Indian Paintbrush

This subdivision tucked into a hillside south of Wilson is hidden and, because of smart planning, neighbors often can’t see each other’s homes.

By Mark Huffman
Photograph by Tuck Fauntleroy

 

A look at the Indian Paintbrush neighborhood from its bottom makes you think it would be a better ski hill than a place to live. It’s steep, and the rise from the bottom to the dead-end top of the main road, Paintbrush Trail, is close to 1,000 feet.

When developer Joe Aveni first thought about subdividing the mountainside a mile and a half south of Wilson, real estate professionals suggested it would be good territory for a wilderness vacation. One told him that “the only thing you can do with that property is put a few cabins in,” Aveni recalled recently.

“But that wasn’t my intention,” Aveni says. “My intention was to build a housing development that would attract local people. I wasn’t interested in advertising in Florida and California. I thought local people would be the best buyers, and that turned out to be true.”

He was right, says John Becker, former owner of the Calico Restaurant on Moose-Wilson Road. Becker, a self-described “rental hippy” in 1978, was looking for a place to buy, but found himself priced out of places he liked. He looked at Indian Paintbrush, which was then just a few years old.

It wasn’t love at first sight: “I didn’t want to buy up there because it was a long way from anywhere, and it was up on the hill,” Becker says. But now, “in hindsight, the reasons I didn’t want to live up in Paintbrush are the reasons it’s the most spectacular subdivision in the valley.”

It wasn’t until 1917 that people began filing to take this land off the hands of the federal government. Within a few years much of what is now Indian Paintbrush was owned by the Schofield family. In 1953 the land was bought by Jack McNeely, who ran a kids ranch on Fall Creek Road. By 1969 he was running a classified ad in The Jackson Hole Guide offering 265 acres for sale. One slightly interested party was Aveni. But only slightly.

“He knew I was a developer and told me I should buy it,” says Aveni, a Cleveland native who was well known in that city’s real estate and developing business. “I didn’t want to buy it. He finally said, ‘Look, I can’t do what you can do. You have the experience.’ So finally I gave in and bought the 265 acres.” Aveni paid about $500,000 for the land.

Today he remembers Indian Paintbrush, his only project in Jackson Hole, with fondness. “It was a gorgeous piece of land,” he recalls. Aveni hired logger Joe Pivik, who ran a sawmill at the mouth of nearby Mosquito Creek, to cut trees and grade a road. He installed a 24,000-gallon water tank and lines, and paved about 3.5 miles of road, some of which approached a 10 percent grade. He organized a homeowners association that had design rules and that banned fences and felling trees more than 3 inches thick.

Aveni had to fight the county to subdivide the land, he says, but in 1973 he eventually won approval for 76 lots ranging from 1.5 to 5 acres.The first phase, which included 17 lots, went on the market at $8,000 an acre. The second phase was $12,000 an acre and the third $15,000 per acre. By the time he got to developing lots along McNeely Lane, a side road to the south, the cost of some land had hit $100,000 an acre. Early in the neighborhood’s development Aveni built himself a house on 3 acres at the bottom of the hill.

Aveni settled on “Indian Paintbrush” as the name because he says he was tired of how many places in Jackson Hole were named “Teton-this” or “Aspens-that.” Indian paintbrush is the state flower.

Aveni kept a lot at the top of the main road for himself, thinking he would eventually build a house. Over the years people tried to buy it from him and he demurred, at least until someone liked the steep, tree-shrouded lot so much they offered him $500,000 for it. It was the last lot he sold.

Aveni’s idea of a place for locals was the case in early years. Becker bought 1.5 acres in 1978 for $23,000, borrowed $60,000, and began building his house in stages. “I built what I could afford,” he says. “The first 500 square feet, then the garage, then the basement. It’s a stick-built frame house. It’s now 900 square feet downstairs and 400 [square feet] upstairs.”

Aveni says, “People who worked and raised kids built houses here. It was a neighborhood, friendly, because people knew each other from the community, from their jobs. Eighty percent of the houses in the early days were built by local people, often young people with young families.” 

But the same economics that have affected the valley in general have hit Indian Paintbrush. These days, Becker says, “the demographics have changed pretty radically.” He serves as president of the HOA and estimates that less than 20 percent of the houses are full-time homes.

Prices also reflect the changes. Becker thinks “this silly house of mine is probably worth $700,000,” and if he were to sell it “it would immediately be scraped.” A county planner told him a few years back that his land could accommodate a house of 5,000 square feet.

Demand is strong. Recent listings showed only two Indian Paintbrush houses and one lot on the market. A 5,700-square-foot, four-bedroom house on 4.8 acres near the bottom was listed at $5.7 million. More typical of the area was an 1,800-square-foot, three-bedroom house on 3 acres listed for $895,000. A 4-acre lot was offered for $829,000. “Until lately, a house would come on the market and sit for one or two years, but the dynamic has changed,” Becker says. “Now if they’re priced right they sell immediately.”

Becker is resigned to the fact that old houses are likely to be replaced with much bigger structures, but he thinks the neighborhood’s design will protect the feel of the place. “The nature of the subdivision … it’ll change because of the high-end building,” he says. “But it will always look the same, just with bigger houses.”

Realtor Brandon Spackman, of Jackson Hole Sotheby’s International Realty, agrees about the attractions of the area. He bought a lot here in 2000 and built a house in 2005. He likes the forest and the wildlife, quiet, and privacy. Because of the layout, “all the sites are fairly private,” he says. “I think people are surprised how many houses there are up there.” 

In spite of changes, Spackman says Indian Paintbrush “remains a place to be. It’s on the West Bank, and people have a little acreage. And even though it’s gone up, like everyplace else, it’s more affordable than neighboring subdivisions like Crescent H.”

Becker thinks he made a wise decision to buy and build there. “The longer I spend up here the more I love it,” he says. “It was such a brilliant job of developing.” Aveni, now 87, remains proud of Indian Paintbrush. “It turned out to be a fine subdivision,” he says. “The people who live up there love it.”

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