When a Santa Fe couple set out on an adventure to find an old adobe their builder friend had described to them, they had no address, just the verbal description of the structure and a general location of where the property was located. It was the mid-1990s and the contractor had tried unsuccessfully to convince one of his clients to purchase what he was certain was a diamond in the rough. Sharing the discovery with his friends sparked their interest—and what turned out to be a historic treasure hunt of sorts.
Peter Buehner and Deborah Day soon located the dilapidated structure with its broken and falling vigas, and its multi-layered linoleum floors covering only dirt. It was a daunting project. But Buehner has been a carpenter and cabinetmaker since the mid-1960s and has had a small workshop in Santa Fe since 1976. His wife Deborah possesses a serene and elegant design sensibility informed by time spent living in Denmark. Day was also a gold and silversmith in Santa Fe before entering the real estate business. Both husband and wife worked in the preservation of historic adobe churches in Northern New Mexico, and share a passion for vernacular adobe architecture.
The couple fell hard for the humble adobe with its original Territorial style trim and significant history—the original three rooms date back to 1885. They purchased it and the little adobe that had stood vacant for twenty years on its lonely acre of land began its transformation into a real home. Like the children’s story of the Velveteen Rabbit who eventually grows authentic fur as he is loved into being real, the adobe’s dramatic changes would not happen overnight. But they would happen.
There was much to do before the new owners could even think about moving in. In fact, three years would pass before that was possible. When they did move in, it took another three years before they had a working kitchen (one that consisted of more than a camp stove and a single water spigot).
Patience paid off. Meticulous care was taken to manifest what the couple had in mind. Clay dirt was gathered from a site 70 miles away and hauled back to the site, because the two loved the particular color of that clay soil. The adobe’s walls, which range from 24 inches to 30 inches deep, were “plastered” with hand-troweled homemade mud.
The husband had become adept in adobe style building during his time volunteering for a historic preservation group. Buehner was able to mix the mud on the adobe’s acreage, adding straw and arroyo sand. He also added mica, which makes the walls sparkle when light spills through the French doors or reflects onto the walls surfaces.
Certain design choices have made all the difference in creating the lightness and airiness that is a significant part of the home’s appeal. White is used extensively—but never with an austere feel. The floor in the master bedroom is light, tumbled brick with slurry, while most of the rest of the floors are bleached wood with a white paste and white oil, known as a “Danish finish.” The entry features a floor of creamy flagstone. In a departure from traditional Southwestern pueblo design, the structural vigas in the main living room—along with the decking between them—are painted white.
A Scandinavian bench and nearby chairs are also slip covered in white. The residence’s windows are framed in white-painted wood, both inside and out. In the kitchen, stylish white cabinets with glass doors continue the fresh, crisp aesthetic, while handsome ebony counter tops add strength and contrast to the design. The rest of the furnishings and appointments were selected with the same precise consideration.
An antique Colonial Dutch cabinet from Java, Indonesia makes a perfect New Mexican “trastero” or cupboard cabinet in the living room. A graphically patterned rug from Pottery Barn along with textiles from Mexico and Guatemala echo the colors of deep rich café con leche. As with all brilliant interiors, surprise elements add charm and whimsy. For example, a French, Godin cast iron stove in a corner of the kitchen is one of the couple’s oldest and most prized possessions.
Today the house is approximately 2,300 square feet. Though a contractor was enlisted to add an extra bath and sleeping quarters, the adobe was essentially crafted and constructed by the industrious husband and wife team. It was Peter and Deborah’s combined efforts that resulted in exquisitely rendered cabinets and closets, precisely hung doors, intricate word working and finish work, and the unique combinations of interior design elements.
The once crumbling historic adobe has been transformed into an exquisitely livable and sustainable home, one that reflects a thoughtful aesthetic of simplicity, grace and restraint. This home is a shining example of how simple but sophisticated choices can create a visually serene, yet culturally rich environment. It’s also a valuable lesson in choosing mindfully the elements we surround ourselves with, if we seek an atmosphere soothing to both the senses and to the soul.