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For The Garden

Hillside Hacienda

Author: John Roark
Issue: April, 2018, Page 86
photography by Michael Woodall

Located in McDowell Mountain Ranch, the Spanish colonial home features an entry courtyard with an enchanting stone fountain. “The moment you come through the gate it’s as if you’ve discovered your own personal Eden,” says landscape architect Donna Winters.
A Mountain Landscape Balances Natural Desert and Lush Oasis

Tucked into a McDowell Mountain Ranch hillside, a Spanish colonial-style home seems a throwback to another era. Built with care and consideration for both the land on which it rests and the residents within it, the structure would be a source of pride in any neighborhood. Located on a quiet cul-de-sac, the house lies 15 feet below street level; a driveway meanders down to a welcoming front courtyard with a gently trickling fountain. Panoramic backyard views call to mind epic canvases by painters of the great Southwest. The idyllic dwelling was the pet project of builder Tim Beringer and served as his personal residence for five years.

The current inhabitants, Jon and Cheryl Slusser, felt an immediate affinity for the home. Having previously owned a vacation house in Payson, they were on the hunt for a residence that would bring them closer to extended family in the Valley. They were impressed with the obvious care that had gone into the abode’s construction as well as its sloped and rugged setting. “This house may not be surrounded by pine trees, but it’s got that mountain feeling because it’s nestled into the hills,” says Cheryl. “And it’s so much more accessible.”

The winding driveway descends 15 feet from the road above and leads to an auto court. The wing to the right was added by the current homeowners and includes his-and- hers offices, a bedroom and master suite. To the left, antique reclaimed teak doors open to the entry courtyard.
The couple connected with Beringer to build on a wing that would include his-and-hers
offices, a master suite and another bedroom. “In addition to adding considerable square footage, the new construction transformed the footprint of the front yard, creating more of a haciendalike feeling because the house now embraces the courtyard,” says Beringer. The new homeowners also commissioned a pavilion adjacent to the backyard pool with game rooms, a full kitchen, indoor/outdoor bar, bath and wet and dry saunas. “Family is very important to us,” says Jon. “We want our children and grandchildren to spend time here and enjoy themselves.”

When construction was complete, Jon and Cheryl christened the home “Casa de Siete Chimeneas,” or House of the Seven Chimneys. “When I was growing up in New Hampshire, my parents had a house they called Five Chimneys,” says Jon. “They also had a place on Nantucket they named ‘One Horse, Three Pots and a Kettle.’ For a long time, we as a family have maintained a tradition of naming our houses.”

The natural desert landscape becomes progressively varied and verdant closer to the house. After placing additional boulders, Winters added agaves, golden barrels and prickly pears, and flowering accents such as lantana, Valentine emu bush (Eremophila maculata ‘Valentine’), crimson flare Tecoma (Tecoma x ‘Crimson Flare’) and desert brittlebush (Encelia farinosa).
Curb appeal was essential to the homeowners. “Starting at the street, we wanted to keep the landscape very natural, working with what was there, making it better and more colorful, but without looking like we had a hand in it,” says Jon, who tasked landscape designer and Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award winner Donna Winters with the metamorphosis. Winters respected the craggy terrain, supplementing it with rocks and boulders culled from new construction excavation, integrating additional boulders and creating a gradual progression of texture and color from curb to front door. Purple and white lantana, trailing rosemary, agaves, golden barrels and yuccas hold the eye with visual destinations. “As you get closer to the house and transition to the backyard, it gets progressively greener,” she explains.

Adjacent to the side yard’s in-ground trampoline, a covered kitchen and dining area bring enjoyment year-round. A ceiling-mounted circular mister, a fogging system and motorized solar shades help keep things comfortable during the warmer months.
The angled driveway was originally a monochromatic brown. “We must have brought in a dozen paver samples and studied combinations of colors at different times of day,” Winters recalls. By incorporating multiple tones and bisecting the expanse with perpendicular bands of detailing, the designer added interest to what had been a monotonous expanse. “The richness of color and variety of detail give the driveway a more human scale. It provides continuity now by complementing the architecture, she explains. As you look out, your eye meanders upward toward the mountains beyond.”

