reversing the spiral

An ingenious renovation and thoughtful interior design preserve the quirk while celebrating the magical spirit of a ’70s foothills adobe below Sandia Crest.

This article first appeared in Spring 2007 Su Casa

Archaeology was the last thing on Dr. Teresa Reed’s mind when she purchased a 2,300-square-foot house in the Sandia Mountains in 1995. But three years’ worth of trash removal (“They’d stuffed their garbage under the terrace,” she says), aggressive rodent eradication, and dismantling of inappropriately enclosed spaces revealed a classic “hippie house” built by Ivor Williams.

Those familiar with the bohemian roots of Sandia Heights may remember Williams, a Swedish architect who was a foothills fixture in the ’70s. At off times, the flamboyant Scandinavian could be seen tooling around town in his convertible wearing a Viking hat.

But Reed’s dig didn’t stop at 1979. Ambitious earthmoving and grand-scale renovation revealed and created a cozy lodge fit for an early 1900s adventure-seeker stepping off the train at the historic Alvarado Hotel. Here, it’s easy to imagine that a grizzled outdoorsman will be arriving soon to guide you on a trek through the wilderness. Dinner might be jack rabbit stew. Your olfactory imagination drools at the succulent prospect.

If this crazy quilt of styles seems improbable, add the fact that there’s a helipad no bigger than a minute just beside the road. It’s a remnant of the first owner’s preferred—and somewhat experimental—mode of travel. The trickiest part of the journey, however, may well be navigating the steeply unpredictable path to the front door.

It’s not really that steep, or that unpredictable. But the good doctor has sculpted the landscape with surgical skill, and the visitor best watch her step lest she lose her footing while contemplating the seemingly primordial innocence of the site. Unlike residential extravaganzas that emasculate their natural settings, this mostly adobe house maintains the dignity of its bouldered surroundings. The burble and swish of a (woman-made) waterfall tickle the ear, and the eye greedily absorbs long views of the city.
Lovers of quirk will find much to admire in this abode, now reduced to approximately 1,600 square feet. The front doors are made of distressed “Old World” mesquite, complete with a peephole of the type found in cloisters, speak-easies, and the Emerald City of Oz. Its small hatch swings open to screen callers, then soundly shuts to give bums the rush.
Having passed this initial scrutiny, the visitor crosses the threshold. No space is wasted on a foyer here; open the door and you’re in the heart of the manor, a living room of just-right proportions that Goldilocks would have loved. A few steps away, by virtue of scale, the kitchen is invested with a comfortable solidity.

The lodgey feel results from the snug dimensions of the space, an assertive palette of rich, old-timey colors, an expanded loft overhanging the living room, and a whole-house decorating motif of leathers and feathers. The dark red upholstery (cowhide; see above) of the living room is echoed in the hand-tooled, nail-studded leather seats of a bar stool quartet. They hug the dark green overhang of a sinfully rich Australian granite island. “I wanted to bring in greens from the outdoors,” Reed says. Not to mention mud: “Highlighting the adobe was really important to me.”

By virtue of Dr. Reed’s belief in the intimate relationship between cooking and eating, and in the interests of spatial economy, there’s no indoor dining table, although she claims she’s made Thanksgiving dinner for 10. There’s a table on the patio that probably suffices eight months of the year.
Color is of paramount importance in this culinary nexus as well. The distressed cherry cabinets and the green countertops harmonize, like cowpokes around a campfire, with the mustard-yellow kitchen walls and the Saltillo tile floor.

Though the decor yodels cowpuncher, hippie is present and accounted for. The ambiguously shaped windows add a bit of whimsy with no discernible rationale. That alone is reason to love them.

Occasional brickwork that protrudes a half-inch or so from the walls is another Ivor Williams trademark. This signature masonry is most purely expressed above the fireplace: while most of the area is bricked horizontally, the chimney’s path is articulated vertically as it curls up toward the ceiling. “It’s an upside-down question mark,” explains Reed.

An array of billboard-sized solar panels, another relic from the home’s idealistic youth, was removed in the course of the renovation because the panels were damaging the roof. Passive solar design and the thermal properties of adobe remain, however, as operative symbols of the architect’s commitment to respect the environment.

