a fresh perspective

Diverse influences shape a fresh perspective on New Mexican vernacular architecture in this hilltop home.

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The hills and arroyos abutting the historic mining village of Cerrillos, New Mexico, bear the scars and bruises of hard work. The tawny landscape snatches vistas of staggering beauty in every direction, surrounded by the Jemez, Sangre de Cristo, Ortiz, and Sandia mountains—a panorama of swirling clouds, jagged rocks, and piñon thickets whispering the ancient secrets of ghost Pueblo clans.

The hardscrabble and mythic land forms have a way of ensnaring hearts and ambitions, as they seduced architect Carlos Kinsey, interior designer Heidi Steele, along with homeowners Steve Talbot and Jerry Gorham. Through a serendipitous pathway, the four people converged upon an 80-acre homesite on the crest of a hilltop near Cerrillos to create a striking new house that exploits the virtues of vernacular architectural sensibilities and eco-friendly technology and design.

For Steve Talbot and partner Jerry Gorham, a vacation to New Mexico several years ago inspired them to think seriously about relocating from their home in Pennsylvania. Weary of East Coast urban sprawl and traffic commuting, the couple was receptive to a more relaxed, rural lifestyle and a situation where they could raise animals. The distant night light of Santa Fe, shimmering on the northeastern border of their future ranch site, was the deal clincher.

Steve and Jerry were open-minded and flexible to the architectural aesthetic for their new house, and their Internet research discovered Carlos Kinsey’s website. Carlos’ residential designs impressed Jerry and Steve as “not typical Santa Fe,” and soon their design partnership was launched.

Carlos Kinsey found his way to New Mexico through the University of Tennessee’s architecture program and also a professional stint in San Diego working for corporate architecture firms and clients. Carlos’ travels crisscrossed New Mexico, and about 10 years ago, he discovered Cerrillos, a fateful confluence of designer talents meeting ideal location.

Kinsey’s design approach is heavily influenced by the professional and moral imperatives espoused by the late Samuel Mockbee (1944–2001), a Southern-based architect, artist, and educator. Mockbee’s “Rural Studio” at Auburn University engaged architecture students in design/build housing and community projects for poverty-stricken clients in Alabama.

Mockbee’s philosophy recognized the need for “shelter for the soul” regardless of income and supported this quest by the resourceful use of discarded, recycled, and unconventional materials such as hay bales, carpet yarn, worn-out tires, and car windshields (for a roof).

Kinsey’s eyes smile and sparkle as he describes Mockbee’s legacy while driving through Cerrillos. “I love the way materials weather and age . . . the way concrete floors get shinier . . . the way steel rusts . . . the way flannel sheets get softer and softer. Even people get more beautiful with age.”

It’s easy to share Carlos’ enthusiasm for the beat-up barns and wrinkled adobe walls and copper-streaked hillsides of Cerrillos en route to the Talbot-Gorham house. The simple virtues and profound beauty of everyday vernacular buildings is another Mockbee lesson that Kinsey has taken to heart. He mentions the “shotgun” buildings of the South and the colonial architecture of Australia in the same breath, rattling off the inspirations of “simple forms, deep porches, corrugated metal roofs, high ceilings, one-room wide” as if a mantra committed to memory and soul.

While snaking through the back roads of the Galisteo basin, Carlos emphasizes the importance of the regional vernacular as he proclaims his love for the “little places” of New Mexico, and the often-unsung remnants of the American Western frontier aesthetic. Places like the railroad district of Las Vegas or the tiny town of Roy in Harding County wear the veils of patina and palimpsest upon their wooden, metal, brick, and concrete structures.

The actual distance of miles and dirt roads and barbed wire from Cerrillos to the Talbot-Gorham house is forgotten once the soaring angles of the house’s skyline pierce the horizon. The various pitches and juxtapositions of gables, sheds, and portal roofs create a dynamic rhythm evocative of a bird flapping its wings. The unusual roof design is highly practical, however, as rainwater is captured and diverted to underground cisterns, mostly used to nurture a fledgling garden in the courtyard.

Stylistically, the Talbot-Gorham house is a fusion of contemporary rural Southern vernacular architecture (as practiced by Mockbee and the Rural Studio), New Mexican massing and floor plan, and progressive strategies of sustainability. Carlos admits that he found ideal clients in Steve and Jerry, and this house is “true to what I want to be designing.”

The materials palette was carefully chosen to weather beautifully, as large expanses of core-ten steel are used to sheath roofs and walls, integrated with predominant stucco and generous panes of glass. Tubular concrete columns frame a deep courtyard portal and also a modest front porch. Lumberyard joinery and industrial pipe anchors for roofs are left unpainted.

