picture perfect

Nestled in a hilly village north of Santa Fe, this tasteful home proves that adobe done right embodies classic New Mexico tradition.

This article first appeared in Summer 2008 Su Casa

The adobe residence created and now occupied by builder Andrew Geer and his wife, Cynthia Barclay, bespeaks the tasteful architectural restraint, respectful siting, modest proportions, and almost ceramic material qualities that find their happiest convergence in authentic New Mexican village homes.

Nothing in here is overdone, overscaled, or overpolished. From the unique sandwashed gray wall plaster to the not-too-high viga-laced ceiling in the living room to the carefully measured portales on all four sides of the house, everything feels picture-perfect. The place proves that when done right, basic adobe design has the aesthetic inevitability of the pyramids.

The home nestles against the base of a north-facing hill in the steeply tilted village of Chupadero, a mere 20 minutes but 30 blood-pressure points away from Santa Fe. Below the home, a dense bosque thick with cottonwoods and oak and willow crowds along an intermittent creek. Home to perhaps 200 people, Chupadero hides its population among the folds and rumples of its foothills landscape: the Sangre de Cristo Mountains rise a few miles away, the high peaks hidden by the proximate ridges that define this valley. Pueblo land surrounds this hip-pocket village, limiting growth to pretty much what you see already and diluting the oh-so-Santa Fe atmosphere of neighboring Tesuque.

Andrew and Cynthia first moved here in 1987, to the nearby hamlet of Rio en Medio, just as Andrew was embarking on his solo-builder career. He had moved to New Mexico from Virginia in 1980, a 22-year-old who had taken construction jobs during the summer as a teenager, then later worked on a farm and honed his carpentry skills. In Santa Fe, after making furniture and working various construction jobs, he hooked up with a builder remodeling 150-year-old adobes in the Canyon Road area—“I got to see what works, and what doesn’t work.”

The first house he built alone was his own.

“When I met Andrew, he had this little piece of land on the Pecos River near Ilfeld and a tiny place like a hobbit-cabin,” Cynthia recalls. “It was adorable.”

“It had maybe 12 vigas; that’s how small it was,” Andrew adds.

A friend of Cynthia’s saw it, loved it, and asked him to build a house for her in 1988, using mostly recycled materials. He later added an adobe dome, modeled after the designs of Hassan Fathy, the renowned Egyptian architect who designed the Dar al Islam mosque at Abiquiú and influenced a generation of adobe builders and designers in New Mexico.

“I haven’t stopped building since,” Andrew says, working with the same crew for almost 20 years. By word of mouth, one house led to another, averaging a house or two a year, every one of them adobe.

“There’s nothing like adobe,” he enthuses. “It’s the ultimate green material: local dirt. And I maintain the idea that it’s not the rich man’s material. I build for the middle-class person. Some people talk about adobe’s cost. But if walls are, say, only 8 percent of a home’s cost,” the luxury of adobe won’t add substantially to the overall project cost. And then consider the aesthetic: “With adobe walls and good plaster, wood or brick floors, it’s the perfect backdrop for anything—or nothing. You really don’t need anything more” in the way of ornament.

Having built 40 or so houses in the greater Santa Fe area and now mostly in the Chupadero/Rio en Medio environs, Andrew does most of the design work himself, with Cynthia helping with the fine-tuning, collaborating on things like windows, door placement, cabinets, and decor.

Geer designs and sites homes to “look like they belong, like they’ve always been there.” He pulls it off, partly because he seems to have internalized the gestalt of New Mexico village architecture, and partly because he sweats the siting. “Working with difficults is my thing, my competitive advantage,” he says. “I can visualize grades and cuts, how the house will settle into the site. So I don’t bulldoze the pad. I work into the site versus making a site.” At this house and others in Chupadero, Geer’s homes do indeed settle themselves into the landscape rather than standing out on shorn hillsides like a kid with a bad haircut.

This house accommodates the grade of the site, with a step up from the kitchen to the living area and bedroom wing, a step down to a north-side portal, and a staircase up to a second-story master bedroom, a crow’s nest getaway that yields broad views of the valley but seems hardly noticeable from outside, where the pitched steel roof diminishes the visual impact of the upstairs.

That pitched roof, the white milled-lumber trim around doors and windows, the pedimented lintels, the brick floors, the tall and narrow casement windows set into the deep adobe walls, and the white interior molding and trim define the home as Northern New Mexico Territorial in style. It evokes the period in the late 19th century when the railroad arrived in New Mexico Territory, bringing milled lumber, fired bricks, and later metal roofing materials. As villagers could afford the newer, finer, often more durable materials, they grafted them onto their flat-roofed adobe homes, developing a vernacular style particular to the northern part of the state. With its mix of wavering adobe charm and minimalist adornment—plain, not ornate, molding, for instance—Territorial endures with the honest simplicity of incipient Modernism.

