at ease with tradition

An elegant family home steeped in New Mexican style and Rio Grande Valley history gracefully balances grand rooms with intimate spaces.

This article first appeared in Spring 2010 Su Casa

They thought it was a bowl. After all, David and Christie Waszak had been uncovering potsherds, arrowheads, obsidian flakes, and charcoal staining as they excavated the future living room of their new home. They had yet to find an intact bowl or pot. “I’ve never seen anything like it in 18 years of building,” David says. “I had to tell them, ‘dig more carefully, you might break something.’”

It’s no secret that this part of Los Ranchos de Albuquerque was home to early pre-pueblo villages. The Waszaks, owners of Waszak Custom Homes, had already explored the site with University of New Mexico contract archaeologist Alex Kurota, recommended by the Waszaks’ future neighbor, Arnold Sargeant. Arnold and Kit Sargeant’s house sits atop an ancient ruin, discovered while putting an addition on their house decades ago. As it turns out, Kit was an archaeologist who had long studied and written a book about sites in the Village of Los Ranchos.

Not surprisingly, Alex picked up lots of surface artifacts on the Waszaks’ site, including pottery sherds on the acres nearest the ditch and adjacent to the Sargeant property. “We were building on the westernmost lot, and when we walked over that property, we didn’t find anything,” Christie says. “Alex told us about charcoal staining [a sign of ancient fires] and how to spot adobe walls so we would recognize a site if we dug into one.” David intentionally chose this part of the 3.9-acre lot for the house because it seemed a safe distance from a high spot where there were other archaeological finds.

As Christie gently dug around the rounded clot of dirt, she realized the shape in the palm of her hand was not a bowl, but a skull.

enter Rio Grande Man
At that moment, the Waszaks faced a dilemma. The plans for their new personal residence required digging the master suite and pool right over what archaeologists determined was a trash midden cum burial ground. Dating from sometime between 1200 and before the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, the remains were of a man in his early 20s. The named him Rio Grande Man. And he was not alone.

“We wanted to do the right thing,” Christie says. “We didn’t want to build on top of them or move them. We wanted to leave them in their resting places.”
The Waszaks say they felt a sense of obligation toward the burials. “This man had been put to rest there and lay undisturbed for 700 years, and then we come along,” Christie says. “We thought about him and his family, and we wanted to be as respectful as possible and restore and cover his resting place. We also did not want to disturb anyone else. The archaeologists told us if there was one burial, there would be others. We felt and still feel a responsibility to protect those people who lived here before us. There’s room for all of us here.”

Christie produces the potsherds for my inspection: intricately designed and surprisingly large, they are cradled in baskets and wrapped in cloth. The Waszaks’ two daughters collected many of them during the excavation. “We’d come down here [from a nearby rental house] in the golf cart, and the kids would dig around,” David says. Some have dark stripes and reddish-hued paint; some have simpler, flatter finishes. The Waszaks store the sherds, obsidian flakes, and arrowheads in baskets at the home’s entryway.

Although the discovery of Rio Grande Man delayed building for three months, the real influence on the Waszaks’ home was its final shape. Rather than build the master and office suites in the lower leg of the proposed L-shaped home, they splayed the master suite back. That allowed them to keep the burial ground in place and reinter the remains. The new design moved the Waszaks’ master suite farther from the children’s rooms than originally planned, but David says he now thinks the design is better than the first pass.

grand and cozy
With its metal pitched roof and vaulted ceilings, multiple fireplaces, massive ceiling beams, and other details, this northern New Mexico–influenced home’s individual spaces feel downsized and intimate. Blue-framed windows “welcome the spirits in,” says Christie, the interior designer of the couple. Instead of grand entries, smaller spaces invite conversation. The home is made for entertaining. From kitchen or great room or master bedroom, the backyard and pool are visible. Six fireplaces—some wood burning, some gas fired—create gathering spots for guests to warm during central New Mexico’s chilly evenings. The east side of the house is windows and French doors. In fact, you could leap out of bed and straight into the pool if the doors were open.

