Historic Adobe: Old is New Again

AdobeArnoldhearth123Nestled in a canyon at the foothills of Colorado Springs sits a rectangular adobe. Whitewashed by the sun, shaded by a large tree and flanked by three small patios, the house dates to 1895, when few surrounding houses existed. Such a simple dwelling, once owned by the original Broadmoor Resort tycoon, Spencer Penrose, invites speculation.

Perhaps a getaway, a secret meeting place or an out-of-the-way respite–regardless of the original purposes of the adobe, what must have been a secluded haven for someone one century ago, remains private. Renovated by both Judy and Tom Arnold, the 1,500 square feet of Territorial-style adobe proudly faces a gravel drive with its new windows and doors, stucco exterior and planted patios. But when Tom first saw his home, it had fallen into disrepair after 30 years as a rental.

AdobeArnoldfront207“It was listed on the Internet as an historic home, an authentic adobe on Cheyenne Creek. All those things resonated with me. It looked like all the walls were structurally sound but I knew we would have to replace windows and demolish the interior. I think we both knew it would take an effort,” he admits. After renovating a bungalow in Idaho, Tom wasn’t sure he wanted to tackle another project. An old adobe from a century ago–the idea was daunting.

Still, as he walked around the house, the sound of a nearby cascading river lulled his concerns and chimes ringing from the Will Rogers Shrine set a magical tone. As hummingbirds flitted past, he soon realized that the sounds in the canyon were beguiling. The adobe’s surroundings had soothed his misgivings. He called Judy. “We talked on the phone and I think she just took my word for it,” he says.

Tom searched through county records for any history of the house but never found enough to answer all his questions. He’s familiar with the history of Colorado. His father had been the first Chevy dealer in Colorado Springs and he knew that an uncle had built Trailridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. “Colorado Springs was my first home in the West after I graduated from high school in 1955,” Tom says. It felt good to be back.

AdobeArnoldlivingcorner045With a foundation of river stones and bricks of clay, both most likely dug from the building site, the home appears to have been shaped by all that the riverbank offers. An honest and spare design contrasted with the high-rolling events of its first decade. The Arnolds uncovered stories that swirled around their small adobe and the local history. “Cripple Creek was a town of 50,000 back then and this area was a vacation spot for people who made money over there. There was a polo club and a lot of mansions were built,” Tom says. Their home, they believe, dates to the period when the original Broadmoor Resort operated as a casino. Only later, in 1916, did Spencer Penrose purchase the large area that would include the resort and tiny adobe house.

Much of their research into renovating the adobe began on the Internet. They wanted to keep their house small, but bring it up to date. They would add an office to fit snugly into available space. And the house would be designed for their future together.

AdobeArnoldlivingroom066Both poured over books like “Creating The Not So Big House” by Sarah Susanka and studied the history of adobe dwellings. Colors would all be neutral to brighten the inside and create an illusion of space. Texture, Judy says, would add interest rather than color. And since this was to be their retirement home, Judy researched how to make a house adapt gracefully to an aging couple. One-story, low or flat thresholds, wider doorways to accommodate a wheel chair, a bathtub that allows seating, levers instead of doorknobs—where possible, handicap accessible ideas were wrapped into the new design.

They began to list basic needs, beginning with water damage. Perhaps the house had been a summer getaway spot for many years, cared for in the summer, but abandoned in winter. Since adobe is made from bricks of straw and earth, it’s cheap to make, but needs regular maintenance. Water is the major culprit when adobe dwellings disintegrate, and a solid roof is essential to prevent damage. “I could see what was behind the stucco and could see the mud in the straw. Almost exclusively water had led to any deterioration. At that time there were no gutters on the roof, and water just slid down the side. There were certain areas where it started to erode,” Tom says.

AdobeArnoldlivingchest036The next hurdle was deciding how to heat the home in winter. “Obviously, as adobe, it’s cool in summer. We knew we wanted hot water heat. And we didn’t want baseboards because we have two corner cabinets. So we decided to have floor radiant heat,” Tom says.

Eventually, he discovered there were few other alternatives. Adobe is baked in the sun, turning into solid bricks and nearly impossible to dig into. Plumbing and electrical wiring, as well as heating, would be placed under the floor. That required taking the crumbling cement floor up with a jackhammer.

