heavy lifting with a light touch

A remodel steeped in Santa Fe style deftly matches modern updates to the wavering imperfections of an old adobe home.

This article first appeared in Summer 2009 Su Casa

Back roads in New Mexico sometimes lead to distant times and surprising places. Wedged between the tract homes of Rio Rancho and the commercial strip of northwest Albuquerque sits the still sleepy, slightly funky village of Corrales, a charming oddity in a sea of suburbs. Amid the graceful cottonwood trees that thrive in the sandy plain of the Rio Grande, this historic farming community remains essentially bucolic. Bird song drowns out traffic noise, and the human population is an easygoing mix of Hispanic families with generational ties to the area, artists, and newcomers. Buildings are often adobe—real adobe—and anything new or modern would be painfully out of place.

At once expansive and private with thick adobe walls that hush the outside world, the Santa Fe style hacienda owned by Marci Blaze-Levine and Steven Levine looks as deeply rooted as the cottonwood trees. It seems like a lovingly tended, century-old relic, an impression belying the home’s status two years ago as an ungainly hodgepodge of rooms and styles.

“It had a good vibe,” Marci recalls. “So many of the houses we had looked at were very faux.” The center of the dwelling was authentic, probably an old farmhouse. It recalled an earlier era, when families built their own homes from adobe bricks they made themselves. Lumber was scarce and served mainly as vigas, peeled logs that supported the roof. As families needed new rooms, they added one after the other, with few hallways. It is a rough but endearing style unique to New Mexico. But while the original part of the house was a gem, Marci and Steven found some of the additions flimsy and unappealing. The room that became the current kitchen, for example, was pink. Outdoor pavers covered the floor, and a round window memorialized the ’70s hippie invasion.

all the way back
“The kitchen looked like it was from another planet,” says Peg Denney, one of the architects for the remodel. “The rooms were very dark and cut up, and you couldn’t see the Sandias at all.”

“We felt that you should be able to stand in the kitchen at the back of the house and see all the way through to the mountains,” adds her husband and fellow architect Ken Payson of PaysonDenney Architects. The couple designed a sensitive plan that embraced the traditional qualities of the house but added light, proportion, and flow. They opened walls and designed a spectacular living room with a buttress-style fireplace, a clerestory, and a wall of windows framing the views. A soaring floor-to-ceiling bookcase flanks the massive hearth and recalls the elegant built-ins of John Gaw Meem. Often considered the godfather of Santa Fe style, Meem articulated a design vocabulary that scaled-up the vernacular New Mexican architecture for modern times. In that vein, the relocated, expanded kitchen enables Marci and Steven to host large, lively parties without being crowded.

Big enough to prepare dinner for a team of ranch hands, the new kitchen is colorful and rustic. “The biggest deal in the remodel was to get rid of all the modern ‘improvements’ and take the house all the way back,” Marci explains. “We wanted to minimize the presence of modern equipment, so everything is covered except the heated appliances.” That feat required 180 cabinet panels, all handmade by Bruce MacKellar, who has earned a reputation for precise craftsmanship. The trick was to make the new look old. “We sat Bruce down and said, ‘We want these cabinets to look like you made them with an ax,’” Steven says. MacKellar rose to the challenge and produced cabinets that appear to have been hewn from the wood with primitive tools.

Since their honeymoon in Santa Fe 23 years ago, Marci and Steven have shared a passion for the architecture and style of the area—the historically true style, not the over-the-top, commercially popular, howling coyote version. Steven applied his artistic eye and experience as an advertising designer to keeping their home authentic while expressing their own distinctive taste. Marci chose bright, hand-painted Talavera tile from Mexico for the kitchen. Steven produced detailed computer drawings showing the placement of every single tile. Together they made the lighting fixture suspended over the island from forks and spoons “collected from all over Albuquerque,” Marci says. “I saw a photo in the New York Times of one that was much smaller. It was from Paris and cost a fortune, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Finally we realized that it wouldn’t be that hard to make.”

brick by brick
Steven and Marci’s sense of whimsy shows up in the decor of every room, but their devotion to authenticity in the remodel was paramount. They were thrilled with the architectural plan, but finding a builder became a challenge until neighbors introduced them to Bonifacio Gurule of Corrales Builders.