Behind a pair of antique reclaimed teak doors, the entry courtyard is the undeniable gem of the front yard. Originally a koi pond, the centerpiece fountain features a cantera-topped surround—a peaceful spot to sit and take in the serenity of the sanctuary. Winters employed a varied plant palette, including horsetail reed (Equisetum hyemale) and Mexican heather (Cuphea hyssopifolia) around the water feature. Arabian jasmine (Jasminum sambac) and Texas mountain laurel (Sophora secundiflora) are fragrant complements to the tranquil sound of splashing water. ‘Little Ollie’ dwarf olive (Olea europaea ‘Montra’), hibiscus, asparagus fern and dwarf agave (Agave desmettiana) add additional accents.

The grass in the side yard was replaced with faux turf, which cuts down on water and maintenance. The perimeter wall is accented with a bright rhythm of bougainvillea and yellow bells (Tecoma stans).
“The minute you open the gate, you feel like you’re in your own private Eden,” says Winters. “The whole idea was that when you entered that space you felt like you had discovered another world. It’s like a symphony of contrast, layers, textures and colors.”

The home’s back elevation boasts a trio of expansive covered patios—each with motorized solar shades that add additional privacy and a protective boundary for the couple’s dogs—with views of the pool and the Valley beyond. The large Arabesque-shaped pool and spa, holdovers from Beringer’s original construction, feature a quartet of cantera frog fountains, which Jon has dubbed “The Fab Four.” George, John, Paul and Ringo bring a cheerful note to the poolscape. Vignettes of cacti, ironwood trees, sago palms and lantana peeking between granite boulders, and pots populated with vibrant seasonal blooms are integrated throughout the backyard. Bougainvillea vines climb to the home’s second floor and dramatically frame the large kitchen window in brilliant crimson.

As the lot slopes beyond the pool, the landscape transitions back to rocky hillside, which Winters punctuated with more than a dozen native trees and five strategically placed specimen saguaros. “The eye needs destinations, and a vista this large needs boundaries,” she says. “These visual landmarks not only augment the view looking out, they actually underscore the intimacy of the backyard space.”

The arabesque-shaped pool and spa are watched over by the “Fab Four,” a quartet of carved cantera frog fountains that were part of the original poolscape. Beneath an ironwood tree, a sago palm adds texture. Large pots populated with flowering flora bring color to every season.
Perched on the back corner of the property, the pool pavilion has all the comforts of a second home and, in addition to a wealth of kid-friendly amenities, provides a private retreat for visiting family and guests. A balcony with lounge chairs surrounding a fire pit has become a go-to favorite spot for Jon and Cheryl to take in the legendary Sonoran sunsets and vistas.

During the entire construction process, Winters credits Jon for ensuring that everyone’s needs were being met and privacy was intact—even for nearby residents. “Jon was always about the bigger picture,” she says. “He’d even walk over to the adjacent yards to make sure that everything we were creating looked good from their viewpoint. That’s a great neighbor to have.”

The hacienda and its gardens appear to have been longtime residents of their hillside setting, which was one of the homeowners’ main objectives. “This was a perfect balance of garden, architecture and site. You can’t have one without the others,” says Winters. “The transition from desert to interior gardens happens so gracefully and subtly that you don’t perceive the starting and stopping points. If we didn’t create intimacy, you wouldn’t feel the boundaries of the space. Even though it’s vast, you still feel very protected here.”

A fire pit located between the pool and the pavilion has become a favorite spot for the homeowners to enjoy the spectacular Sonoran sunsets.

The pavilion’s indoor/outdoor bar is just steps away from  the pool and lounging areas. Throughout the exterior, builder Tim Beringer embellished columns with adobe brick details and hand-painted Mexican tile.
The new pavilion includes game rooms, a kitchen, full bath, wet and dry saunas, and a half bath specifically for pool users. Retractable corner doors open to a wealth of activities for the homeowners’ children and grandchildren.


The height of the vessels also protects the flowers from foraging javelinas, which frequently visit the property.
“Color is very important to me,” says homeowner Cheryl Slusser. Throughout the landscape, Winters placed a variety of large pots overflowing with year-round blooms.


Bordered in hand-painted tile, a large kitchen-adjacent window is framed by bougainvillea that climbs to the home’s second floor.

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