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Midcentury Metamorphosis

When architect Clint Miller purchased the property, the only structural elements standing were the red brick walls. He used these as a starting point to create a midcentury modern dwelling influenced by the work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Phillip Johnson.

Building his own home, Valley architect Clint Miller takes a site from ruins to rebirth.

By John Roark | Photography by Steve Thompson

 This house has a great story,” says architect Clint Miller. The Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award winner and his wife, Marian, relax in the living room of their Carefree residence, designed by Clint as an homage to the architecture of the 1950s and ’60s. Many of the furnishings around them bear the names of that era’s iconic designers, including Charles and Ray Eames and George Nelson. Seen through the expanse of windows, the surrounding mountains are dotted with other midcentury homes and the occasional adobe. 

As empty nesters, the couple was ready for a change. The decision to downsize coincided with the 2009 economic downturn, and financially, the timing was right. A search of available land proved frustrating. “We wanted a view. We didn’t want to be crowded in with a lot of other homes,” Marian says. “The lots we saw had me worried that we would be by ourselves in a remote area, far from civilization.” 

Then, she says, the stars aligned. After a long day of scouting—and putting a deposit on another lot—the couple visited one last site. They made their way down a meandering, unpaved lane overgrown with desert vegetation and arrived at what was left of a house originally built in 1962.

“It reminded me of the ruins you see in Europe, like the remains of an old church,” Clint recalls. “All that was standing were a few brick walls and a fireplace. No interior walls, no roof. There was nothing else to see except for a sizable wash and an incredible view.”

The lot was scheduled for auction by the county court. When bidding opened, Clint began by upping the bid by one penny above asking price. Incredibly, there were no competing bids. The auction gavel fell, and the deed was theirs. “I guess it was meant to be,” Clint smiles.

The architect was set to tear down and start fresh with a contemporary structure, but as he walked among the remnants, the influence of the architects he had always lionized made him reconsider his original plan. 

“The more I lived with it, the more I thought there was something here worth working with,” he recalls. “As architects, we study other architects when we are growing up. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was all about glass and steel and less is more. Phillip Johnson, who started out designing museums, embraced cubes and simple lines. Those two modern masters were in my head when I started creating this house.”

Clint shared his vision with longtime collaborator, builder Greg Hartman. “Clint has an incredible talent for taking what’s there and making something of it, whether that’s a blank slate or an existing house,” he says. “Midcentury modern was where his focus was from the beginning. He’s always been inspired by Palm Springs and by that time period.”

Landscape architects Russell Greey and Clayton Miller used a native plant palette at the home’s entry. “We wanted to honor the desert and make the arrival at the front of the home natural and organic,” says Greey.
Homeowners Clint and Marian Miller

For Clint—who is known for his passion for authentic adobe—those forsaken walls held an irresistible allure. Research revealed that they were constructed of reclaimed handmade sand mold bricks manufactured by Phoenix Brick Yard between 1880 and 1917. Many of the buildings from that time were torn down and their materials salvaged for ranch homes built in the Valley during the 1950s and ’60s. 

“My structural engineer was amazed that these walls were still standing,” Clint remembers. “They had been exposed to the elements, unbraced for years. Today it is very difficult to find remaining bricks of this type. We purchased the last pallet we could get our hands on to patch and supplement what was here.”

The existing foundation served as the starting point for the new home’s design. 

“We don’t know what this house originally looked like,” says Clint, “but when a site has parts, that speaks to you. It was clear that it had been a modern design.” 

For the architect, the solution was simple. “I designed it in a weekend,” he says. “Using the existing pad as the central axis and the brick components as cross-axial dividers, we kept the wash-facing elevation open, infilling the areas between the brick with floor-to-ceiling glass. I wanted the roof structure to be a thin eyebrow, hunkered down and stretched long and low horizontally.”

He also transposed the living spaces from the original footprint. Today, the master bedroom and Clint’s home office are situated on the site of the original kitchen and living room, and the current kitchen, living room and an addition comprising two guest bedrooms are on the opposite end. Bridging the social and private sides of the house is an airy foyer with expansive windows on both sides.

From the home's entry, a sprinkling of golden barrel cacti can be seen. The bench was designed by George Nelson, one of the founders of American modernism. The painting is by artist Shane LaBarge.

Clint notes that other architects may have shied away from facing an entire western elevation with floor-to-ceiling windows. “That’s kind of a faux pas of good design here in the Southwest,” he says. “But when your million-dollar view is west-facing, you work with it.” He solved the challenge by adding motorized solar shades to filter the afternoon sun. 

The home’s uninterrupted view of the vistas of Carefree create the illusion that the 2,150-square-foot house is larger than its reality.

