the good life

A California couple make the move to New Mexico for a peaceful new life in their art-filled retreat minutes from Taos Ski Valley.

This article first appeared in Winter 09 Su Casa

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To get home, Robert and Lynn Adcock drive up a long dirt road that winds among piñon and juniper trees, across deep arroyos, and up steep switchbacks through the foothills north of Taos. Remote as their two-story contemporary Pueblo style home is, it couldn’t be farther from their previous Southern California life. Surrounded by gardens, filled with art, and topped by a lofty master suite with views of the entire Taos basin and the upper Rio Chama region, theirs is the last house before the road trails off into undeveloped land. Besides friends who come from Taos and Los Angeles, visitors include bear, bobcat, turkey, and of course the ubiquitous coyote.

Lynn, a retired professional singer and college voice teacher, admits the isolation took some getting used to. “In Southern California, where you’re surrounded by people”—she makes a compacting gesture with her hands, like packing a snowball—“it’s so hard to get calm. Here, you’re put back on yourself,” you find your center. And that’s what brought them to this isolated site, which they found in 1998: “We loved the isolation of this place, and we knew we wanted trees.”

Robert, a retired freelance cellist, has old ties to New Mexico. Born in West Texas, he first visited Santa Fe at age two. Lynn apprenticed at the Santa Fe Opera in 1971. Since 1984, the couple had come skiing together at Taos Ski Valley, yet when they decided to retire, to leave music behind and cast their lot in the mountain west, New Mexico initially failed to top their prospect list.

“We used to take a month off in the summer to drive around the West—Wyoming, Montana—camping in our tent,” Robert remembers, “and we’d think about where we’d like to retire.”

Nothing felt quite right, though Santa Fe began to exert an attraction. Then came “Lynn’s epiphany,” as she laughingly recalls. Skiing at Taos in 1997, “there was this incredibly abundant snow, and it was just beautiful. I made lots of friends here. I just knew this was where we were going to retire.”

In one of those serendipities that validates a leap of faith, they networked to architects Pamela Freund and Ken Anderson of EDGE Architects through a casual après-ski conversation at Tim’s Stray Dog Cantina near the base of the ski hill. Robert remembers it this way: “We had met some friends and we were having nachos, and I sat beside this guy, Matt. We started talking and I said we were going to build a house. He asked if we had an architect yet, and I said no, and he suggested we should call EDGE. It turned out he did finish carpentry for them in the summer”—the classic ski town job juggling of winter on the mountain, summer in the construction trades. “We really hit it off with Ken and Pam.”

EDGE has provided architectural services around Taos since 1994. Freund says their mission is showing clients that it’s “easy to build sustainably. You don’t have to make sacrifices, but you need to be aware of your impact on a place—be good stewards.”

Through the years, the two couples—architects and clients—socialized and gradually evolved a design for the home. For the Adcocks’ part, “a lot of that design work was done on our car trips between California and New Mexico,” Lynn adds.

Freund recalls the Adcocks were “interested in strawbale construction, fat walls, old style adobe, making steps toward being ‘green.’ We were one of the few architects in Taos working with strawbale designs at the time.” Ultimately, everyone agreed instead to use Rastra construction (insulated concrete forms) partly because of the two-story design.

Another design factor was the Adcocks’ desire to display their extensive Southwestern art collection in a regionally inflected environment. They sent photos of their larger pieces to the architects, who then “designed the house around particular displays,” Pamela says. Though the couple wanted passive solar heating, the architects had to balance it against protecting the art from direct sunlight. And because the homeowners like to entertain, EDGE created spaces that flowed into one another, arranging the ground floor “so your party conversations could move from vignette to vignette, allowing glimpses of the next wonderful objet d’art around the bend,” Freund says.

As for the design, the Adcocks started with a few criteria. They knew they wanted “an organic look,” Lynn says. “That’s the word that kept coming up. Not squeaky clean or with square edges, but pueblo, old, like it had been here awhile, with thick walls and old vigas and curves.”

And that’s the look they got, though Chuby’s Construction built quite modern 12-inch walls of highly insulating Rastra—a wall system of polystyrene forms filled with concrete, which emulates adobe nicely under earth-tone stucco flecked with straw on the north façade. The entry door, with its beautiful panels featuring four painted santos by Jane Grover, sits beneath a ramada-like porch roof of rough latillas, on top of which a few oversized pots perch. Rustic balcony railings off the master suite and the rich brown stucco reinforce the pueblo look; a white plaster relief sculpture of a snake by Margie Smith creates a unique signature on the east-facing exterior wall.

