This is the season for home-product shows around NM. You can expect to find a range of exhibitors offering products and services related to home building, improvement, remodeling, renovation, gardening, landscaping, interior design, furnishings, and décor. March 28–29: Clovis Home & Garden Show Clovis Civic Center. (575) 762-4342; clovishomeandgarden.com April 25–26: Albuquerque Home & Garden Show Expo New Mexico. (800) 333-2122; abqhomeandgardenshow.com
When Nicole Rassmuson and her husband, Harlan Flint, were house hunting on the historic East Side of Santa Fe one early summer day, Nicole saw lilacs blooming by the door of a charming old adobe and fell for it immediately. “It reminded me of my grandmother’s home in Sweden,” she says. For Harlan, who spent part of his childhood in Santa Fe before starting a career that took him all around the world, the place represented a homecoming.
A cinematically picture-perfect scenario? Perhaps. Move-in ready? Not quite. Endearing as it was, the nearly 100-year-old adobe needed some serious work. The couple had the house and its guest casita thoroughly inspected before they bought it, so they had a pretty good idea of what they were getting into. “We took a risk,” Rassmuson says, “since you never know what you’ll find once you start tearing a house up.”
But in an old home made of mud-and-straw bricks, you can pretty much count on finding something interesting.
“With adobe, especially old adobes, whenever you open them up—surprise,” says Seron Houlberg of Denman & Associates, a Santa Fe construction-and-remodeling firm. As supervising foreman, Houlberg got a down-and-dirty view of this home’s problems while he ran the six-month renovation project. The first issue was a soggy bog under the kitchen, which came from the slope of the lot and funneled a seeping stream below the house in damp weather. That moisture saturated the adobe walls and wooden floor joists resting directly on the ground. Mold and rot thrived. Surprise!
Fortunately, the structure was sound enough that it could be remodeled rather than removed. Besides the lilacs, it delivered plenty of picturesque Santa Fe allure. A two-story Territorial Revival of about 2,300 square feet, the home included two bedrooms upstairs—perfect for the couple’s kids, Selma, 15, and Jasper, 12—plus the 500-square-foot guest house.
But first, hammer time.
Houlberg’s crew spent several months tearing out the rotten joists and rebuilding the foundation and floor. They excavated around the exterior wall, installed waterproofing, and replastered the outside, burying a French drain and water catchment system to help avoid future flooding. Inside, contractors replaced the old plumbing and wiring, and installed new wood floors.
The builder has developed an appreciation of what people in his trade often wryly call adobe charm. “It’s a different type of construction,” he says. “I’m from the East Coast, where it’s all stick framing, everything square and plumb.”
What may be sacrificed in precision, however, is made up for by the soft edges and undulating lines, as well as certain performance benefits of earthen homes. “They’re great energy savers,” Houlberg says. “They’ll stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter, just because of the way the walls retain heat and cold. It’s unique.”
As the renovation proceeded, Nicole, a graphic designer, brought a modern Scandinavian sensibility to the interior. Spare, contemporary furniture balances the thick, earthy walls and warm plaster hues to create an artful interplay of old and new. She also weighed in on the final architectural decisions in order to retain and reveal some of the house’s built-in appeal, such as the grand rectilinear fireplace that dominates the living room. “We had a friend, a well-known architect, suggest knocking out one wall to open up the flow between the living room and dining room,” she says. But she loved the fireplace and the corner it creates. So the wall stayed.
The rest of the home didn’t get spared, though, especially the kitchen. The Denman crew tore out everything—cabinets, counters, stove, oven, island—and installed gleaming basalt countertops and stainless steel appliances. They added a breakfast bar as a divider between kitchen and dining room, where Nicole placed an elegant black walnut table and chairs.
Elsewhere, stained or painted vigas provide highlights throughout the house. Upstairs, the crew sanded the existing floors and painted them white. In a small space below the stair- case, which serves as both powder room and laundry, elephants march across the walls in white-on-blue wallpaper by Josef Frank, one of Sweden’s most revered designers—a nod to Nicole’s childhood home. Contemporary furnishings provide doses of color, balanced by a few well-chosen antiques, playing on the old-meets-new theme. The couple created additional space in the master bedroom by removing built-in closets and replacing them with modern freestanding wardrobes.
Early Spanish settlers clustered close to the Santa Fe River and the Plaza on Santa Fe’s north side. Neighborhoods like the East Side were settled later as the town expanded, particularly after the arrival of the Americans in the mid-1800s. Through the decades, large properties that had been farmed with irrigation water from the spidery network of acequias were handed down as inheritances from one generation to the next, often split into smaller parcels. Like its neighbors, Rassmuson and Flint’s lot shares this kind of footprint, a sliver of a once-large property accessed by a narrow lane squeezing past one home to get to the next.
Harlan knows the area well. A portfolio manager with Santa Fe–based Longview Asset Management, he grew up a few blocks away, attending the old Manderfield School on Canyon Road until his family moved away when he was 10. The couple met in London in the 1990s, and Harlan’s work moved them around the globe. After long stints in London, Hong Kong, New York City, and an old Catskills farmhouse, they landed in Stockholm for three years, where Selma and Jasper were born.
Harlan’s parents retired to Santa Fe, and just one visit persuaded Nicole and Harlan this was the place for them. After two decades in far-flung world capitals, Harlan craved a smaller city, closer to nature—and skiing. “Santa Fe has an intimacy that makes it feel like home,” he says, and he also appreciates the town’s first-class cultural menu.
In 2007, they sold everything in Stockholm and moved to a home outside the Santa Fe city limits, but after a few years they felt pulled toward town. The neighborhood, with its narrow lanes and rumpled topography, offers the perfect blend of urban access and village ambience.
“There’s a really nice feeling of community here,” Nicole says. Though the lot sits close to its neighbors, shady plantings and a rustic ramada provide privacy for outdoor meals and recreation. The kids can play basketball at the nearby park and meet friends down the road at Johnnie’s Cash Store. Harlan’s parents live around the corner. Canyon Road and the Plaza, with their abundance of art galleries and restaurants, are just a short walk.
“People said to me, ‘You’ve moved to the Wild West,’” Nicole says. “But in this house, I feel I’ve found my home.”