You reach the entry to the home at the top of narrow covered stairs that climb from the carport. Under a portal, the front door opens into one leg of the L-shaped plan. A row of windows stretches ahead, the light modeling subtle undulations in the adobe wall and deep window casements. The wall plaster itself deserves mention: a mix of Structolite, drywall mud, and sand, its matte finish and gray speckled tones, dotted with bits of silica, highlight the pure-white wood trim while softening and adding depth to the walls themselves.

Ceiling treatments vary room to room: plaster coves between vigas in the kitchen, plank decking over vigas in the living room, milled vigas and bead board in the spare room under the master bedroom. Brick floors alternate with wood. Kitchen counters wear honed black granite tops (around a Kohler farm sink), while black concrete hearths anchor the two fireplaces, one in the living room, one in the office.

Furnishings are minimal, with slipcovered easy chairs and sofa in the living room, a rustic dining table with ladder-back chairs, a trastero here, a Mexican painting there. The compact kitchen blends lovely plain white cabinetry by Nick Rider of Santa Fe—echoed elsewhere in baths and flanking the living room fireplace—with a stainless fridge, a 24-inch stove, and an 18-inch dishwasher. “Everything is scaled down,” Andrew notes. That fridge sits in a ceiling-height cabinet beside a pass-through counter between the kitchen and dining area. Perfect for two people.

The adobe walls carry all the way up past the sunny upstairs bedroom to the top parapets. Downstairs, Geer laid the adobes wide-way out, creating a broader wall to support the second story, where the bricks are laid longwise to make narrower walls.

Portales offer shade for every season and every time of day. “You can’t have too much portal,” Cynthia jokes. Andrew sizes them as outdoor rooms, deep enough to situate chairs, tables, even a bed on the east-facing portal outside the office.

In many ways, this home is typical of Andrew’s work, though they’re not all so definitely Territorial. A nearby spec house veers toward Contemporary Southwest, with a Zen-Modern aesthetic. Clients seem to be drawn to his simplicity and clarity of design. He tends to build in the 1,500- to 2,500-square-foot range for the working upper-middle class, say for professionals who commute to Los Alamos or a state job in Santa Fe, he says.

“They want the country, the outdoors, something organic,” Cynthia says. “They’re earthy, real people. We work with their budget.”

Andrew and Cynthia hadn’t really planned to make this house their home.
“We had no plan, initially,” she says. “We bought the lot”—1.5 hilly acres—“several years ago. We saw it first in the autumn, with the leaves turning and the stream running. It had water and trees—that’s heaven in New Mexico.” They started the project slowly, pouring the slab one year, letting it sit, then stacking the walls.

“As we built it, it started looking more attractive,” Andrew says. “I thought, ‘this is a nice little place.’ We were downsizing,” and the 1,800-square-foot interior space seemed right for the couple. They divide their attention between the Chupadero home and a little ranch they are gradually developing for themselves out near Delia on the Pecos River southwest of Las Vegas, New Mexico, where they raise mules and lease pasture to Pecos Valley Grassfed Beef for its hardy Scottish cattle. Geer has already converted a ranch outbuilding into an adobe and stone residence—but clearly he has bigger plans for the place, which serves as his mental and their physical getaway.

“That’s my ultimate project, to have an orchard there, an adobe greenhouse, a bunkhouse . . .,” his voice trails off. But this 51-year-old isn’t ready to retire yet. “I still have five or ten houses left in me to fulfill the ideas I have, before I ultimately become a farmer.”

Besides working in the business with Andrew, Cynthia is also a case manager in the emergency room at St. Vincent Hospital in Santa Fe, helping people maneuver through the Byzantine bureaucracy of the American health-care system. She describes it as social work, and she loves it.

A painting of an adobe house from time out of mind hangs over the fireplace in the office that Geer and Barclay share at the far end of the L. The house in the painting tucks into the landscape, even seems to have emerged from it.
“It embodies everything we love,” Cynthia says: adobe, Territorial style trim, a rural setting, the embracing landscape, another sun-washed day in a northern New Mexico village like Truchas or Dixon.

“It’s classic New Mexico,” Andrew agrees, nodding, articulating a phrase he might just as well apply to the homes he builds.

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