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For The Home

Historic Adobe

Author: Terri Feder
Issue: July, 2013, Page 66
Photos by David B. Moore

Many of the home’s charms can be appreciated from this side entry, with its rustic Dutch door flanked by a pair of Arcosanti bells, a stone staircase, red tile overhangs and wood lintels and beams.

An Adobe Home With a Storied Past Enchants With Traditional Southwestern Style

If the walls of this home could talk, what stories they would tell. The man who designed this charming abode and hand-built its adobe walls, brick by brick, out of mud and straw from the surrounding property, was one of Arizona’s most colorful characters. According to many, he also was the state’s first cowboy artist and only “Cowboy-Expressionist.” The year was 1926 and the man was Alonzo “Lon” Megargee.

Painter, cowboy, architect, weaver of tales and ladies’ man (he was reported to have been married six to eight times), Megargee was not your average wrangler. Born in 1883 in Philadelphia, he grew up devouring pulp westerns and wanting to be a cowboy.

The story goes that he met his fourth wife, Millie, while traveling on a train to the West Coast. She was a widowed heiress, full of personality and spunk. It was for Millie and himself that Megargee built this home in what is now Paradise Valley, Arizona. They named it “Casa del Sol,” or House of the Sun. When the couple divorced, Megargee purchased another property down the road, where he built Casa Hermosa, today’s Hermosa Inn. Millie remained at Casa del Sol.

Since the Megargee days, the house has had just two sets of owners. The first were William Benner and Patrick Maas—founders of Est Est, Scottsdale’s first design company, and Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest. They purchased the property as a spec home in the mid-1960s, after Millie’s death, intending to restore and sell it. However, they were so enamored with Lon’ adobe that they ended up spending the next three decades living in it. “We were planning to put it back on the market, but it became such an important part of our business ... Architectural Digest featured the house, and we modeled other homes we did on it,” explains Benner.

The living room’s draped and pillow-strewn bay window provides a sheltered nook for reading. The Ungers typically enjoy their Sunday morning coffee and newspaper at this charming table for two. The flooring—original to the home—is colored and polished concrete made to resemble flagstone.
It was also love at first sight for the current owners, Jennifer and Fred Unger—proprietors of The Hermosa Inn in Paradise Valley—who purchased the home in 2001. Says Fred, “[Casa del Sol] came on the market and within a day, I’d heard about it. I called my wife, and she fell in love with it, too. So we bought it.”

Both sets of owners have felt a strong sense of guardianship over the historic property and a desire to stay true to Megargee’s vision. Says Fred of Benner, “Bill deserves credit for saving Casa del Sol from falling into disrepair and getting torn down. When we bought it, Bill was so kind and generous. He gave us many items and sold us some special pieces of furniture when he felt they were a part of the soul of the house.”

One step inside the 3,759-square-foot home’s diminutive arched entry door, and it’s obvious why the Ungers feel honored to dwell here. Little has been altered over the past 87 years. In the living room, the ceiling—which is punctuated with rustic hand-hewn beams—soars to 21 feet, and light streams in from a large bay window. Says Jennifer, “This room has a soulfulness to it. You feel like you’re stepping back in time; it has so much history.” Adds interior designer Nancy Kitchell, who worked with Benner and Maas, as well as the Ungers, “It’s a house dense with character and memories.”

The living and dining room floors—all original—are made of five-colored polished cement tiles laid in a flagstone pattern. “There’s 87 years of wax on this floor,” notes Unger. “Every time you move a chair, it leaves a mark. But you could never recreate that patina, so we leave it as is.”

The home’s arched doors are solid wood with original wrought-iron hardware. And in every direction is an intriguing entryway, leading up or down chunky stairs to one cozy nook after another. Each space boasts its own hand-molded fireplace, often in the shape of a cone—a signature Megargee style—and built-in cabinets, drawers and secret cubbyholes. It’s obvious that the cowboy painter thought long and hard about what makes for a comfortable, functional and beautiful home. “I give Lon a lot of credit,” says Jennifer. “He had no formal training after age 13, and look at what he created.” Adds Fred, “We almost feel like it’s not our house … as if we’re the third set of caretakers and that we will eventually hand it over to someone else who will love it as we do. It’s a magical place.”

In the dining room, the arched built-in cabinet was constructed and its doors ornately painted by the original homeowner, artist Lon Megargee. A wood candelabra with candles hangs above the table, and wall sconces illuminate the adobe brick walls. The paintings are both by artist H.S. Mixson of New Mexico.

The living room’s 21-foot-high ceilings, rough-hewn beams and hand-molded fireplace are a testament to the talent, vision and fortitude of the original owner, Lon Megargee. The stairway leads up to a mini-library and his former art studio. A Santa Claus face is carved at the top of the fireplace.
This cozy sitting room just off the master bedroom boasts a barred window and a painted stone fireplace with a built-in niche for firewood. It is believed that when Millie Megargee married her third husband, Dr. Palmer, he practiced medicine on a nearby reservation and may have stored medications in this room—hence the need for additional security. The painting above the fireplace is entitled Navajo Winter Ceremony and was painted by Native American artist Frank Fowler, Jr.

The master bedroom is sunken a few steps below the rest of the house. The room emanates warmth, thanks to its beamed ceilings and a large bay window with built-in drawers. The Ungers have decorated the space, with the help of interior designers Nancy Kitchell and Christopher Brusnighan, primarily with antiques. The rustic wood shutters on the right are original to the home. Draperies in an ikat print grace the other window.
Note the thickness of the walls in this arched entryway between the master bedroom and its sitting room. Millie Megargee, who lived in this home for many years, sealed the adobe walls with milk (a traditional adobe building technique) to ensure they were fully protected from the rain. Just to the right of the arch is a molded perch that artist Lon Megargee crafted, providing the perfect shelf for artwork. It is touches like this that make the home a unique and special treasure.
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