Summer in Santa Fe
Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the earth; but here the earth was the floor of the sky.
– Willa Cather
I love summer in New Mexico when I can spend most of my time outside, and I’m always reminded of how the outdoor rooms we created here are an essential part of our lives in the desert. When Marshall and I bought the casita twelve years ago in an old Hispanic compound on the city’s historic east side, the tiny garden had little connection to the indoors, few trees, a low adobe wall with a view of broken down cars, no place to sit, and little beauty.
Back then, the garden’s color palette consisted of the cracked brown adobe wall that defined its perimeter, a small stark white stone patio, and two fragile green trees surrounded by dirty gray gravel. Sadly, a low, thick cluster of black electrical wires connecting the house to a fat, gray utility pole bisected the garden.
Ugly Duckling Transformed
But I saw potential for beauty in the ugly duckling, sparsely planted and bleak, black-wired box of a garden. I knew it could dramatically expand the footprint and living space of the tiny casita. Inside, I first needed to connect it to the small adobe through as many passageways as possible, which would also serve to let light into the dark casita. Honoring the adobe’s 1930s architecture, I installed two sets of French doors in the dining room and a single French door in the kitchen. A two-paneled casement window above the kitchen sink opened to a view of the trees. Taller four-paneled windows in the living room let in light from the stone patio.
As I tore down walls inside the adobe between the kitchen, dining room, entry and family room to create an open, light-filled living space, I built walls in the garden to create separate yet intimate outdoor rooms that each had a purpose. I raised the perimeter garden wall several feet and added a new layer of rich brown stucco. To my good fortune, new neighbors moved in next door and built a tall coyote fence that extended two feet above my new wall, creating even more privacy for the garden and casita.
Two of my favorite time-honored elements to draw people into the garden and serve as focal points for outdoor rooms are fire and water. I designed a traditional kiva fireplace to sit diagonally in a corner adjacent to the living room fireplace inside, creating vertical harmony as the two chimneys merged back to back. A rustic wooden trellis was built overhead, intersecting with the chimney to anchor and define the footprint of this outdoor room. A banco created for sitting by the fire was added to the right of the kiva with a wall behind it. Both served to separate the intimate walled garden from the large grassy area of the former Hispanic compound.
To complement the substantial fire element, I added a water feature across from the kiva adjacent to the dining area. A 60” round metal clock face with stylized hands serves as the tabletop for a rusty wrought iron base. This outdoor room could easily accommodate up to eight people, depending on the occasion and the width of the chairs. An orange umbrella protects the area from the bright New Mexico sun and the sudden rainstorms that frequent the high desert plains. Like the trellis, it serves to define the feeling of an outdoor room.
The third exterior space consists of a curved banco sporting the same colored stucco as the kiva and exterior walls. It is covered with thick cushions and stacks of pillows for comfort while sipping coffee and reading the paper in the morning, or gathering with friends for wine and appetizers before dinner. A beautiful tree standing in the raised garden nearby extends its branches over the banco to offer primitive yet elegant shelter from above.
Standing in the garden, I’m remembering how well these rooms have served us over the years, and some of the glorious dinner parties we’ve hosted in them. On arrival, guests are drawn from inside to the garden through French doors, then take seats on the banco to enjoy a selection of appetizers and cool, refreshing drinks set on the stone table before them. From the banco beneath the pear tree, we move to the dining area for dinner, followed by dessert by the fire. The parties invariably last into the star-filled night, with all of us laughing and catching up on each other’s lives, surrounded by the sound of falling water, the smell of burning piñon, the flicker of golden candlelight, and strains of soft jazz drifting out from the house.
The Grace of Nature
This weekend it’s just the two of us, enjoying the nature that encircles us. Twelve years of growth in the garden is now a feast for the senses. A baker’s dozen pots of pink, purple, orange, yellow, red and white flowers outline the three outdoor rooms, filling them with fragrance, color and beauty. Lime green pears hang low on the tree by the banco, displaying their whimsical shape, texture and taste. Next to the dining table, the fountain splashes water on the sweet-smelling lavender, enhancing its scent, and clusters of orange and yellow trumpet flowers on the trellis dance in the evening breeze.
With love and patience, the ugly duckling of a garden had been transformed by some creative planning and the extraordinary grace of beauty through nature – as all ugly ducklings can be.
For the love of Casita Alegria,