AdobeArnolddencouch105Tom’s contractor allowed him to do much of the work. So, with a crew of one, Tom set to work as they hauled debris from the floor. “The floor was brittle and didn’t have any reinforcing bars, so it was easy to dig up,” he says, “and from July to the following March, walking on the floor was like walking on the moon—with little rising puffs of dirt.”

After all the electrical wiring, plumbing and heating were completed, Tom added a radon collection system. Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that seeps from rocks. Then he placed foam insulation over the pipes and wires with mesh laid on top of the insulation: “When you get everything done a pump truck pumps in cement through the windows. Guys are walking around in hip boots, putting four inches of cement seeping into all the crevices. They float it with a trowel, a long stick and board, like thick soup and flatten it so that it is level. You have to hope that your temperatures are right—this was in March.” The contractor had carefully measured the floor with a laser beam to make sure that the tile installed would be flush with the threshold.

The floor was ready for tile, which Judy laid on the diagonal since adobe walls rarely are perpendicular. Tom rented a tile cutter and the two worked together. With the floor finished, their major obstacle was cast aside. The rest of the house looked easier.

AdobeArnoldstudy108Their adobe came as one large room, with magnificent wooden vigas for a ceiling and a massive hearth. Additional rooms were a small kitchen, bedroom and bath. They decided to renovate the existing rooms and add a study. A contractor set to work to provide a new room and roof. He installed gutters, using traditional New Mexico canales that drain water away from the walls. Tom turned his attention to the fireplace.

Adobe homes are beloved for their large hearths and wood ceilings, and this is no exception. One viga in the ceiling had cracked so Tom tried a New Mexico approach–a corbel, a vertical brace that is a structural beam, but decorated to detract from its practical purpose. “In the Taos Inn, the vigasare split and strapped. They do anything to make it work. I asked an engineer if this was good enough and he confirmed that it was. We haven’t done anything to the ceiling. We left that alone,” Tom says.

The wood ceiling is now the color of mahogany, a rich reddish brown that looks worn and varnished with a shiny patina. But the large hearth needed work and Tom estimates that they may have applied 40 coats of gypsum plaster to rebuild the original shape. Finally, the last plaster coat creates a tight membrane that stretches like a thin skin around all the walls.

AdobeArnoldfirescreen087“I think the hearth is a real focal point and it took imagination to think of what it could be,” Tom says. A heavy iron screen fits perfectly into the opening, obviously designed and built for this particular hearth. The symbol of Cheyenne Mountain, a stylized eagle, lends credence to Tom’s belief that a local craftsman built the screen.

Layer after layer of plaster was spread over the hearth, ending with a diamond finish—the super finish of plastering. “I love the little odd places, it’s as if you can feel the people shaping the walls,” when you look at the fireplace, Judy says. She built a tiny nicho, a small indented shelf, into the hearth and placed a star inside.

AdobeArnoldwindow178Adobe homes come with thick walls, two-feet thick–the ideal insulation from heat in the summer and cold in the winter. Windows, set into these massive walls, look all the more delicate, as if they are gems in a setting. Judy discovered Territorial-style windows with a single mullion, on the Internet. The 19th century Territorial-style blend of Greek Revival white touches, with classic simplicity, suited their adobe rectangle.

But furniture proved trickier. Because there are few closets in their spare space, two corner cabinets serve for storage. Most modern furniture is too large for a small home, Judy discovered, and she searched out consignment shops and antique stores for early 20thcentury finds. “We go to antique stores because everything was a smaller scale then,” Judy says, “Of course, you can find large antique pieces, too, but there’s more variety in sizes with antiques.”

AdobeArnoldkitchen069They never deviated from their approach to scale down rather than add much to the house. A tiny U-shaped kitchen is compact and Judy says a small kitchen is step saving, too. “With our kids grown, we don’t need to congregate in the kitchen. We’ve used every inch of space wisely but didn’t want it to feel tight. Every other kitchen I’ve had, you do a good bit of walking.”

AdobeArnoldpatio157The original intention of the adobe—to be near to the hustle and bustle of society but also be secluded—hasn’t changed. “In five minutes you can be in the downtown Springs, or in the foothills,” Judy says. Hiking trails into the foothills are not far away, yet the Broadmoor is just one block up the hill. The sound of the creek cancels any traffic noise and wildlife is likely to show up unexpectedly. “Our daughter camped out in this house when it was a wreck,” Judy says. But she hardly noticed the disrepair that surrounded her. “The roof is leaking,” she told them in a phone call. “But this morning I saw the most beautiful red fox in the yard.”