A stand-alone master’s chamber is rebuilt with sophisticated French flair.
By Nora Burba Trulsson | Photography by Kevin Brost
In most houses, the master suite is the largest bedroom, complete with a conjoined bathroom and oftentimes an attached sitting room. In Roxana and James Nighswonger’s home, however, it’s actually more of a “master house”—a separate, 2,000-square-foot building connected to the main dwelling by an open-air breezeway.
It’s where the couple’s dogs, Pepper and Zoe, can usually be found lounging atop the sunny window seat, overlooking the garden. James and Roxana also spend plenty of waking hours here, reading and working in the library, enjoying a cup of tea in the kitchenette or just relaxing in the bedroom’s sizeable sitting area. They love each of these spaces—all adorned in an elegant French motif—and their special touches, from the gilt-framed wallpaper panels in the bedroom and the library’s hand-painted coffered ceiling to the blue-and-white checkerboard tile floor in the kitchenette.
The recently rebuilt master suite—as well as the rest of the property—has a lengthy and interesting history. The detached structure was originally constructed in the mid-1930s as the garage for the adjacent adobe house, set on three acres in the Biltmore neighborhood of Phoenix and created by noted local architect/builder Robert T. Evans, who’s most remembered for his design of the old Jokake Inn, now part of The Phoenician resort. After several owners, the home belonged for many decades to the Hurt family, who converted the garage to a guest house and offered up the entire property to Phoenix Home & Garden to use as a Designers Showhouse in 1991. In 2017, the Nighswongers purchased the estate from actor Frankie Muniz, who had changed the guest quarters into the master suite.
“The minute we walked onto this property, we knew this was home,” says Roxana of the rambling adobe and its lushly landscaped property. Adds James, “We loved that the home still looked original and, even though we knew we had to do some updating, we wanted to keep the historic appeal.”
The master suite was one of the first areas of the residence the couple wanted to tackle. With Roxana’s background in interior design as an accessories specialist and James’ years as a world-traveling executive in the resort industry, the pair had definite ideas about the aesthetic they desired. “We were going for an elegant, old world appeal for this interior,” Roxana explains. “I love classic French design, but I still wanted the space to be fresh and not have an ‘old lady’ look.”
Just as renovations began, disaster struck. During the initial demolition, an electrical fire caused the total loss of the stand-alone building. Not even the original adobe blocks could be saved. The silver lining? The couple could start over, with modern materials, new systems and a floor plan tailored to their needs.
The Nighswongers worked with builder Howie Haynie and architect Jason Chouinard, who used the same foundation to rebuild a new structure, designed to match the original. Though there was discussion of connecting the rebuilt suite to the main house, the Nighswongers decided they liked walking through the breezeway to get to their bedroom. The new floor plan includes an expansive bedroom and sitting area, a library, an exercise room, a capacious walk-in closet, a kitchenette and a grand master bathroom.
“We decided not to use adobe to rebuild,” Haynie notes. “Instead, we used block and stucco, matching the exterior to the rest of the house. Chouinard continues, “The new construction allowed us add more windows for natural light, raise the ceilings and create a well-insulated structure.”
Inside, the coolly elegant French appearance is the work of interior designer Lori Clarke and her colleague, Summer Kraut, with input from Roxana and James. “This was a hands-on project with the homeowners,” Clarke explains. “We communicated on everything, from the color palette to the details.”
Set against a backdrop that includes pale oak flooring, traditional steel-framed windows and ceiling lines detailed with crown molding, Clarke and Kraut’s elegant interiors appear to be pulled straight from the 18th-century Loire Valley—save for the modern home automation and the laptop occasionally spotted on the library desk. The designers worked with a blue and cream palette, suggesting new furnishings with curvaceous lines, hints of rococo style and tactile appeal for the bedroom, and more masculine, traditional pieces for the library.
The designers turned to Roxana for the smaller items that lend a personal touch to the decor. “She loves details, so we were mindful of that,” Clarke explains. “We were also able to incorporate a lot of her treasures that she’s collected over the years into the finished spaces.”
In the bedroom, an antique bust casts a watchful eye over the setting. Three chandeliers add sparkle above the bathroom’s deep soaking tub, which is framed by lavish draperies. A built-in dressing table was hand-painted to match the patterned Gucci wallpaper that adds color and vibrancy to the bright, open master closet. For the kitchenette, which connects to the back garden via a Dutch door, Clarke designed custom cafe curtains, monogrammed with the letter “M” for Roxana’s maiden name, Moulin. “I’m part French, so maybe that’s where this design theme comes from,” Roxana notes with a laugh.
The new master suite, with all its rich details and French accent, suits the Nighswongers perfectly. Says James, “These spaces make us happy. We spend a lot of time in here.”
Architect: Jason Chouinard, Chouinard Design Studio LLC. Builder: Howie Haynie, Bent Nails Inc. Interior Designers: Lori Clarke and Summer Kraut, Lori Clarke Design.
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