I'm going to ask him to sit on a carpet of moss four inches thick, ask him if he's ever heard Salish, knows where Deadwood is, ever made a horse fart or let one drink from his hat. I'm going to ask him, straight out, if he can build me a house like a buffalo.

High Country News Classifieds