A central living room pavilion two stories in height anchors the design with its inverted gable and soaring chimney and also is the sala for the U-shaped floor plan. Amidst the interplay of textural and chromatic effects of the exterior (and interior) finishes, the great sala is awash in light flooding through the room. Undraped floor-to-ceiling windows on the northern exposure beckon to the far reaches of the Galisteo basin.

“With so much glass in the living room and so much daylight coming in, we felt that we could incorporate some saturated colors and also try to balance them with some restful tones,” explains designer Heidi Steele, principal of Interior Design Services (IDS) of Santa Fe. Heidi worked closely with the owners and Carlos to produce an interior environment that boasts the grand scale and vibrancy of the living rooms along with the subdued and quirky modernism of the bedrooms and studies.

The sunflower-gold planes of the living room and kitchen generate palpable buoyancy that is intensified by the 15-foot-high ceilings in the central hall. Heidi draped the southern window walls with ultramarine blue curtains and repeated the blue chord in the upholstery of the dining chairs. Heidi’s design process for the chairs leads back to Samuel Mockbee.

“The fabric in the chairs is this lightweight, durable shopping bag material I came across, and it seemed perfect for the house . . . it’s the kind of thing Mockbee would approve of, using ‘found’ material like that,” Heidi asserts. Like Carlos, Heidi fondly remembers attending some Samuel Mockbee lectures at the University of Tennessee and reveres Mockbee as a mentor.

“I’m more restrained than Mockbee,” Heidi points out, “but in this house I was sensitive to balancing the owners’ personal collections [of antiques, ceramics, and folk art] with a few well-chosen and designed furniture pieces.” Heidi and the owners collaborated on selecting the drapery and textiles, and the rooms bear a comfortable “lived-in” personality rather than meticulously arranged.

For both Steve and Jerry, having a personalized studio was a necessity. Kinsey made sure that the studios offered plenty of light, views, and comforts. Jerry, a consultant specializing in educational testing, wanted plenty of built-in bookshelves. Steve, an editor, displays remnants of Pennsylvania in his workspace. American Colonial furniture and folk art paintings provide ornamental embellishments and also a spatial and temporal exclamation point to Kinsey’s crisp lines.

Once inside the private rooms, it quickly becomes apparent that the sizing, rhythm, and placement of windows are a primary design motif. The overarching guideline was to provide windows in every room onto the central courtyard, but Carlos’ technique was inspired by seemingly divergent inspirations.

The exterior window compositions were informed by historic frontier forts, where a few small windows on the perimeter walls were balanced by generous fenestration on the inside “protected” spaces. But viewed from the inside out, the windows transform into something altogether unexpected and poetic. Out-of-character, out-of-context, but somehow perfectly appropriate, the windows pay homage to the great Dutch Modernist painter Piet Mondrian (1872–1944), another hero of Carlos Kinsey. Mondrian’s exquisite black-and-white grid paintings jazzed with blocks of primary colors are restated in the Talbot-Gorham house as floating rectangles of sky and earth.

From the dazzling gold public rooms in the center, through the adjacent studies on the wings, and finally onto the master suite, the progression of color fades into the serene tones of whitewashed lumber and white subway station wall tiles in the bathrooms. Deep within the tile, chrome, and glass sanctuary of the bath, the dramatic expressions of the house seem distant, except for the uncanny windows. A toilet space enjoys a regal landscape perspective of New Mexico. “It’s a toilet with a view!” Steve quips.

Walking around the house one last time, I notice the out buildings of wedgy carport and stables add a footnote to this rural compound that forebodes perhaps a new synthesis in New Mexico’s rural architecture and lifestyle. Steve, Carlos, and I stop by to say hello and goodbye to four young mules, new residents of the ranch. They are larger, friskier, and friendlier than my “city boy” conception of Santa Fe burros—fittingly, they’re not your typical Santa Fe burros.

Elmo Baca is a writer and consultant in economic development, historic preservation, and tourism.

