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A Paradise Valley Adobe Gets its Desert Charm from a Cast of Stellar Designers

Features that the owners of this renovated Paradise Valley home cherish are the curving, negative-edge pool, views of Camelback Mountain and the lush sour orange hedge that provides privacy from neighbors.

A Paradise Valley adobe gets its desert charm from a cast of stellar designers.

By Nora Burba Trulsson | Photography by Carl Schultz

With mortar-washed, fired clay block walls and a Mexican colonial architectural style, a Paradise Valley home nestles into its native desert landscape. Inside, bleached wood beamed ceilings, rustic oak flooring and whitewashed walls take a back seat to views on the north of a lushly planted garden that’s perfect for dining and, to the south, a spot-on vista of Camelback Mountain across the swimming pool’s blue waters. In short, the 3,400-square-foot house exudes a low-key desert appeal that is at once informal and luxurious.

All of the above were precisely what drew a Chicago-area couple to buy the property as their winter retreat. “From the moment we set foot on the site, we got a warm, fuzzy feeling,” recalls the husband. “When we walked through the front door, we fell in love. We told our real estate agent we didn’t need to see any other houses.”

What the pair didn’t know until well after the deed got recorded was that the abode’s warm, fuzzy ambiance was thanks to a succession of owners and design talents who each left their mark on the house.  

The first to lend his touch to the home may have been the late celebrated architect Bennie Gonzales, known for such landmark buildings as the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts and Scottsdale’s City Hall. “The house was built in 1961,” the husband explains, “and our real estate agent thought it might have been designed by Gonzales. We reached out to his widow, and she was almost certain it was one of his custom homes.”

More recently, Louise and Tim Westfall owned the home. “I’d always had a penchant for older, Tucson-style adobe homes,” explains Louise Westfall, an interior designer, “and this home had that look. The house had a lot of potential, but it was in pretty bad shape.” Working with architectural designer Alan Linhart and builders Cal and Jon Christiansen, the Westfalls reconfigured the entry courtyard, removed an exterior fishpond and arches that blocked the view of Camelback Mountain from the living room, and stripped the interior down to the studs, adding new windows and doors, redoing the kitchen and bathrooms, whitewashing the interior block walls and adding the rustic oak flooring.

1. The circular dining table and curved-leg chairs invite gatherings between the kitchen and the living room. 2. An antique pine hutch holds family treasures in a hallway.

After the Westfalls, subsequent owners also enlisted the Christiansens, along with Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award-winning architect Mike Higgins, to add a two-bedroom casita to one wing of the residence and build a freestanding garage to the side of the property. “The original house was done with fired clay block, which was common back in the day—in southern Arizona,” Higgins explains, “but it’s not allowed by code anymore. We matched the style and look of the original house by using mortar-washed slump block.”

The same owners also engaged Masters of the Southwest award-winning landscape architect Greg Trutza to rework the grounds. “The existing landscape had good bones, but we pretty much revegetated the whole acre-plus site,” Trutza recalls. “The old pool was too crowded up to the house, and there was a wall behind it that masked empty desert.” Trutza took advantage of the open space, removing the old pool and wall, adding an expanse of lawn and a new, arc-shaped, negative-edge pool. “The new pool has a strong, architectural form that’s angled right toward Camelback Mountain’s Praying Monk formation,” he says, “while a hedge of sour orange adds privacy from the neighbors.”

1. An old mesquite tree shades the entry courtyard, where a wire settee provides a place to contemplate the serene setting. 2. In front, the home presents a low profile to the street and is set back on the property amidst cactus and desert trees. 3. Ceramic artist Jim Sudal crafted desert-centric tiles for the courtyard’s wall. 4. Pale wood floors, ceilings and fired clay block walls create a neutral backdrop for the cozy living room, warmed by a hooded fireplace. 5. Marble countertops and rustic cabinetry mark the kitchen, where a cozy seating area is a favorite place for coffee, reading and knitting.

With all the enhancements in place, the present owners’ only task was to furnish the home. “We literally did nothing to the interior,” says the wife. “It was the perfect backdrop.” Their long-time interior designer, Robert Alt, was charged with furnishing this desert getaway. Now based in Indiana, Alt has worked with the couple—who have adult children and grandchildren—on several of their Chicago-area homes since 1999, forming a deep understanding of their tastes and lifestyle. “He likes more modern, simple things, and she tends toward eclectic and traditional looks,” Alt says. “It’s a matter of finding a balance for them. They also like things that are beautiful but very livable.”

Alt had a few challenges with the project. For one, he had never set foot in Arizona. The other? “The owners didn’t want this to be a multiyear project,” he says. “They wanted it furnished right away.” Alt jumped on the eight-monthlong, fast-track project, commuting to Arizona numerous times, exploring design centers, retailers, vintage and antique shops and galleries for products and ideas. “I pushed my vendors for delivery and wasn’t afraid to use retail to get the job done. The clients were very hands-on and helped me shop for many things, especially art and accessories.”

1. Mirrored closet doors add a sense of space to the master bedroom, which has access to the pool patio. The intricately carved armoire houses the TV. 2. Two pieces of art by architect Bennie Gonzales—who is thought to have designed the house—flank the window of the guest house sitting room. 3. Built of fired clay block in the early 1960s, the residence includes a seamless guest casita addition on the left, which also served to expand the master bathroom. 4. The home’s three wings wrap around a patio anchored by an old olive tree. Corbels and clay roof overhangs add to the Southwest appeal.

Keeping the emphasis on views of the lush north garden and to the south, of pool and mountain, Alt picked a neutral palette and added interest with layers of textures and unique accessories. In the living room, two lounge-worthy sofas angle around a deeply hooded fireplace and a rustic TV armoire. At one end of the kitchen, Alt suggested a curvaceous settee and a whimsically carved chest to create a seating area, where the wife likes to read and knit. In the entry, a series of antique metal printing stamps were hung in a grid on the wall, while a console is illuminated by a vintage table lamp that once lived at the Arizona Biltmore resort.

“This house was architecturally beautiful,” reflects Alt. “It just needed furnishings that made it look like it had been lived in for a long time.”

While the owners didn’t change anything inside except furnishings, they added their own low-key touches to the grounds, building a barbecue in the north garden, which they use for outdoor dining, and asking ceramic artist Jim Sudal­—also a Master of the Southwest­—to create desert-centric installations for the entry courtyard and an outdoor fireplace. They also worked with horticulturist Ryan Jerrell to add in more desert plants in the front courtyard and pool area. They found both Sudal and Jerrell’s Dig It Gardens by poring over the pages of Phoenix Home & Garden.

“This house is just right for us,” says the husband. “We don’t need tall ceilings and 7,000 square feet. Our space is just right, whether it’s just the two of us or when we have family and friends visiting.”

“The real luxury of this place,” he continues, “is sitting by the pool at night, smelling orange blossoms and seeing Camelback Mountain silhouetted against the dark sky. It makes us happy to come here.”

The many talents who shaped the home would be happy to hear that.

Addition architect: Michael Higgins, Higgins Architects. Builder: Cal Christianson, Cal Christianson & Co. Landscape architect: Greg Trutza, New Directions in Landscape Architecture Inc. 

For more information, see Sources.

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