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Sublime In Santa Fe

A historic adobe home in Santa Fe is faithfully restored and sensibly updated utilizing original design details from famed architect John Gaw Meem.

January 14, 2019

Doug McDowell, owner of McDowell Fine Homes, has been a designer-builder in Santa Fe for 43 years, and has always been captivated with the Pueblo Revival style of architecture. John Gaw Meem, the father of this style in Santa Fe, is widely considered one of the greatest 20th century architects in the in the Southwest. Meem, who suffered from tuberculosis and relocated to the dry climate of Santa Fe to find relief from his disease, is famous for combining indigenous architectural patterns, ancient traditions, and local construction materials with modern sensibilities to create a simplistic design style that is synonymous with Santa Fe.

This large corn grinding stone from Mexico was craned in and set into the courtyard to serve as a water feature. Moon Mountain is in the background.

“The sense of place that Meem’s houses produce is phenomenal,” says McDowell. “You’re looking at all of these materials that are growing right outside your door or within your view corridor. The houses feel like they’ve grown out of the land.”

The corbels above the pine posts support the beams of the sunset portal. Meem’s original drawings included details about how he wanted each beam hand-cut and draped with a very special tin flashing. The canale cuts enable rainwater to flow off the roof.

McDowell says he was fortunate early in his career to work on a lot of the homes that Meem had designed and built. “I really got to see the work, understand the work and be touched by the work. It just spoke to me,” McDowell notes.

When the home was built, Tatum insisted on a fireplace that was much bigger than Meem’s original design. Meem even took the time to draw the wrought iron damper to full scale. McDowell reconstructed all of this to the architect’s original specifications.

Many years later, McDowell previewed a home just moments from the renowned Santa Fe Plaza that was designed and built by Meem in 1939 but had been abandoned for several years. “When I walked in, I could see that it was a John Gaw Meem piece of work, but a lot of changes had been made to the design,” McDowell says about the rare find. McDowell says despite the property’s disrepair, “There was no doubt when I looked at it that this was something I had to work on. It was just so far and few between that one would have the opportunity to work on something so special.”

The fireplaces and baseboards are painted with a dark clay paint, a technique borrowed from Pueblo patterns.

McDowell discovered that the home was originally designed and built for Ed Tatum and his wife. Remarkably, Tatum had kept meticulous records, including the original set of blueprints, working drawings, invoices, and communication with Meem. “It was an amazing portfolio of this house’s history and the communication of what happened along the way,” says McDowell of the treasure trove of information he found. “Having all of the plans from the original work and the communication between the two was really a godsend.”

The Navajo rugs from the owner’s collection served as inspiration for the interior design choices. The beautiful punched-tin light (Santa Fe Metal Clad) hanging above the dining table is a replica of a fixture McDowell found in the home, just one example of “letting the home tell us what to do” with the renovation, McDowell says.

As McDowell dug into the files and correspondence, he unraveled the mystery of why this home deviated from Meem’s typical design aesthetic in important ways—from windows and doors to flooring and fireplaces. According to letters between architect and client, it was at Tatum’s insistence that some of these features were altered.

The interior design, by Marty Wilkinson of Metamorphosis, nods to the architecture of the home while adding some contemporary twists.

But McDowell was committed to restoring the home to Meem’s original drawings and intent. “It was really a labor of love; it touched my heart,” McDowell explains. “It was about saying how can we take the original drawings and respond to today’s lifestyle, but still have the Old World feeling.”

The cozy kitchen affords modern luxuries with a six-burner gas stove, soapstone surfaces, and classic white subway tiles for the backsplash.

It took McDowell about a year to revive the Pueblo Revival home. It sits on nearly three acres and boasts a huge terraced courtyard with beautiful views of the Sun and Moon Mountains, an antique corn grinding stone from Mexico that was crafted into a one-of-a-kind water feature, a functional outdoor kitchen, and a welcoming fire pit. Inside the 2,300-square foot home—resplendent with thick adobe walls and concrete floors treated to resemble mud—there are two master suites, a cozy, functional kitchen that opens to a right-sized dining area and living room, and an abundance of natural light streaming in from multiple directions.

Simple light fixtures hang from the round vigas on the kitchen ceiling. The island is adorned with a Mimbres drawing of a rabbit—a nod to the many that live on the property.

Meem’s designs were reflective of the patterns of prehistoric architecture of the Puebloan Indians, and he strived to bring those patterns into the modern lifestyle of the early 1900s. “We’re doing the same thing,” McDowell says of his thoughtful and detailed renovation of the property. “It’s not our design, it is design that happened in New Mexico because of the materials that were available to build with.”

A shrine of Guadalupe santo hangs over the fireplace in one of the master suites, an acknowledgement of the importance of religion in the region.

A good example is the adobe bricks used to construct the house, which were made in the corner of the courtyard. There is still an indentation at the place where the bricks were formed. Round beams on the ceiling, called vigas, were hand-crafted from ponderosa pine trees that were cut from the forest above town. Punched tin light fixtures—fashioned after those made of iron in Spain or Mexico and hand-painted inside—are modern-day replicas of the originals that McDowell found in the house. Everything in the elegant and simple home has a “touched-by-hand” feeling to it.

The master bathroom is a tiled “wet room” that is flooded with natural light and features a big steam shower, huge tub, double vanity, and wood cabinets with hand-carved detail.

“I can’t put my finger on it, but it’s so calming, so peaceful—there’s nothing showy about it at all,” says the man who purchased the property from McDowell. He’s a New Mexico native who is deeply appreciative of the sense of place the home evokes. “When you’re inside, it’s human and cozy; you never want to leave.”

The windows—double-hung and painted turquoise blue on the outside in keeping with local tradition—have nine panes on the bottom and six panes on top, a deviation from the typical proportion. Additionally, the front door is about six inches wider and two inches shorter than usual.

The home is complete with nearly 1,200-square feet of portals, encouraging interaction with the natural surroundings.

“It’s subtle, but little things like this are unpredictable and offer another pattern,” says McDowell of these purposeful irregularities that are characteristic of Meem’s work. “We tried to take those same patterns and bring them into our time,” McDowell adds. “It’s like another Pueblo Revival in a sense. It’s a revival of those patterns but integrated into how people live now.”

It was exactly this organic nature of the home that made the owner fall in love with it. “One of the reasons the house has such a feeling of peace in it is that it accepts you as you are because you accept it as it is,” he says. “This house says, ‘Come on in.’ ”

Designer/Builder

Doug McDowell
McDowell Fine Homes
mcdowellfinehomes.com

Interior Designer

Marty Wilkinson
Metamorphosis
stageyourlife.net

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