“It’s a sign of a good home when you feel like you’re at a resort,” David says. The great room, too, has east-facing doors that swing open on the first warm days of spring. From the patio beyond, it is possible to see through the house to the ancient walnut tree on the front lawn—a focal point of the site.

Christie is a bit of a collector, and her passions offer a clue as to how this home evolved. Carved wooden santos sit in niches and hang on walls. Some of her cowboy boots—an unknown number in total but taking up a significant amount of shelf space in the huge master bedroom closet—line a window seat in the great room. Christie gained inspiration for the interior detailing by looking through old photograph books of northern New Mexico style homes. The wood ceiling with coffered beams edged with corbels softens the great room, which is both grand and cozy, if that’s possible. Archways, massive walls, and carved cabinetry hearken to John Gaw Meem’s style. Tinsmith and stained glass artisans Ted and Ginny Arellanes of G-T Stained Glass & Tin Works designed many of the light fixtures, detailed in pressed tin, reminiscent of those found hanging from northern New Mexico church ceilings. Ted began practicing the traditional Hispanic craft of tinsmithing in 1991. Although he passed away in November 2009, the Arellaneses’ work hangs in public and private buildings throughout New Mexico.

modern meets pueblo
Many contemporary takes on Pueblo vernacular become shells of Pueblo style with modern finishes inside, failing to carry the tradition through the home. The Waszaks have blended, in 6,500 square feet, four bedrooms and four full baths, traditional styling with modern finishes and design elegance. For example, in a new construction, you might find a jetted tub in the corner of the master bathroom. Instead Christie opted for an antique-style claw-foot tub—no jets, but fabulous views of the Sandias from two windows. It was both a personal preference and a conscious design choice.

The kitchen provides another example of modern-meets-Pueblo. The U-shaped workspace surrounds a six-foot slab of granite over the kitchen island—no doubt the heart of this family’s life. Ernest Thompson cabinets in rich red and intricate, colorful tile backsplashes echo the New Mexican vernacular while complementing the high-end appliances and multiple sinks in a space that welcomes guests of all ages. (A separate refrigerated drawer is home to a collection of juice boxes.)

Adjacent to the kitchen a dining space and the family room open out to two patios—one on the east side and one on the south to catch the sun for colder-weather outdoor entertaining. The Waszaks entertain a lot. They have two tween-age daughters and two dogs, so the house is busy with activity. In between the kitchen and the great room rests the wet bar with wall-sized wine refrigerator, a space just large enough for guests to congregate while David pours their libation of choice.

“People gravitate toward smaller spaces,” he says. “We put this wine bar in a central hallway because it was closer to the great room. [When designing the house] we tuned in to the way we live and where we like to spend time.”
The other wing contains the girls’ rooms, each with a private bath and walk-in closet. The girls picked out their own color motifs and tiles for their bathrooms. Tiled archways over the tubs make each feel like a secret hideout.

Down the hallway lies the master suite. Again the space is intimate, gentle. With dark wood furniture and floors, lower ceilings, and smaller spaces for reading and bathing, the Waszaks have created a retreat that opens to the backyard and the Sandia mountain vistas through French doors.

Up the stairs are Christie’s office, the guest suite, and a patio that overlooks the property with views to the north, east, and west. Because Christie and David run a custom home building business and use their homes as models for clients, the epicenter of the business activity is downstairs. Clients enter the home through the front door or through doors into David’s wood-and-stone office, complete with an antique drafting table and a large flat-screen TV built into the wall. A leather couch encourages a bit of sports-watching between clients.

For the past eight years, the Waszaks have moved every two or three years, but there’s something about this place . . . Maybe it’s the sense of history, maybe it’s the stately black walnut tree in the front yard that’s visible from nearly every room, or maybe it’s that the house is just right. “We plan to stay,” Christie says. “This place has been a home for a long time.”

resources for this home

A journalist and editor for 20 years, Emily Esterson survived her own home renovation adventures. She’s written for many national publications on topics as varied as small business strategies, art, and architecture.