“My husband likes to bring the outside in,” says Marian. “Although this is not by any means a large house, it feels bigger than it is because of the way Clint has designed it. We have a very open floor plan. With the expanses of glass, you feel like you’re outside.”

 The real key to this house is glass and steel infill among the ruins that were here.”

–Clint Miller, homeowner and architect

1. The foyer serves as a glass bridge between the private and social sides of the house. The master bedroom, and beyond it Clint’s home office, can be seen to the left. Outside, a negative-edge faux turf lawn overlooks the natural desert wash below. 2. Two of the brick walls that remained from the original home’s construction served as a starting point for Clint’s design. 

Clint let the house dictate the interiors. The color palette is warm and rich with natural materials unaltered by stains or dies. In the living room, modern classic furnishings in natural walnut rest on an undyed Nomadic rug. Left in its natural state, the brick is raw and unadorned, adding texture to the rooms. To reinforce the aesthetic that less is more, the steel and glass window components were also left organic. The steel columns retain their original mill foundry finish and, at Marian’s request, the construction notations listing column height and location also remain. “We get a lot of questions about the yellow scribbles. They give another glimpse of the construction history of the house,” Clint says.

Furnishing the new dwelling required a bit of rethinking, the architect recalls. “The home seems to call for modern furnishings, but we did not want to give up the antiques and art that we have collected. Today, we have a mix of classic modern with traditional and antiques. We find mixing more interesting than following one style or the other in its entirety.”

Rather than seeing the property’s large, cross-cutting wash as an obstacle, the Millers embraced it as an opportunity to engage and live within the landscape.

1. A symmetrical grouping of lady’s- slipper (Euphorbia macrocarpus) ties into the backyard’s orderly aesthetic. 2. A guest room is sunny and bright. Throughout the home, Clint employed a neutral color palette. The brick walls were left untreated and add an earthy texture to the interiors. The Eames aluminum group lounge chair is iconic of midcentury modern design.  

“Clint loves the wild nature of where he is,” says landscape architect and Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award winner Russell Greey, who along with Clint and Marian’s son, landscape architect Clayton Miller, focused on the residence’s exteriors.

The overgrown vegetation around the 400-foot driveway was spruced up and a desert plant palette was incorporated around the home’s entry. “We wanted to make sure that we honored the desert and made the arrival at the front of the home natural and organic,” says Miller. 

On the home’s wash-facing elevation, Greey and Miller took their cues from the landscape beyond. “For the most part, we kept things wild,” says Miller. “We used the wash to guide us in our choices. The house embraces nature. Why not go along with where you live instead of trying to fight it?”

Two areas of the exterior provide structured counterpoints to the untamed landscape. Opposite the abode’s entry, a rectangle of faux turf gives the homeowners a soft spot of green for entertaining, dining and relaxing. And a raised planter populated with a line of agaves and filled with cobble harvested from the wash provides a museumlike focal point. 

For the Millers, this tale began with ruins that inspired a transformation and became a home. As Clint says, it’s a great story.

For more information, see Sources.

Although this is not by any means a large house, it feels bigger because of the way Clint has designed it.”

–Marian Miller, homeowner

1. “The living room’s floor-to-ceiling windows add the perception of additional square footage,” says Clint. The scale of the home is compact due to the low roofline and deep eaves, which protect against sun and heat. Furniture is a mix of modern and traditional pieces and antiques that the couple brought with them from their previous home. 2. Outside the living room, a raised planter adds a museumlike element. Cobble harvested from the adjacent wash provides an orderly note to a linear grouping of agaves, which fare well in the western exposure. The homeowners have observed mule deer, javelinas, coyotes and bobcats  right outside the windows. 3. Faux turf adds a structured counterpoint to the desert surroundings. The homeowners enjoy the green spot for entertaining friends or just relaxing together with an evening glass of wine. “Having real grass here would have been silly,” says Clint. “It would never survive the sun and the heat.” 4. The galley kitchen’s island is open to the living room and is a natural gathering spot. White Calcutta marble countertops and quartersawn white oak cabinetry complement the interior’s neutral color palette. 5. The open floor plan suits the homeowners, who love to entertain. The glass-top dining table is complemented by Eames molded plastic armchairs. Color variance in the brick wall’s mortar shows where the architect extended the original structure. 6. In the kitchen, open shelving puts everything within easy reach. Expansive counter space and an in-island cooktop streamline meal prep and entertaining. The sleek bar stools, created by German designer David Geckeler, are lightweight and comfortable. 7. In what was the original home’s living room and kitchen, the master bedroom’s fireplace and hearth are both rustic and welcoming. “We may have spent more accessorizing this house than we normally would have,” says Clint. “But if you’re going to do something so unconventional, you might as well do it all the way.”

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