Colorado Neighborhoods REAL ESTATE

Little Chata in the Mountains

Three little historic Polish huts. One beautiful Edwards home.

High up in the Tatra Mountains in the Carpathian Range in southern Poland, where sheep roamed and hearty residents huddled close during brutal winters, the lush landscape is dotted with picturesque “black” and “white” cabins. The black cabins housed the sheep; entire families cozily shared the “white” cabin attached next door. The cabins may have been simple, one-room affairs, but woven into their fabric were exquisite craftsmanship, picturesque local tradition and folklore from people who found beauty in everything, and even ancient architectural mysteries handed down through the generations.

Three of these Polish “chatas,” or huts, have found their way to Eagle County, now tucked into mountain vistas thousands of miles from their origins. No longer separate or merely humble, these three huts have been joined into one beautiful and intriguing home that bears witness to another time and honors another culture, while providing the perfect backdrop for modern living and tastes. It is now a lovely home, logs glowing warmly in the sunlight, creating their own sort of alpenglow reflected in winter snows and summer sun. But if you look closer, you see the intriguing detail borrowed from Poland and expert craftsmanship applied in time-proven traditions as the three distinct cabins, from three separate decades, flow harmoniously together. So perfectly in sync with landscape and tradition is the effect that, in serendipitous fashion, architect and interior designer Kasia Karska woke one day to the sound of sheep bleating nearby. They had wandered close, as if they’d found home. “The house,” says Karska, “has formed its own environment.”

The result may be symphonic, but the journey here was nearly epic. As a child, Karska had traveled to the Tatra Mountains and had seen chatas such as these dotting meadows. The enchanting vision stayed with her for years. Purchasing the cabins sight unseen, they were disassembled in remote Poland and transported outside Warsaw, where they were reassembled to the configuration of Karska’s new vision. The logs were then numbered and dissembled once more, before being shipped in large containers over the Atlantic, where they landed in Houston six weeks later. But they nearly never made it out of Poland. In the 1900s, it had become increasingly popular for homeowners to export antique peasant artifacts and architectural features from Poland and other countries to adorn their European homes. After World War II, Poland made it illegal to export artifacts and antiques. Today, there are no more antique cabins to be had. Karska had to write a letter to the Polish government arguing the cabins were not truly antiques, but logs that would have to be reassembled with new materials incorporated. The Polish government agreed. But even then the path was not smooth. The containers, clearly marked from Poland, arrived right after 9/11 and, understandably cautious, custom agents and officials repeatedly stopped and opened the containers about every 100 miles on their journey to Colorado.

When the chatas finally reached Colorado, they lay in a jumble like Lincoln Logs dumped by a child’s hand. General contractor Jim Gilbert had a puzzle to piece together to create the home Karska envisioned. The challenge was putting the cabins together in a way that created the open spaces that today’s homeowners crave, yet in keeping with the historic ambiance and making the original craftsmanship the centerpiece. But Gilbert had a highly skilled team – including Polish craftsmen that Karska had transported from upstate New York especially for the job, headed by master craftsman Andrew Stoeka.

It took one year to reassemble the three cabins into one. The team securely joined logs, using the same traditional straw chinking – natural shavings from the wood resulting from carving when fitting logs  – used on the chatas in Poland. When the leftover shavings are expertly woven into “onion head” chinking, an airtight seal is provided – so tight, that when the cabin caught on fire early during reconstruction, threatening to destroy the first floor, the fire extinguished itself. Because of lack of air, the old cabin survived.

The three cabins can still be discerned. Each is an open room of light and air, with a natural division in their historic succession. The entry cabin was built in 1949, and today holds a massive moss rock fireplace. The cabin that now forms the  kitchen is the oldest room, from 1919, and the room containing the dining area and the library is from 1927. There is mystery and symmetry in the simple squares of the rooms. In traditional chata fashion, the rooms were built in perfect squares with high peaked roofs, which perfectly mimic the symmetry of the pyramids. The original ceilings were low, because the original owners were smaller in stature, so Karska had the ceilings raised. The 25-foot by 25-foot cabin that now forms the kitchen holds the elaborately carved central beam originally found in the chata, called the “Sosreb” beam. As in tradition, it is placed at the exact same height and proportion to crossbeams found in the pyramids.  Traditionally, the Sosreb beams served as places of art as well as genealogical registry, with dates of births, deaths and initials carved into them. The beam in the Edwards kitchen still bears the dates of unknown important family events, and lovingly carved bears, folk circles and leaves. And, whereas these beams originally stored food and dangled the cradles of newborn children, today they are fascinatingly decorative.

The details built into the Edwards home are both historically appropriate and painstakingly thought out to maintain the traditional peasant feel. The Roman numerals branded into the logs, marking where they go together, are still visible, providing a distinctive and fascinating touch. And the straw chinking juxtaposes playfully with the natural grains and characteristic cracks of the logs. The Polish craftsmen have hand-carved trusses and beams with techniques used by the ax-wielding mountain men of Tatra. The end beams display raised geometric shapes, which, alongside the hand-sculpted trim, staircases and folklorish curved molding create a delightful play of patterns. The pinewood floors were hand-carved and fitted, then finished with carved wooden nail plugs. “No one in the valley could have recreated the details,” assures Karska.

Upstairs, the master bedroom has a cozy attic feel, spacious and light – but tucked under steeply sloping eaves crafted from local aspen. A series of trusses and beams create an intriguing architectural perspective that draws the eye inward and offers a surprisingly modern feel with its clean lines. On the lower patio level, materials are largely contemporary but are seamless in keeping with the rest of the construction. The entire south side of the house is fitted with banks of wide windows, and a generous wooden deck opens onto meadows and the majestic New York mountain beyond.  Here, too, are the touches from Poland with carved corbels in the shape of the fleur de lis – what the Polish people call “horses heads,” because the same pattern decorated the heads of the horses that pulled carriages.

Although the logs were originally purchased from Poland, the charming home is no simple shepherd’s cabin anymore. Today, these three distinctive chatas offer one enchanting tribute to the loving traditions, craftsmanship, artistic flare and wisdom of the Polish people in a way Coloradans can warmly embrace.