Unless otherwise noted, businesses below are in Santa Fe, the area code is 505, and the prefix for websites is www.
Architect: Carlos Kinsey, Kinsey Architecture, 989-1226, kinseyarchitecture.com.  Builder: El Milagro Enterprises LLC, 983-9556, elmilagrosf@aol.com.  Interior designer: Heidi Steele, IDS (Interior Design Services), 820-2386, ids-santafe.com.  Appliances: GE Profile refrigerator, PDS22SHRRSS; GE double wall oven, JTP48SFSS; GE Profile dishwasher, PDW9880JSS; GE Profile cooktop, JP969SHSS; GE Profile microwave, JES1288SH, geappliances.com; Kobe vent hood, RA-094; appliances from Sierra West Sales, 471-6742.  Artwork: [Square piece hanging near two chairs] Pile, by Sondra Goodwin, black-and-white photograph, sondragoodwin.com; [horizontal piece on the right-hand wall] Red Swing series, by Trent Edwards, oil on canvas. DINING AREA red feather headdress, Bosshard Gallery, 989-9150, johnbosshard.com. KITCHEN (on the far wall) Piñon,by Sondra Goodwin; (on the right wall) Le Grand Naufrage (top), Orage Impeteux (bottom), engravings.  Bar stools: Shinto stool, Room & Board, 800/301-9720, roomandboard.com.  Bed: Calder bed, Room & Board, 800/301-9720, roomandboard.com.  Bookcase: LIVING ROOM custom bookcase, NFK International.  Bowl: (on the countertop bar) American Country Collection (ACC Santa Fe), 984-0955, accsantafe.com.  Cabinetry: KraftMaid, Madison cherry cabinets with honey spice finish, from The Home Depot, homedepot.kraftmaid.com.  Ceiling fans: San Francisco, Flyte, Como, and Cirque ceiling fans, from G Squared, Avila Beach, CA, 877/858-5333, g2art.com.  Chairs: (in far corner of the room) Pier 1 Imports, pier1.com.  Coffee table: LIVING ROOM custom table with a top from Captain Marble, 982-0276, and base from Room & Board, 800/301-9720, roomandboard.com.  Countertops: KITCHEN polished black granite, Captain Marble, 982-0276.  Dining table: custom table built by Wood Design, 438-0200, wooddsn.com.  Doors: Mission style wood interior doors, The Home Depot, homedepot.com; exterior doors, Kawneer 2000-T terrace doors, Santa Fe Vistas Window & Door, 471-1300, santafevistas.com.  Electrical: Allied Electric, 438-8899.  Fireplace: designed by Kinsey Architecture, 989-1226, kinseyarchitecture.com; built by El Milagro Enterprises LLC, 983-9556, elmilagrosf@aol.com.  Flooring: colored concrete with radiant heat, 4-foot square grid, steel troweled while concrete was wet.  Glass cases: DINING AREA Design Warehouse, 877/988-1555, designwarehousesantafe.com.  Hardware: kitchen knobs and pulls, Nouveau II, M534, brushed nickel, Top Knobs USA, topknobsusa.com.  Heating & cooling: radiant heat in concrete slab; cross ventilation only, no conventional cooling.  Insulation: fiberglass batt insulation, R-19 walls, R-30 ceilings.  Ironwork: plate steel yard gates and chimney cap by El Milagro Enterprises LLC, 983-9556, elmilagrosf@aol.com.  Landscaping: by owners.  Lighting: general lighting supplier, Allied Electric,438-8899. KITCHEN lighting fixture over island, Harco Loor Design, harcoloor.com. BEDROOM lighting above bed, Enterprise, model W419, nickel finish, from Rejuvenation, rejuvenation.com. DINING AREA chandelier, Logico mini suspension, from Artemide, artemidestore.com. BATHROOM lights above double sinks, Enterprise, model W419, nickel finish, from Rejuvenation, rejuvenation.com.  Nightstand: Delano nightstand, Room & Board, 800/301-9720, roomandboard.com.  Paint: Sherwin-Williams, sherwin-williams.com.  Pillows & linens: custom, Pandora’s, 982-3298, pandorasantafe.com.  Plaster: El Milagro Enterprises LLC, 983-9556, elmilagrosf@aol.com.  Plumbing: Capitol Contractors Plumbing & Heating, 989-7916, capitol-plumbing.com.  Plumbing fixtures & hardware: MASTER BATH Crucible sinks, Kohler K-2271, kohler.com; Purist faucet, Kohler K-T14412-4. GUEST BATH Purist sink, Kohler K-2313; Falling Water faucet, Kohler K-T199; Porcher, Romaine 6-foot tub, 60110. Cimarron toilets, Kohler K-3496; Kohler Stillness shower. Fixtures purchased from Dahl Plumbing, 438-5095, destinationdahl.com.  Roofing: El Milagro Enterprises LLC, 983-9556, elmilagrosf@aol.com.  Sinks: KITCHEN Vision VNX-120-45, Franke, franke.com; kitchen island, Mystic 5014, Elkay, elkayusa.com.  Sofa: LIVING ROOM American Leather purchased at Design Warehouse, 877/988-1555, designwarehousesantafe.com.  Stucco: El Milagro Enterprises LLC, 983-9556, elmilagrosf@aol.com.  Table: (near two chairs) Stool 60, Alvar Aalto, artek.fi.  Tile: BATHROOM 3 x 6 white subway tile from The Home Depot, homedepot.com.  Wall system: 2 x 6 wood frame construction.  Water catchment:three buried 1,700-gallon tanks, El Milagro Enterprises LLC, 983-9556, elmilagrosf@aol.com.  Window coverings: custom by IDS (Interior Design Services), 820-2386, ids-santafe.com.  Windows: Kawneer 451T aluminum storefront, dark bronze, purchased through Santa Fe Vistas Window & Door, 471-1300, santafevistas.com.