Iconic Modernist Tucson Home Designated as Historic Landmark
A home that is a foundational example of modernist desert design has been restored to its former glory—and is available to stay in. The Jacobson House, designed by master architect Judith Chafee, sits on four acres in the heart of Tucson’s Catalina Foothills. It was purchased by Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation CEO Demion Clinco and his mother in 2021. Clinco likewise successfully listed the house on the National Register of Historic Places—rare, considering the home is less than 50 years old but speaks to “its exceptional significance,” says Clinco. “Chafee’s architecture is so beautiful and in many ways is so quintessentially Arizona,” Clinco adds. We spoke with Clinco about how he restored and protected the Jacobson House.’
Q&A With Demion Clinco
Tell us about the Jacobson House and how it came to you.
I’m interested in our cultural resources. Judith Chafee, who was the architect, was a major figure in the development of desert modern design. She was the only woman to graduate in her class at Yale. She worked for some of the most important architecture firms in the country … before coming back to Arizona.
She was commissioned by her mother to design a house on Tucson’s west side, and after that project was complete, she designed the Ramada House, which is one of the great desert modern designs. Then, she was hired by Joan and Art Jacobson to design this house in 1975. Originally, they wanted an addition to their house and as the project grew, they decided to find a parcel and build a house from the ground up. Chafee was an uncompromising architect who had a very sophisticated design philosophy on how to live in the desert. These houses are highly responsive to their environments. They finished the project in 1977. After that, she designed the Blackwell House on the west side of Tucson, which was torn down about 15 years ago by Pima County.
Because it’s on a large property, my concern is it was going to be torn down and (the land) subdivided and multiple houses built atop of it, and we would lose another remarkable example of Judith Chafee’s architectural work and a foundational project. We acquired the property through the estate. We set to work restoring the property and we followed a very high restoration standard and were conscientious, recognizing the architectural and cultural importance of the property.
What work did you do to protect the Jacobson House?
Usually for properties to be listed on the national register they have to be 50 years old. This house doesn’t meet that threshold, but it’s been listed because of its exceptional significance.
We also designated it as a Pima County historic landmark, which ensures that future changes to the property have to go through the Tucson-Pima County Historical Commission. It cannot be torn down without the approval of the Pima County Board of Supervisors.
Tell me about the architectural significance of this home.
When you look at desert design all over the American Southwest, a lot of the form and the practice drives right back to Chafee and her work. Her projects were so celebrated when they were built that they just had radiating influence on architectural practice in the desert. In many ways, it’s a prototype for the next 50 years and the architecture that we still see being practiced and built today.
The house is an incredible environment when you’re there. All sorts of design features are remarkable. You walk in past the swimming pool through this entry court and you walk into the house in this low entry hall. On one side is this incredible staircase of books, and it leads into these rooms with 20-foot high ceilings. They have clerestories—they allow natural light in—and yet there’s never direct sunlight in the house. It’s always diffused light. Because of the clerestories, your eyes don’t need to readjust, and it reduces the glare so you have these crystal-clear views of the Santa Catalina Mountains.
The house was sited on the property and was conceptualized and developed by Chafee to capture this blending of indoor and outdoor. It creates an almost highly seductive environment that is really unlike anywhere else, architecturally, that I’ve been in Arizona. It’s a magical environment.
And people can stay there to experience themselves?
Chafee never had major civic buildings, so her entire canon of design is embodied in residential projects, mostly in southern Arizona, which means they’re not accessible to the public. That’s what makes this property a little different is that people can rent it to stay there. When we thought about how we could utilize the property, making it available for people to stay allows them to experience this conception of desert living.
Photo by David Olsen Photo by David Olsen Photo by David Olsen
How did you approach restoring the home?
This house hadn’t been lived in for several years, and it needed significant intervention. The house had a whole host of major issues that you can’t see and there was just a lot of deterioration of the interior.
We were conscientious. We spent time in the Chafee archive that’s held at the University of Arizona. We did color and paint analysis to get back to the original white. We tried to protect all of the intact historic fabric, and if there was clear documentation and something needed to be reconstructed, we carefully did that. It was more of a holistic approach to restoration and making sure it honored and represented the original architectural intent so that when you walk into the house, you have a genuine and authentic sense of what Chafee was doing. The house makes you think about how we live in the desert differently, and that’s powerful.
Do you have a favorite spot in the home?
Because this house was so carefully conceived, every view is just remarkable, every room is beautiful. But also, the swimming pool and the entry courtyard are terraced over the desert with these unobstructed views of Tucson that are breathtaking. Spending a hot summer in that swimming pool is certainly lovely.
The rate to stay in the Jacobson House is $757 per night. Got to thejacobsonhouse.com.