For a floor plan, Lynn and Robert had liked the layout of their California home—so the downstairs here nearly matches its dimensions, with greater height in the living room and a more open flow from the kitchen to the other rooms. “We wanted height in the living room and long views through tall windows,” Lynn explains.

The main entry leads into a brief alcove, beyond which on the left the sinuous stairs rise helically to the upper level. On the right a short hallway connects to the small spare guest room with a foldout bed that hides in a lovely cabinet and a bathroom with a glass-block wall curving around the shower.
The living room, dining room, and kitchen flow together, separated only by half walls. The kitchen sports hand-crafted cabinets by Margie Smith’s M2 Woodworks with punched tin doors by Taos Tin Works’ Marion Moore. A bright east-side breakfast nook catches morning sun just off the kitchen near a side door leading to the garden area. Three steps below the main level, the living room includes a kiva fireplace flanked by a banco nestling beside the soaring view windows.

The curving, tapered staircase reaches the den at the upper level, which the Adcocks added to the design to capture the views over the trees, a mix of piñon, juniper, and taller ponderosa. And indeed, the mesmerizing view seems to seize your attention from every window upstairs and from the west-side balcony, where the Adcocks have placed two tall stools for those long sessions of contemplating the progression of clouds and sunlight across the Truchas Peaks far to the south or the greater Taos flats in the middle foreground.

In the generously proportioned upstairs master suite, two walls of windows gape at all that view. A kiva fireplace anchors one corner. The bathroom includes twin rectangular sinks under tin mirrors, a clever glass-block shower divider, and a deep soaking tub oriented toward the western view.

Natural materials and rustic accents characterize the home. The massive downstairs vigas—really, lightly finished logs still bumpy where branches were trimmed—are indeed old trees, salvaged from the Viveash Fire in the Pecos, New Mexico, area several years ago. An unusual decking treatment of lapped slats forms the ceiling between vigas.

The organic feeling continues through the interior walls, which wear a diamond finish in varying tones, floated to a matte surface rather than the typical hard-troweled shine associated with that material. Interior adobe mass walls work with the south-facing windows to bring passive solar assist to wintertime heating. The downstairs floors are brown acid-stained (and sunlight-absorbing) concrete, finished by the Adcocks themselves; upstairs, wide eastern white pine boards stained a lustrous chocolate hue cover the floor.

Throughout the home, broad wall spaces provide a simple backdrop for the Adcocks’ extensive collection of Southwest and Hispanic art, which they’ve accumulated over more than 20 years: paintings, sculptures, folk art (lots of Day of the Dead imagery), kachinas, pottery, and the like.

Outside, the gardens and pathways arc around three sides of the home. Stick-figure metal sculptures including a duck and a crane (nicknamed Frasier) perch in strategic locations among the plantings.

“We’ve really enjoyed the creative outlet of landscaping, since we’re not musicians anymore,” Lynn says. Planted beds alternate with a winding flagstone path, its rectangular stones set over a gravel “streambed” that channels water away from the structure. Heavy downpours create challenges for directing that runoff. “We had no clue about the drainage issues,” Lynn admits, but it’s a challenge the Adcocks seem to enjoy. Robert admits he likes to putter around the place, though Lynn adds, “When is enough, enough? Especially when you’re doing it yourself . . .” A burbling fountain from New Mexico Stone of Santa Fe brings birds close to the house; a small patio and hot tub sit just outside the living room doors.

Freund says the Adcocks remained particularly closely involved in the building project through every phase, “creating their house as their own piece of art.” Besides providing much of the actual labor and shopping for their plumbing, lighting fixtures, appliances, and tile, Freund says, they also handpicked the vigas and wood flooring for the upstairs. They hired friends to build the kitchen cabinets, pour the concrete countertops, and do the tile work. They worked out their own design for the punched tin panels in the cabinets, installed the wood floor upstairs, stained the concrete floor downstairs, and finished much of the wood elsewhere.

Robert and Lynn have now lived in the 2,500-square-foot house for three years. They describe an amazingly smooth construction process and credit Thomas “Chuby” Tafoya, a third-generation builder in the Taos valley, as being the only bidder on the project who said he could bring it in on time, on budget—“and he did!” Robert exclaims. The builder poured footings for walls in January of 2005 and the couple moved into the house in October.

Now the house feels like a home, fully occupied and settled into the landscape—and into its own landscaping. Far from town or humming highways, the Adcocks are equally settled into a peaceful life that must have once seemed a distant dream while they coped with smog, choked freeways, and road rage in Southern California. And so the settlement of New Mexico carries on into the 21st century.

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