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A Timber Frame Fire Tower

A city-dwelling family escapes their concrete confines for something wild—a fire tower in western Montana.

Written by Susanna Logan
Photography by Heidi Long


For some, having a mountaintop experience is a figure of speech, but to Bick and Bonnie Smith, it’s a way of life. Years of climbing the corporate ladder in Minneapolis left the couple longing for a change of scenery. So 10 years ago, they traded their big-city views for the wide-open spaces of western Montana.

Now, the adventurous pair and their teenage son, Bentley, are still moving up in the world—geographically speaking—thanks to their lookout tower. Perched on a mountain overlooking a tree-studded valley, the 35-foot-high, single-room tower completed last summer offers breathtaking vistas of glassy waters, twinkling lights and, of course, miles of blue sky. “Up in the tower, it’s nothing but view,” says Bick, who began dreaming of the tower and its location long before the first timber was raised.

“I visited the area in college and said, ‘If I ever live here, I want it to be on that mountain,’” Bick recalls. After moving to Montana, the couple purchased the 10 acres he’d seen (just minutes from their home) and began planning a cozy, functional space where they could take in the landscape that lured them westward.

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Sky-High Design

To turn their ideas into a smart design, the couple worked with architect Scott Elden and Mike Koness, owner of Centennial Timber Frames. “We chose people who would bring something to the party,” explains Bick. Mike says the project was so unusual that he jumped on board without hesitation.

“It turned out to be a pretty sweet little fort,” he says with a laugh. Knowing the tower would need to endure the strain of high winds and large gatherings, Mike and his crew reinforced the 30-inch Douglas fir timbers with steel brackets and X-cross beams and secured them to the rock foundation 20 feet below the surface. To help the structure blend into its natural setting, Bick and Bonnie stained the new timbers gray and covered the deck and walls with reclaimed barn wood. It worked better than they expected. “We had a hiker come by who was adamant that the tower couldn’t be new,” says Bick. “To me, that was the ultimate compliment.”

For a guaranteed connection with the outdoors, walls change to windows at waist height and the windows tilt out to usher in cool breezes. Inside, the interiors defer to the views with simple furnishings and muted tones. A refrigerator, microwave and propane stove make the area functional for weekend stays, while a home theater system with a big screen television and an X-box boosts the entertainment factor. “We didn’t plan on having any of those things, but we wanted as many excuses as possible to go up there,” Bick says.  But the tower isn’t just for fun. The forest service uses it as a lookout during fire season, and the Smith’s allow community groups to hold meetings there. They’ve even auctioned off a night in the tower for charity. “We know how lucky we are, and we want to share it with others,” says Bick.

Often, the sharing comes in the form of the Smith’s frequent dinner parties. While the 200-square-foot room seats about a dozen guests, it’s the 6-foot-wide wrap-around catwalk and second-story deck that set the stage for entertaining. When not hosting family and friends, the couple says they love to curl up with a book, watch for wildlife (they often spot mountain lions, eagles and even the occasional bear) or just relax with a glass of wine during sunset. “It really is like watching over paradise,” says Bonnie.

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TIMBER FRAME DETAILS:
Square Footage: 200
Timber Company: Centennial Timber Frames

Tour the Timber Frame Fire Tower