TROUT CREEK — Steve and Christine Michaels knew they were building a small two-bedroom guest house on their 100 acres in the foothills of the Cabinet Mountains.
What they didn’t realize was that it would turn out so darned ugly.
“It looked like an Army bunker,” Chris says, but that’s what you get when you decide to put your building underground — a decision reached purely for practical purposes.
Easier to heat in the winter, and keep cool in the summer.
But an eyesore, they came to realize, year-round, mostly because of the concrete supports that extend from the only part of the house exposed to air — the front door and a single window — that gave a definite freeway feel they most certainly hadn’t been shooting for.
“We wondered, ‘What in the heck are we going to do?’ “ Chris says.
You ought to see the solution they came up with.
Today, the Michaels’ guests — and for $245 a night, you can be one — stay in a mythical land of shoeless little people who eat six times a day, mostly mushrooms.
The wee race doesn’t need footwear, because their feet grow leathery soles and thick curly hair similar to the stuff on their heads.
It is a world populated by creatures both larger (not to mention exceedingly dumber) and smaller than the little people, the trolls and fairies that also sprang from the mind of author J.R.R. Tolkien.
It was their contractor’s son who stood looking at this ugly thing peeking out of the ground in the forest one day and announced, “It looks like a Hobbit house.”
That rang a bell with Chris, who had read “The Hobbit” as a youngster in the 1950s.
It meant absolutely nothing to Steve.
“He said, ‘What books?’ “ Chris recalls. “But Steve eventually started reading the books (“The Hobbit” was followed by Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy) and got excited about the story and the characters.”
Soon, he had his wife up in the forest that surrounds the guest house.
We’ll make this Bilbo’s house, he told her, and put Frodo’s over here.
“It really sparked his creativity,” Chris says. “He just took off with it.”
At the age of 63, Steve Michaels hasn’t landed yet.
“We were halfway through construction when the contractor’s son said it looked like a Hobbit house,” Steve says. “It was like (he makes the sound of an explosion), and off we went.”
On the side of Whitepine Creek Road where their Hobbit House is located, Michaels has 20 acres to play with, and play he does.
“It’s the fairies who come and set things up,” he insists. “They get juiced up drinking the water.”
No matter who is responsible, they’ve been awfully busy since the Hobbit House opened in October of 2010.
There are several much tinier Hobbit houses tucked into the ground around the main guest house, with tiny mailboxes, porches, chairs, swings, gardening tools, clotheslines and firewood out front.
The fairies live in tree trunks. The trolls reside in a large 700-year-old cedar tree stump that Steve says was “just a sapling on the California coast when Chaucer was writing ‘The Canterbury Tales.’ “
“We saw it for sale on the side of the highway on our way to Whitefish,” Chris says, and what was meant to be a child’s playhouse is now home to the mean, ugly and shockingly stupid 8- to 9-foot-tall trolls that inhabit Tolkien’s books.
Michaels built a waterfall and 40-yard stream — the River Shire may be Montana’s shortest river — plus a talking bridge to cross the water, and a mine shaft that attracts the trolls.
Those ugly concrete supports that once made the guest house look like an Army bunker have been covered in murals that match both the Hobbit theme and the northwest Montana countryside, by artist Pamela Van Kirk, then of Noxon and now of Coeur d’Alene.
But what of the underground guest house itself?
Like the magical world of the shire outside the front door, it’s the details you discover in the interior that perhaps make the deepest impression.
Like the once-white light-switch and electrical-socket coverings that the Michaels family had Van Kirk paint to exactly match the wood grains of the beautiful juniper siding they were installed into.
In the granite countertop-covered kitchen, the cupboard knobs are round stones and the drawer handles are polished river rock.
In the master bedroom’s walk-in closet, a Murphy bed just big enough for your own little person — i.e., a child — can be pulled out.
Out of sight of the Hobbits, who distrust machinery of any sort, the family offers guests amenities such as high-definition televisions with Blu-ray players, satellite radio and Wi-Fi.
Cellphones, however, won’t work — there is no service in this neck of the woods.
There’s a wood-burning fireplace, and the standing lamps, bookshelves, beds and dining room table and chairs were all handcrafted out of juniper by Mark Abernathy of Kalispell.
The lone window allows a surprising amount of light into the home. That, mirrors and a ceiling that reaches 15 feet tall help take away any feeling that you’re inside what amounts to a sheet-rocked cave.
Inside the Hobbit House, you really don’t have a feeling that the roof over your head is something you mow in the summer and shovel elk and deer scat from, and also involves tons of dirt that is anywhere from 8 to 35 feet thick.
Lots of attention
The unusual Hobbit House has attracted the attention of everyone from the New York Times to MTV’s “Extreme Cribs” in its first 11 months of existence.
The couple purchased a floor plan for their 1,025-square-foot, two-bedroom, one-bath guest house from Monolithic Dome Homes of Italy, Texas, and hired Trout Creek contractor Stan Hamm to build it for them.
Its cost, spurred in part by the unanticipated effort to turn this into a haven for “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” fans and a curiosity for everyone else, is $410,000.
That price helped with the decision to rent it out when it’s not in use by family or friends — or when they travel up the short road from their own 1918-built farmhouse to stay there themselves.
During the winter months, when the River Shire is turned off and much of the outside Hobbit world is covered to protect it from the snow, the nightly price drops from $245 to $195.
Chris and Steve have no illusions about profiting financially from the Hobbit House. Renting it is just a way to recoup a little of the expense, and share it with strangers.
“The great joy in doing this is showing it to people,” Chris says.
Their paying guests have left comments — and even intricate sketches — in a book provided in the house.
“We came, we saw, we awed,” one reads. “Truly is Hobbit-forming,” says another.
“I would love to stay for a lifetime,” one guest concluded.
“When it came to deciding, granite or polyester, we always chose the best quality,” Steve says.
“Even if we ran out of money and it meant stopping for awhile,” Chris adds.