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The Santa Fe House

In the desert of the Southwest, This Old House updated a 1930s adobe home with a library addition.

The winter of 1990 found the This Old House crew saying goodbye to the Concord, Massachusetts barn (and some of the coldest outdoor scenes we've ever had to tape) and hello to the American Southwest. Like other TOH destinations, Santa Fe was not without its extracurricular temptations—tamales, chilies rellenos, and margaritas, to name a few—but we were there to explore the unique building traditions of this ancient city. So it was with open minds that we traded the posts and beams of Concord for the vigas, latillas, and mud bricks of Jim Asher and Joe Anna Arnett Asher's small c. 1930 adobe home in Santa Fe's historic district.

The Ashers, both accomplished artists, had enlisted the help of noted local architect John Midyette and John Wolf, an expert Santa Fe contractor who would soon earn the nickname Senor Lobo from us Easterners. The renovation required gutting all four of the building's original four rooms, adding a library between the main house and the Ashers' attached studio, and new systems throughout. We custom-built the cabinets for the home's revamped kitchen on site, and used foam roof insulation, split-system air-conditioners, and radiant floor heating technology to help handle the hot days and cool nights of the high desert climate. Energy-efficient windows and French doors let in views of the towering Sangre de Christo mountains, the gentle pinyon-covered foothills surrounding the town, and the indescribably clear Southwestern light.

The project celebrated the materials and building methods that give "Santa Fe style" its particular beauty. Buildings there seem to rise directly from the ground, the warm browns and tans of adobe brick and plaster tying houses to their surroundings. One memorable moment came when the crew began cutting a new window opening in the kitchen. They passed a length of barbed wire through a hole, attached sticks to each end for handles on the outside and inside, and sawed away through the thick mud brick walls!

In such a dry climate, wood is scarce, and in the Ashers' house its use was confined to doors and the traditional ceiling treatment of vigas (exposed beams) and latillas (narrow cross-planking). Elsewhere were unadorned plaster walls and stone—flagstones from Arizona on the floor, richly veined red Mexican marble for the kitchen counters. Corner fireplaces, their rounded form following the shape of their namesake kiva, an underground room used by the Southwestern Indians for ceremonies and meetings, graced the new library and the redone master bedroom.

At the time of our project, the local style was very "in," and we made sure to visit Sharon Woods, co-author of the best-selling book Santa Fe Style. She took Steve to look at some of the finest examples of local architecture, but cautioned us to not embrace every aspect of the trend, which as all trends do, was getting overheated. Thus was born our crew T-shirt for the project: a howling coyote silhouette with an international red slash through it.