Mountain House & Home: Star Gazing |

Mountain House & Home: Star Gazing

Melissa M. Kellogg
Courtesy Vantage Point ImagingThe owner of this observatory home in Eagle County wanted it to look as if it was crafted by 'eccentric gnomes.'

Astronomy compels the soul to look upwards and leads us from this world to another.Plato.If Plato was on the mark, where better to look upwards than the crisp, clear Colorado mountain sky? While many Colorado mountain homeowners are likely to cite our plethora of outdoor activities and entertainment as reasons for living here, some say they have a Colorado mountain home because of the night sky. Stargazing is as old as humankind, and one way modern homeowners enjoy a deeper appreciation of the dark Colorado night sky is making an observatory part of their dwelling. Private observatories can run the spectrum from a self-installed telescope on an upper deck to a highly complex, computerized telescope that can be integrated within a homes technology and entertainment network. The budget, too, runs the gamut. According to architect Jeff Terrell, the telescope alone can range from $10,000-$250,000. Three such private observatories are profiled here, with insights from the homeowners who inspired the design of their private observatories and the teams that made it happen for their stargazing clients.

Architect Charles Cunniffe of Aspen created a private observatory for the Frazier homestead that sits on a sprawling 400 acres atop a mesa in Telluride. At an elevation of 10,200 feet, the air is clear and light pollution nonexistent. Its a perfect setting for an observatory, Cunniffe says. The homeowners who have homes in various international locales including Austria, the Bahamas and Singapore wanted an observatory in their home in Telluride because, according to Cunniffe, one of their passions is comparing the night skies around the world. To create an unobstructed view, Cunniffe had to place the observatory space above the second floor of the home. So, he designed a third story with stairway access from the master suite up to the observatory, which also doubles as a sitting room. The room has windows all the way around its perimeter and a glass, peaked ceiling. Cunniffe also designed it so part of the ceiling opens up for a completely unobstructed view of the night sky. In addition to viewing the heavens, the homeowners love watching the wildlife that roam throughout their property. They have installed a motion detector system that alerts them to wildlife movement and location on their property. From their observatory they can use either their telescope or a set of high-powered binoculars to view myriad bear, elk and other wildlife that move about on the mesa.

Nestled into a quiet mountain hillside at the edge of an aspen grove in Eagle sits a new home designed by architect Jeff Terrell of RMT Architects. He built the home for a family for whom whimsy, fantasy and inspiration are prized values. Their home transports them from everyday life to a place that could have been built by characters from the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien. Terrell describes the man of the house as the driving force behind the installation of the telescope. Hes a dreamer and a poet who loves the exploration of the world around him. He loves stories like The DaVinci Code and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Terrell says. He also says the clients love of cosmological fantasy has been a major driver of the project.With its isolated location, the home is a perfect spot for a private observatory to satisfy the familys love of astronomy. Tucked into a hillside alongside the main house are the guests quarters, which also house the private observatory. Terrell was charged with creating a residence and private observatory that captured the imagination and looked as if it were built hundreds of years ago. For that he had to assemble a team of experts to help him achieve an Old World look that would also house a state-of-the-art observatory system. His goal, he says, was to design and build a home and observatory that looked as if it had been crafted by eccentric gnomes and engineers who could dream and see the stars, but without the modern techniques. The final product will be an observatory built with large, rough-hewn stones topped by a rusted, copper dome. The exterior, however, does nothing to indicate the technological complexity that lies within. The high-end telescope as well as the dome, which opens to the night sky, is integrated with the home entertainment network. From the entertainment room in the main house, the family can let the telescope know what they would like to see and the telescope will locate the desired target whether the planet Saturn, a nebula or a distant galaxy and display the image on the television screen in the entertainment room. In planning for the observatory, Terrell had to consider things like preserving an unobstructed view, structural stability, and the control of the interior environment to protect the telescope. For an unobstructed view, he designed the observatory to be a two-story cylinder. Next, he designed a cylindrical cement slab that would reach down to bedrock, affording the most stable foundation to prevent all movement of the telescope. A temperature-control system will also be installed to protect the telescope. Designing and building the observatory did not come easy. Neither the homeowner, nor Terrell as the architect, nor the builder superintendent, Brian Bergstreser of Beck Building Group, were experts in building observatories. They spent countless hours talking to experts and doing their own research to learn everything they needed to know.There was lots of legwork in the beginning, says Bergstreser, who had to learn about the installation of the telescope and the dome. He also learned about fiber-optic red lighting so light in the room doesnt interfere with the telescope viewing. Another discovery was that a set of double doors was necessary for the entrance to the observatory (to prevent static electricity and fogging of the telescope lens).The home is now in its final stages of construction. Bergstreser says he cant wait to see the finished product.

With the soothing sound of a busy creek running through their backyard and the serenity of the mountains that rise up around their home, the Slingerlend family saw their Beaver Creek home as the perfect setting to include a private observatory. They, too, included the observatory during the construction of their home, which was finished in 2000. The couples son, Brad, was an astrophysics student at Williams College in Massachusetts at the time and says he was the main inspiration for the observatory. Beaver Creek is a great spot to see the sky relative to Denver , Brad Slingerlend says. So Brad, his parents Mac and Maria and one of Brads professors at college researched the best dome and telescope for the home. And unlike most observatory installations, Brad wanted to be intimately involved with the set up. Because the telescope would be calibrated for the exact longitude and latitude of the home, Maria was charged with determining the precise coordinates of the home. They chose a telescope so precise that one could see the rings around Saturn as close as if the planet were in orbit across the street. Both Brad and his professor spent 10 days at the home putting the telescope together and installing it on a custom-made platform on the second story accessed by a custom-built spiral staircase. Although Brad has gone on to become a successful fund manager in the financial sector in Denver, he gets back to Beaver Creek frequently to use the telescope and view important celestial events. Astronomy is still a passion for him. The ability to see objects billions of years old always puts our spot on Earth in perspective, he says.

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