Written By Deborah Donohue Photography by Marshall Elias
This historic beauty located on Santa Fe’s renowned Canyon Road might give the rest of us some pointers on concealing our age. With part of the original building dating back as far as the 1600s, it is believed to be the oldest continuously inhabited residence in the contiguous United States. The structure’s colorful history includes being purchased in 1915 by the well-known artist, lithographer and wood carver Gerald Cassidy and his wife, writer Ina Sizer. Cassidy was a founding member of Santa Fe’s famous Artists’ Colony, which is still thriving today. Much of Cassidy’s artwork is displayed in the museums, hotels and government buildings of the area, but he has also been collected worldwide. According to the artist’s website, Picasso selected one of his pieces to be shown at the Luxembourg Palace in Paris. The Cassidys expanded the original home and added innovative and artistic touches, including carved wooden doors and cabinetry, and detailed iron work. One unique architectural element can be credited to the couple’s keen eye and penchant for scavenging unique treasures others might overlook. The unusual artifact is the 30-foot beam that graces the east portal of the home. Gerald and Ina discovered the beam in the rubble of the burned down mission church at Nambé, not far from Santa Fe. The church had been built by Juan Domingo de Bustamante, the governor of New Mexico from 1722-1731. His name and the date 1725 are engraved in the old wood, and still clearly visible.
The home’s most recent owners, who have lived there for over twenty years, decided to give it a slight nip and tuck in 2010: a modest kitchen renovation. When builder Kevin Skelly and his team began to remove the interior plaster in the 12 x 12 foot room, jaws dropped. Ninety years of patching over the original adobe had served to hide its true state of disrepair. It was decomposing! Upon further investigation, it became clear that the structural improvements required in the kitchen—and elsewhere in the structure—were more than skin deep. The entire home would require a complete renovation to ensure its structural integrity and safety. The roof alone would reveal itself to be “27 layers of roof,” according to architect Alan Lauck. Each had been built upon the ruins of another. Rotting strata of wood and dirt and tar and cardboard were vertically unsupported. A circus tent would be employed to protect the home during the three months of the new roof’s reconstruction. Careful inspection also revealed various door jambs in the home to be bulging and displaced from inadequate water drainage over many decades, allowing moisture to periodically seep into the bones of the home. An unexpected Pandora’s box had inadvertently been opened.
Luckily, the home’s owners were dedicated to historical accuracy and preservation; no corners would be cut in the restoration process.
The intention was made to preserve and, when necessary, replicate what could not be preserved. Intricately carved corbels and a variety of antique windows and framing were painstakingly refurbished or recreated. A team was assembled to oversee and carry out the grand project, which would entail three year’s of meticulous focus. Architect Alan Lauck, who had relocated to Santa Fe from a thriving career in Dallas, joined forces with Contractor Skelly, archeologist Ron Winters, and conservation expert Alan “Mac” Watson. Logistically speaking, the project was formidable. The original building had been added onto over the years, but each new room had been built at a different level, a few steps up here, a few steps down there. Because of the varying elevations, it was impossible to get a bobcat or excavator into the tight spaces. Skelly’s crew had to hand excavate each room, hauling the rubble and dirt out in five gallon buckets. The dirt from each room had its own place in the courtyard, where it was dutifully examined by Winters, who at final tally counted 1,400 artifacts among his discoveries. These included glass bottles, animal bones (no human remains), and even tiny poured lead soldiers. Shards of pottery believed to date back 600 years were also gathered from among the debris.
Due to the lack of space on Canyon Road for a large dumpster or heavy trucks, Skelly came up with the idea of building a bridge that would reach from the cul-de-sac behind the dwelling to the building itself. Quickly and fondly dubbed the “Bridge to Nowhere,” this sixty foot transport through the trees served its purpose beautifully. Besides being an efficient thoroughfare for hauling out construction debris, the bridge was used to bring in lumber and supplies. One item ferried across the bridge by a team of men was a microlam—a 900-plus-pound beam (constructed to support the historical beam salvaged from the church at Nambé which turned out to have a significant crack in the center). Today the microlam rests unobtrusively above the old beam, to which it is safely and discreetly anchored—no longer in danger of crashing onto the home’s inhabitants.
Lauck’s design reestablished the home on a single level with a graceful flow from room to room, and between indoor and outdoor spaces. Once the home was reoriented and made structurally sound, its interior design came to the forefront. Pam Duncan, owner of Wiseman-Gale-Duncan Interiors was enlisted to assist the owners, who themselves possessed a great appreciation for artful objects and antiques. A set of striking Russian chairs from the Empire period, newly dressed in striped velvet, adorn the living room, complemented and offset by two French inspired chairs upholstered in a restful shade of blue. A beloved collection of ceramics is a focal point above the hearth, whose original firebox was originally placed on vigas over dirt. (The vigas were found to be seriously charred and indicative of a fire that at one time was near to spreading into the home.)
Today the residence is a mixture of old and new. Hand-troweled plaster walls, along with the owners favored hues of coral, blue and green create a serene and timeless feel. Antiques, such as the dining room table and the Spanish Colonial painting blend seamlessly with contemporary chairs from Hickory Chair Company, whose finish has been enhanced for a vintage look.
The devotion, creativity, and intelligent choices of a diligent team have not only restored this notable property, but enhanced its seasoned charm with state of the art conveniences, bringing to mind the lines from a Robert Browning poem…
“Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be.” In the case of this Santa Fe charmer, that is surely the case.
Kevin Skelly, K.M. Skelly, INC
Alan R. Lauck