Up on Bear Mountain, a design-and-build team digs deep into their respective skill sets to create a Northern Michigan homeowner’s vision.

This article first appeared in Traverse Northern Michigan. Find this story and more when you explore our digital issue library. Want Traverse delivered to your door or inbox monthly? View our print subscription and digital subscription options.

Photo by Jacqueline Southby

Sometimes it takes a near-catastrophe to help us reorient to our dreams. In 2015, James H. VanSteenhouse survived a grizzly bear attack while bow hunting for moose in the wilds of Canada. That near-death experience caused him to reassess his life: He retired as the CEO of a mortgage company and turned his attention toward more spiritual pursuits, creating Bear Man Ministries. Not long after, he and his wife, Elizabeth, began searching for property to build a home they could eventually retire in and share with family. With this newfound lease on life, they were determined it would be nothing less than spectacular.

“We were looking for either a water or mountain sunset,” VanSteenhouse says. With the help of a Realtor friend, he and Elizabeth sleuthed properties across the lower 48, including Michigan—VanSteenhouse’s home state. He remembers the day his Realtor called and excitedly told him about a piece of property for sale on a bluff some 250 feet over Lake Michigan, facing due west, and located just south of the village of Leland. VanSteenhouse went up alone to see it, and as the sun was setting, called Elizabeth from the northwest corner to tell her they’d found something very special.

Photo by Jacqueline Southby

Jim and Elizabeth had a pretty good idea of what the family retirement home would look and feel like. Jim sketched out the first floor on the inside flap of a Bible study guidebook and the second floor on the same inside back cover. The plan centered around a sweeping bifurcated staircase in the foyer and views of the lake throughout the home. But most importantly, they wanted it to feel rustic, like a Western hunting lodge, and to be constructed solely of stone and reclaimed barnwood—a nod to Jim’s childhood as a farm boy in Michigan’s thumb.

Through friends, the VanSteenhouses heard about architect Nick White and the firm, White & Liebler Architects, whose rich portfolio dates to the late 1970s and includes some of the most architecturally beautiful homes in Northern Michigan. Firm partners Nick White and Nick Liebler, along with architect Drew Mittig, turned VanSteenhouse’s plan into a blueprint, refining it so that it took in maximum lake views, fit into the narrow bluff site and incorporated inspirational details from great hunting lodges of the West. They went on to design a home that would be constructed of authentic Montana stone and nearly entirely of reclaimed barnwood.

Photo by Jacqueline Southby

Photo by Jacqueline Southby

Photo by Jacqueline Southby

The White & Liebler team went on to recommend and introduce the VanSteenhouses to a full team of professionals capable of bringing everything together. Enlisting landscape architect Anita Silverman, interior designer Larry Boeder and contractor Marty Easling of Easling Construction and his in-house team of 84 skilled craftspeople, including rough and finish carpenters, stone masons, block masons, painters, dry-wallers, trim carpenters and cabinet builders. For many members of that team, Bear Mountain Estate became the project of a lifetime—something that could both challenge their skills and offer the opportunity for them to shine.

The challenges began from the get-go: “It was the rainy season when we started. Of course, everybody knows a bluff is all clay and rock, so it was just a very difficult process, but we met all those challenges head-on and made it work,” says Jason Klingelsmith, CEO of Easling Construction. But far and away the biggest challenge was sourcing enough reclaimed barnwood to construct every nook and cranny of the home including the flooring, as well as the massive hand-hewn timber structural trusses and beams.

Photo by Jacqueline Southby

Photo by Jacqueline Southby

Photo by Jacqueline Southby

The Easling team, working with JC Woodworking, a reclaimed wood business out of Pennsylvania, sourced beams from six Pennsylvania barns, two barns in New York State and one barn in Maryland. The flooring came from some 25 18th- and 19th-century log homes in Pennsylvania. Needless to say, none of that wealth of reclaimed wood came in standard modern dimensions, so it was up to the Easling team to cut it into jigsaw-piece precision to fit the blueprint.

Finished now, the home is a source of pride for everyone who worked on it. Says Liebler: “We knew when we started the design process that the house was going to be a pretty incredible architectural piece, but I don’t think any of us had any idea that it was actually going to finish at this level.”

Photo by Jacqueline Southby

Photo by Jacqueline Southby

As for the VanSteenhouse family, they love the home so much they’ve turned it from a vacation spot into a year-round residence. Perhaps that’s because Bear Mountain Estates achieved the VanSteenhouses’ primary goal: “To create an environment within and surrounding a home that no one wants to leave.”

Photo by Jacqueline Southby

Bear Mountain Home Building Resources

Architect | White & Liebler Architects
General Contractor | Easling Construction Co.
Interior Designer | Lawrence Boeder Interior Design
Landscape Architect | Anita Silverman, Silverman & Company, Traverse Outdoor
Excavation | Lake Leelanau Excavating
Paving | Peninsula Pavers, Molon Asphalt
Building Supplies | Northern Building Supply
Reclaimed Timbers, Siding, Flooring & Paneling | JC Woodworking
Electric | Waggener Electric, Waara Technologies
Plumbing | Precision Plumbing & Heating
Elevator | MEI Total Elevator Solutions
Marble & Granite | Stratus Marble & Granite
Finish Hardware | Studio 41 & Chicago Brass
Ceramic Tile | The Fine Line
Wrought Iron Work | Black Rock Forge
Insulation | TC Insulating
Stone & Limestone | The Concrete Service
Automated Screens & Shades | Retractable Solutions
Copper & EPDM Roofing | BRD Construction
Shower Doors & Mirrors | Northern Michigan Glass
Security | Habitec Security
Appliances | Max’s Service
Flooring | Floor Covering Brokers
Outdoor Sculptures | Agius Studio

Photo by Jacqueline Southby

Photo(s) by Jacqueline Southby