every room tells a story

This article first appeared in Spring 2002 Su Casa

Northwest of Albuquerque near the village of Corrales, high-tech development and urban growth claim once barren ridges. Traffic hums around sparkling new neighborhoods and funnels over bridges on the Rio Grande. The big river—big by desert standards, anyhow—flows in calm patterns heedless of the human energy careening around it. Overhead a hawk follows an ancient predatory pattern, ignoring the cars and bridges and neighborhoods, scanning instead the forested river bank in hopes of glimpsing a chance movement.

Nestled among cottonwoods by the old riverside levy, where the occasional fisherman wanders along the banks, sits a 70-some-odd-years-old adobe, fresh from its seventh or eighth remodeling. Once nothing more than a 19th-century Santa Fe Railroad boxcar, this home has grown through a process of division and multiplication into a sprawling, meandering adobe that bears the stamp of each owner who has dwelled in this peaceful, secluded setting.

It all started one day when a shepherd, whose flock grazed this corner of the Alameda grant, dragged in a surplus boxcar to shelter his sheep now that the river had been levied by the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District. But the boxcar was too good for livestock, so the shepherd added a tiny kitchen with a cook stove and moved in. Soon he must have needed a bigger place to lie down, so he brought in adobes and added another room and then another. The trees got bigger and so did what was now a house.

At some point a family with children moved in. They needed more room. Later, another family came. Now the additions began in earnest. Special wooden lintels, handmade doors, cubbies, and cupboards began popping up in the rooms that flowed and swirled around a still tiny kitchen.

Much of the cabinetry is the work of Lewis R. Binford, one of the home’s several former owners. A professor of anthropology at the University of New Mexico, Binford also found time to do woodcarving. As a youngster in the South during World War II, he was taught by elderly master craftsmen who filled in as teachers when the war effort emptied the classrooms. This early love of carving and craft found an easy home in New Mexico, where the emphasis on hand-hewn wooden details in homes has a long history.

Binford filled his Corrales home with numerous carved details such as doors, cabinets, shelves, and even Mayan hieroglyphics, which he scribed onto a lintel over a doorway leading from the entry to the bedroom wing. The home’s personal mythology also extends to a corner shelf believed to be made of a scrap from the original Arizona tree trunk studied by the creator of dendrochronology, the science of tree ring dating. This wee shelf is but one example of how in his home Binford brought together his vocation, anthropology, and his avocation, wood carving.

Besides Binford, various owners have incorporated artifacts from around the Southwest into the house over the years—and added their own legends, as well. The vigas in the front living room are said to have been salvaged from a turn-of-the-century log cabin on the outskirts of Cuba, New Mexico. An ox yoke from Old Mexico has been fashioned into a lintel. Salvaged wood in one hallway is rumored to have come from the last standing outhouse on Second Street in Albuquerque. During the most recent round of remodeling work, one plumber claimed he encountered a ghost. Since then, the current owners have concluded that if there is a ghost, she is a friendly one.

Other stories abound throughout the yard, lush with apple, cherry, plum, and towering cottonwood trees. The barn owls that nest in the tree hollow, the chicken hawk that stole last year’s chicks, the raccoons that eat the cat food, the skunk that sprayed the dog at midnight, the coyotes that howl each night—all tell their own tales. It is hard to leave such a setting. Rather, the urge is to settle in, join the ranks of those looking for hidden things, old ways, simple pleasures.

When it came time for the current owners to add on, they hired Albuquerque-based architect Jim Rogers of Sanders Rogers Architects PC to sort out the spaces, reconfigure rooms and their uses, and add on a master suite and additional living space—with no sacrifice to the home’s historic charm. To aid in the goal of blurring the distinction between new and old parts of the house, Rogers brought in builder Ron Romero, who has remodeled extensively in Albuquerque’s Old Town and brought the necessary level of craft and patience to the project.

Perhaps the most obvious feature of the project was the addition of a second story. Rogers recalls first drawing plans for a one-story master bedroom addition. “Then the homeowners and I were reviewing pictures of the guest house at Mabel Dodge Luhan’s house in Taos. It had exterior stairs. They liked that and said, ‘What about a second story?’ ” Rogers created a light and airy space with large windows and several exterior decks, connecting the interior with the outdoors. Almost like a treehouse, the master suite is surrounded by the lush foliage of the cottonwood tree canopy.

Likewise the kitchen was a major focus. Its new tactile, slate countertops and purple heart wood are paired with spanking new appliances and a generous pantry. New flooring went in, old dividing walls went out, and windows and doorways began to appear and disappear. The children gained their own spaces and baths.

Meanwhile, much of the old lingers on. Each hand-built part of the woodwork and carpentry was salvaged for reinstallation. Outdoor rooms and other special places were carefully maintained. The ambling style of the home was generously preserved. In the kitchen, a few corners of the boxcar’s old wooden siding peek through as reminder to the owners of the little secret that lies buried within their home.

The remodeling work lasted just shy of two years. Artifacts and stories kept popping up. The sheepherder who displaced the sheep had fabricated the floor in the railroad car from hardwood and pine boards. Smoke damage from a long-ago fire had been cleaned and contributes to the dark, rustic feel of the beams in the library. Some of the iron pulls and door handles were hand forged locally and others came from Old Mexico many years ago.

This project resisted a rigid, clean-sweep approach. The devil-may-care personality of this old home wouldn’t tolerate it. Rogers and Romero encouraged everyone, including all the crew members, to contribute their opinions, suggestions, and personalities to the process of discovering what the house had to offer. The final result is a house ennobled by its own myths and legends, a place where every room tells a story.

Christine Mather is a museum curator, as well as an author of Santa Fe Style, Santa Fe Houses, Native America, and True West, volumes that explore design and lifestyle.