The house is charming, which is not to say anything short of luxurious. Reed has welcomed high tech with open arms, from the warming drawer in the commercially appointed kitchen to the home theater in an adjacent room (fitted out with a sculpted leather/feather chaise for two) to a steam shower enclosed by glass that is remarkably clear and pleasingly weighty. “There’s no distortion,” says Reed. “It’s like looking through a prism.”

The successful melding of sensibilities—free love meets O.K. Corral meets Mr. Wizard—is a testament to Dr. Reed’s design expertise. “I design therapeutic environments,” she says. Her cancer treatment center in El Paso, Texas, bears a marked resemblance to the Hard Rock Cafe, and she’s in the process of designing one for another practice.

A succession of contractors worked on the site until, in November 2005, Jade Enterprises, Inc., became the third and final one. After the landscaping was complete, Dr. Reed signed the company to totally gut and renovate the house. The finished product benefited heavily from Dr. Reed’s remarkable shopping prowess, as well: she found the pricey granite (it’s a color known as “verde fire”), the prism glass, the solid walnut flooring, and colorful light fixtures. And, of course, all the leathers and feathers.

The rocky slope was a challenge for workmen struggling to move eight dumpstersful of junk up to the road and a houseful of new construction materials down to the site. The relationship between necessity and invention being what it is, the clever Jade crew filled in the gaps between steps with dirt they were removing from the site, essentially creating a hill for sliding things up or down. OK, that’s impressive, but God is still the only one who can make a tree.

With such ingenuity on the side of the good guys, it’s no surprise that they managed to reverse the spiral of the staircase, a concept that’s hard for the spatially challenged to comprehend. “They built it backwards,” says Reed, who has the original plans. “It had, at best, an awkward relationship with the staircase windows.”

A whimsical Milanese glass chandelier resembling a cluster of red chiles lights the spiral staircase to the second floor. Bony latillas line the railing. And inscribed in the adobe of the staircase wall is a petroglyph depicting two mountains and the sun. Interestingly enough, the house was known as “The Sun House” for its small stained-glass window of a similar scene.
The whole place feels magical, with the slight buzz of its diverse elements working together, but totally without guile. Every piece of furniture, every cabinet (there are 66), every piece of art has been thoughtfully placed in what seems to be its birthright spot. The source of this marvelous equilibrium is unclear, but it’s a siren song to the visitor, who passionately yearns to make herself at home.

But it’s time to head upstairs, which has always been a loft space. In the renovation, however, with the aid of a hefty support beam inserted above the living room, it was expanded to include a sunny sitting area in the master bedroom. The room is cozy, with a corner fireplace. Predictably, the master bath is a luxury spa with a verde fire surround and an Infinity whirlpool. And views: Reed had the spa raised so that the whirlpool occupants could simultaneously soothe their minds and their muscles. By the way, the views are not reserved for the bathroom. “There’s a view from every part of the house,” says Reed.

While the interior (including the view through the window blobs) is fairly spectacular, don’t give short shrift to the actual Great Outdoors. There are five separate outdoor spaces: a terrace with southern exposure and a 200-degree view of Albuquerque’s southwest mesa; a northern balcony with views of the Sandias; an outdoor kitchen set amongst boulders; a covered patio off the main dining room; and a terrace with built-in benches and kiva fireplace to take the chill off on cool nights.

Some folks set about decorating their houses as if they were theme parks, joylessly adhering to some rigid list of stylistic dos and don’ts. Like Disney World, such places thrill for a time, but at the end of the day, you just want to go home and put your feet up. Others, thank heavens, feather (and leather) their nests with what pleases their souls.

When it comes to your space, and mine, there’s no such thing as a mixed metaphor. Heart is the glue that holds together hippie and rustic and high tech, or whatever mélange of styles reflects the owner’s unique persona. And that’s precisely what differentiates a house from a home.

Janice Myers has been a writer and an editor for 25 years. Especially interested in architecture, art, and the concept of “home,” she regularly contributes to local and national publications on a wide variety of topics ranging from the mundane to the sublime.