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Family Ties

The backyard of this ranch home in Paradise Valley was completely reworked with the addition of inverted V-shaped steps that echo the patio’s gabled roofline and a low-growing garden close to the house that keeps views open to nearby mountain vistas.

A daughter modernizes her childhood home without erasing its original 1960s ranch pedigree.

By Nancy Erdmann | Photography by Steve Thompson

Della Schnell loves to tell the story of what her house looked like growing up. “It was all pink,” she recalls. “The kitchen was pink, the bathroom was pink, and even some of the outdoor paving was pink. My mother loved it.” The house remained pretty much the same for the next 54 years until 2016 when Della and her husband, John, retired from their jobs in California, returned to Arizona and decided to make the place their own.

“After my mother passed away, we rented the property out for several years, but I always knew we would come back to it,” she says. “What’s so fantastic about the house is where it sits on the land.” Located in a quiet Paradise Valley neighborhood characterized by rock and indigenous vegetation, the home offers stunning views of nearby Mummy and Camelback mountains, as well as South Mountain in the distance. “When the storms roll in, it’s just amazing,” notes John. The gardens are also a haven for wildlife, and the couple enjoys frequent sightings of javelina, bobcats, raccoons, coyotes and nighthawks.

1. After Clayton Miller removed a retaining wall and old-growth shrubs, he opened the yard to more usable space and a better view of a large organ pipe cactus. “As the project progressed, the homeowners got more and more excited, and we ended up bringing in additional accent plants,” Miller recalls. The garden features a casual path of flagstones set among loose cobble, desert marigolds, rosemary and golden barrels. A garden pot retrofitted into a burbling fountain adds a finishing touch. 2. The garden before renovations. 3. The stretched horizontal low-pitched roof was typical for many of the ranch-style homes of the early ‘60s, notes Clint Miller. After the addition of various roofing materials throughout the years, it was brought back to its original cedar shake shingle during the renovation, and the brick facade was updated with a khaki-color mortar wash. At the same time, the entry drive was removed and a garden was created with a steppingstone walkway. 4. Prior to renovations, the home lacked curb appeal.

Realizing the residence needed to be modernized and brought up to code if they were going to live in it, the Schnells embarked on a renovation of both the house and landscape. At 2,300 square feet, the abode is the ideal size for them, but they felt closed in by its many small rooms, a common issue in older houses. “The objective for me was to open up the space and be able to see outside,” Della says. “We didn’t want to make huge changes because it is a family home, but we did want to make some small structural fixes and add modern detailing. It was also important to keep the original feel of the house intact.”

While viewing photos online, the couple saw the work of architect Clint Miller, a Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award winner, and knew he was the right fit for them. “It turns out we went to high school together,” exclaims Della. “We really felt he understood what we were looking to do without changing the original footprint.”

Landscape architect Clayton Miller installed a raised rusted steel planter as a focal point that can be viewed from inside the house and to create a distinctive garden space within the landscape. Heat-loving rosemary growing along the brick wall and flowering snail vine climbing the columns help soften the hardscape. The Mexican Saltillo flooring laid in a herringbone pattern mimics tile inside the house.

According to Miller, the house had some good “basic bones,” including a vaulted ceiling and floor-to-ceiling windows in the family room, but the rest needed to be reworked. “We raised the ceiling in the master bedroom to create architectural texture and to make it feel more open and airy,” he says. Characteristic of California ranch homes, vaulted ceilings generally weren’t used in Arizona because the area below the roofline was needed for insulation from the heat. “With today’s technology, we’re able to extend the height of the room without changing the roofline and still have the insulation we need,” Miller explains.

Walls in the main living areas were removed, including one that closed off the kitchen from the family room. “The kitchen has a pretty small footprint, but we were able to make it live large by limiting the use of upper cabinets in the narrowest part of the room and installing white cabinetry and countertops,” says the architect. Miller also added a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows and a set of doors, all with steel frames that echoed the type of windows originally used in the house. “It allowed for us to have a thinner frame that offers more glass and has a lighter, more delicate feel to it.”

The interiors were painted a soft white, and the flooring was changed from carpet to glazed brown Saltillo tile for its warmth and affordability. “We didn’t want it to look Spanish,” Miller says,” so we chose rectangular shaped tiles and laid them in a herringbone pattern, which is more appropriate for a ranch-style home.”

Changes were made on the exterior of the house, too. “We removed two dormers because they didn’t support the casual nature of a ranch,” Miller adds. To lighten up the facade, the original reclaimed red brick was covered with a khaki-hued mortar wash. “It looks more like an earthen adobe brick now. It has an urban feel, and I think it better suits the desert.”

Miller’s son, landscape architect Clayton, was asked to refresh and recreate the desert look on the property. “Della and John have a real appreciation for the natural environment, so we embraced this philosophy throughout the design,” the younger Miller notes.

In order to revert the grounds back to their natural state, landscaping rock and a circular driveway were removed. “It was just too much hardscape, and we wanted to create more of an experience when approaching the front door,” Miller continues. The area once occupied by the driveway now inhabits a casual walking path that guides visitors to the front door via a series of small “arrival” gardens.

The foyer was updated with new doors and is defined by the change of flooring from Saltillo tile to a painted concrete tile. “The vertical wood batons work as a semi-transparent divider to the main room,” explains architect Clint Miller.

Although the property has great views, they were blocked by overgrown vegetation in the backyard, and the back half of the yard was virtually unusable. “The only access to it was to go around the house and work your way down,” John says. The landscape architect opened up the space to recapture the mountain vistas and designed a garden space that echoed the look of the one he installed in the front yard. Both feature raised steel planters and a series of steppingstones. With the addition of a ramada, a burbling fountain and a patch of synthetic lawn for the couple’s two standard schnauzers, the yard is a “really lovely, peaceful place to be,” notes Della.

The light-filled residence is now awash inside and out in soft neutrals that echo its natural surroundings—save for one important detail. Della decided it was only right to leave a touch of the original house she grew up in. So the powder room, with its pink tiled vanity and crystal chandelier, remains exactly the way it always was when it gave her mother such joy. “It has so much sentimental meaning,” Della says. “It just seemed fitting.” π

Architect: Clint Miller, Clint Miller Architect. Landscape Architect: Clayton Miller, Greey|Pickett.

For more information, see Sources.

1. Landscape architect Clayton Miller designed the latilla-style ramada away from the house and in the middle of the garden as a destination spot. It defines an outdoor room that offers space for barbecuing, dining and relaxing. “The spaced placement of the timbers provides filtered light but does not trap heat,” he explains. “It lives cooler than the existing patio cover against the home.” 2. Large plantings once lined the back elevation and blocked views of the backyard from inside. 3. Although modest in size, the updated kitchen feels larger due to floor-to-ceiling glass doors and windows and light-colored cabinetry. For additional storage, Clint Miller built tall cabinets at the end of the room on either side of the refrigerator.

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