Feature Home: From Damnation to Sanctuary

01 Jun 2020

How a neglected home became a serene haven

By Sara Bruskin Photos by Ashley Davis Tilly   Jeb and Ashley Tilly were already in love with a neighborhood on Sugarloaf Mountain when they began their Boulder house hunt in 2008. But when they looked at the only home for sale in that area, they immediately knew it was not for them. In a stroke of madness or brilliance, the realtor took them to see a pre-foreclosure A-frame that had been abandoned by its previous owners. Those owners left nearly 20 years’ worth of possessions in the home. Despite the mess, Jeb was hooked. “Immediately I was like, ‘Done. Home. This is it. We’re moving to this house.’” His wife, however, did not share his enthusiasm. “I was practically screaming ‘NO!’” Ashley says. Although the two of them were at odds over the house, they have an unflappable team spirit and immense trust in one another, so they struck a compromise. If Jeb was so invested in the house, they would buy it, but he would take on the task of clearing it out while Ashley was out of town for two weeks. “He convinced me that it was a good investment and it had a lot of potential, and he is just magic with houses,” she says. Over those two weeks, Jeb hauled 120 cubic yards of trash out of the house and the backyard shed. He filled four roll-off dumpsters, and lost 10 pounds in the process. Those backbreaking weeks inspired Jeb to dub their new home “Damnation Ranch,” but when Ashley got back, they could both see what had been hidden beneath the mess. You know that Hollywood moment when something dirty and disheveled is cleaned up and revealed to be perfect and beautiful? Well, this was another cruel reminder that real life is not a movie. “It had good bones, but it was just cosmetically a mess, even after we cleaned it up,” says Ashley. “It was such a cool house. Very funky, but also very dark and barely insulated.” The basic structure had been built in 1963, when prefabricated A-frame kits were gaining popularity, and the simple design often relegated windows to the front and back of the home only. According to Ashley, it felt like living in a dark tent. Despite the darkness, the Tillys moved into their new house in April 2008, looking forward to the adventure of turning the A-frame into their dream home. Unfortunately, a much scarier adventure found them first.

In Need of Nurturing

On Dec. 20, 2008, Jeb and Ashley were both aboard Continental Airlines Flight 1404 departing from Denver International Airport when the plane was blown off the runway, caught fire and crashed into a ravine. In an article for “­Newsweek,” Jeb wrote, “This will forever be my memory of Christmas 2008: huge flames streaking past the windows. Snow and dirt flying past as we augered into the ground.” Everybody on board made it out of the burning plane alive. Jeb and Ashley were among the lucky uninjured ones, but the traumatic experience left them desperate for a place of refuge and serenity. And so, the rattled-yet-determined couple began planning their sanctuary. Because renovating a house while living in it makes both activities fairly miserable, they focused on revamping the backyard shed first. Then they could live there while remodeling the main house, and Jeb’s parents would have a place to stay on their frequent visits to Colorado. The Tillys did most of the work themselves, using reclaimed materials over the course of a year. After demolishing an inside wall, breaking up and re-pouring the concrete floor, and replacing some rotten wood, they built out a bay window and added all the necessary appliances. Once the dust had settled, they were left with 360 square feet of bright, beautiful space.

“A” is for Awkward

Next, the Tillys turned their attention to the main house. “The spaces in the house were so weird because of the A-frame,” Ashley recalls. “There was one bathroom on the main level with a bathtub that the wall angled over, so you couldn’t even stand up in the shower.” The same sharp slope hung over their dining table, severely cramping the seats closest to the wall. To get some breathing room, they worked with contractor Jim Cursley to push out the walls in five places, add some much-needed windows, and remove the wall separating the kitchen and living room. Jeb and Ashley can’t say enough good things about Cursley’s team, from their impeccable craftsmanship to their creative ideas. Jeb says, “We spent a long time looking for the right kind of stone for our countertop, and we didn’t like any of it because it all felt so polished and perfect, and our house is just not a perfect house. The way we wanted to interact with it was far more rough-and-tumble, so Jim suggested concrete countertops, and they’re my favorite thing in the whole place.” As an ode to their natural surroundings, the Tillys used local wood species to strengthen and accent their home. The ceiling beams are fir, the drawer fronts and kitchen shelves are reclaimed white oak from a Kansas barn, and the window trim is pine. “Everything’s kind of neutral and wood,” Ashley says, “partly in response to the fact that the whole place was so unkempt originally that the clean palette just makes things so soothing and unifying.” Lafayette painter Konchok Tenzin helped them achieve that unified look by staining the different woods to be a similar color. To offset their living costs and carbon footprint, the Tillys set up eight glycol solar panels that heat their home in winter, and the pool in summer. In responsible mountain-living style, they also built a bear-proof recycling area in the back of the house. An epic amount of work went into Damnation Ranch, but it was well worth it. “A-frames are such sheltering structures and such a ­central style in the Colorado mountains,” Jeb says. “We wanted this kind of alpine-modern style. Cabin-y, but also modern and clean.” They nailed that style, and added bucket­loads of warmth and personality to their mountain sanctuary.
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