Bonifacio is known for his traditional building skills. “I grew up making adobe buildings,” he explains. “My dad was half Isleta Indian and half Hispanic and very religious. He gave us a choice. We could either do missionary work or build churches, and building churches was a lot more fun.”

“Bonifacio understood what was here and saw things we didn’t see,” Marci says. “His aesthetic was exactly what we needed to realize this house.”
Then the real challenges began. Marci and Steven planned to live and work in the house for the entire year of the project. So did their three sweet but rambunctious bullmastiffs—“300-plus pounds and still growing,” as Marci puts it—and one dainty feline.

“Bonifacio set things up for us brilliantly by creating a temporary wall with a door and window so we could live in half the house but have access and see what was going on,” Steven says. “He also built all kinds of fencing for the dogs. It was really great to work with someone who was so sensitive to our needs.” Because they were on site, Marci and Steven were deeply involved.

“Imperfecto,” became the project’s mantra. Steven, Marci, and Bonifacio agreed that to retain its character, the house needed its rough walls and uneven lines. Every doorway was recut to be less than square and to show the varying thickness of the adobe. “The old part of the house was obviously homemade and hand-plastered,” Bonifacio says. “They didn’t use a float and try to make it all straight and smooth. At first my plasterer—I call him ‘manos de oro’ [hands of gold]—struggled with the concept of leaving the walls a little lumpy. But he mastered the look.” As a result, the walls are pure form—so artistically textured that they need little adornment.

Detail was the key to achieving imperfecto. Vigas and brick floors that show their age are signature elements of northern New Mexico style homes. Saving them was vital. “People smoked in that house probably for generations,” Bonifacio says. “The vigas had a yellow patina. We cleaned them, then had a special varnish mixed so the new ones would match perfectly.” The old vigas had also been hand-adzed, giving them a slightly scalloped texture, so workers carefully adzed every new one, too. Matching bricks on the floor also posed a challenge. Decades of footsteps had worn them down. Complicating the process, increasing the floor space required new bricks, which are wider than the old. Bonifacio solved that problem by cutting each and every new brick to the size of the old ones, then mixing old and new throughout the house. “I wore out two brick saws on those floors,” he says. “Bricks are evil.”

house of laughter
Having a construction crew that sometimes numbered 28 under the same roof as the owners and their pets was complicated but had a lighter side. “My guys are Navajo, Pueblo Indian, Hispanic, and Anglo,” Bonifacio says. “We’d be talking and joking in four different languages, and Marci would say, ‘You’re building my house out of laughter.’” It was an unusual job, but Bonifacio is an unusual builder. He uses ancient rebuilt construction machines with names like Popeye and Olive Oyl and recycles almost every scrap.

“We don’t even have Dumpsters on the job,” he says. “Every piece of wood is sacred. It was once a living tree, and it’s just sinful to waste it.”

Although he loves playing flamenco guitar and driving people in his limo named Isabella in his spare time, his real joy comes from the organic nature of his work. “We dig the foundation for a wall, then we use the dirt for mortar between the adobes. When we’re done, there’s no dirt left. We have a wall. We created it with our hands and feel a spiritual connection to it. There’s nothing finer.”

The home’s handmade qualities express all that is best about Santa Fe style—from the burnished vigas and brick floors to the uneven plaster and doorways. This rare team chose even the smallest elements to reflect the way the house might have looked 100 years ago. The colorful Talavera tile in the kitchen and bathrooms could have traveled up the Camino Real from Mexico. The hardware would have been hand-forged and the towering bookshelves carved by a local artisan. Furnishings and art mix contemporary and traditional styles, furthering the impression that the house has only been gently updated from its original form. Bonifacio, Marci, Steven, and the architects agree that it turned out better than they expected. But what they value most is that it suits its setting in the quirky country village of Corrales so well. Perfect imperfecto.

resources for this home

Marsha McEuen is a Santa Fe native and the third generation in her family to live there. She returned to northern New Mexico after a 20-year career as an award-winning journalist. Her passion is writing about the art, architecture, history, culture, and people of the region.