Baton – Desert Mountain
Amid Remodeling, a Couple Discovers Their Home’s History—and Shares a Journey With a Beloved Design Visionary on Her Final Project
For many, the Sonoran Desert has an almost mystical allure. When a Chicago-based couple purchased a timeshare here, their visits brought them a tranquility that they could feel even after they had returned to the Midwest. The colors and texture of the landscape, the warm breezes and that uniquely Southwestern sense of calm lingered within them, calling them back.
“The desert is a very spiritual place,” says the wife. “We feel a peace here that we don’t find elsewhere. There’s a serenity that you don’t have to go looking for, it’s just there. You feel more connected to what matters. We knew we had to be here.”
The couple began looking for a house to call a permanent home. As avid collectors of Native American and Southwestern art, they wanted a place that spoke of the region and would honor their collection of paintings, sculpture and pottery, ceramic and glass.
The answer came in the form of a 20-year-old Desert Mountain organic pueblo-style home designed by architect and Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award winner Lee Hutchison, who took his inspiration from original structures of the Southwest. The abode is a study in curves both inside and out, with a shaded courtyard in front and a backyard that opens to a 260-degree Valley view.
Thanks to Hutchison’s timeless design, the house had fared well. After the expected repairs to the 20-year-old structure, including a new pool pump and a fresh coat of paint, the new homeowners defined three main areas they wanted to update: the kitchen, pantry and a large TV cabinet in the great room that did not suit their needs.
In a chance meeting with furniture designer and Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award winner John Taber (who was part of the house’s initial design team), the couple learned that their home’s interiors were the creation of Billi Springer—also a Masters of the Southwest recipient and one of Arizona’s most respected interior designers.
“We discovered that many of the things that made us fall in love with this house were thanks to Billi,” recalls the wife. One of the home’s cherished—and charming—elements is a true Billi Springer original: the first “cowboy closet” she designed, a feature that would become one of her most-requested flourishes. Just off the main entry, the nook is a nod to the Southwest. One can envision a cowboy returning home from a day on the range and having the perfect spot to hang his hat and slip off his boots.
Hutchison recalls that the space was originally designed as a niche, but Springer had an inspiration. “She was very good at using my design as a jumping-off point, expanding upon where I had started,” the architect recalls.
Working in tandem with the couple and lead designer Victoria King, Springer planned updates to the kitchen and pantry and designed a cantilevered display area to replace the great room’s outmoded TV cabinet. Work had begun when midway through the project Springer suddenly and unexpectedly passed away.
“I was devastated,” says the wife. “I only knew her for a year, but we had such a strong connection. I felt like I lost a family member. She was the ultimate professional, and she cared so much about her clients.” The husband adds, “Billi was so charming and engaging. A truly kind, sweet woman.”
Reeling from their collective loss, the homeowners, design team and craftsmen gathered at the house for a planning meeting that had been scheduled months in advance. “They gave us every assurance that they were going to see this project through the way Billi would have. And they did,” remembers the wife.
Working from Springer’s early sketches, King pieced together her vision. “Whenever we weren’t sure what should happen next, the mantra became, ‘What would Billi do?’” she recalls.
The husband, who is an avid cook, remembers that his original objective was to update the kitchen’s appliances and countertops. “That’s how it started,” he says. “But when Billi came in she knew right away how to make this kitchen more efficient. She was so gracious. Before I knew it, we were doing a full remodel.”
Retaining the kitchen’s original footprint, Springer reconfigured the room’s adjacencies for greater efficiency, shortening the work triangle between the sink, refrigerator and range. Quartzite countertops and integrated farmhouse sinks brighten the room considerably. An original picture window flanked by casements and weighed down with wooden supports was replaced with an expanse of plate glass, which floods the room with light and frames the view of the natural desert landscape. “Twenty years ago you would never have been able to find a piece of glass like that,” says Hutchison.
The closetlike pantry served its purpose well but was out of date. “We wanted to open up the kitchen and make the pantry an extension of it,” says King. Utilitarian laminated shelves were replaced with open shelving and custom cabinetry with pullouts to hold everyday kitchen essentials in style.
“The home’s original owners were sports nuts,” recalls Hutchison. The dominant feature in the great room was a sizeable cabinet to hide multiple TVs when not in use. Envisioning the area as a showplace for the current residents’ art pieces, Springer designed a configuration of cantilevered shelving handcrafted of rough-hewn beams bound with forged iron. While the design existed drawn on a napkin with notes by Springer, construction was completed after two bronze sculptures were purchased at auction in Santa Fe. “Even without our pieces in it, that display area is a work of art,” says the husband.
To celebrate the Arizona desertscape they hold so close to their hearts, the couple enlisted Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award-winning landscape designer Chad Norris to freshen the exterior experience. His priority was to create a sense of arrival for the homeowners.
“When you enter your driveway, you get that pleasure of being home,” says Norris, who raised the lot’s front elevation, added boulders and created points of interest with compositions of senita (Pachycereus schottii) and organ pipe (Stenocereus thurberi) and cacti, yucca (Asparagaceae) and the occasional golden barrel. “As you follow the driveway’s incline the drama increases as you get closer to the home. The vegetation becomes more lush with softening elements, such as Texas mountain laurel (Dermatophyllum secundiflorum), and pops of floral color with salvia, lantana and yellow bells (Tecoma stans v. angustata) dotting the landscape.”
The journey culminates at the entry courtyard’s weathered rustic door, another of Springer’s original embellishments. “When you cross this threshold, you’ve entered a completely different experience,” says Norris. An oasis enveloped in welcoming shade includes a tranquil water feature. The challenge with this area was in the selection of natural desert plants that can thrive in low light. “The original vegetation was tropical, but that doesn’t fit the house or the neighborhood,” says Norris. We needed shade-tolerant cacti and succulents here that tied into the exterior but also softened this area visually.” The area now thrives with a variety of smaller cacti that can be replaced every few years, as well as organ pipe cacti, which fare well in both direct sun and full shade. “They’re the most versatile specimens there are,” he adds.
Reworking a landscape that had two decades to mature can be tricky, Norris stresses. “The most important factor is being able to incorporate new items that are equally established so that they look like it was all done at the same time,” he says. “You don’t want new, tiny plants because it doesn’t look right, and it never will. The homeowners specifically told me, ‘We want instant gratification. We don’t want to wait 10 years for things to grow in and be impactful. This house has been here for 20 years. Make the yard look that way.’ So, we incorporated bigger boulders and larger specimens and plant material so you can’t tell what’s old and what’s new.”
For King, completing the project that was begun by her mentor and friend was cathartic. “The entire team worked through this together; we didn’t have any other choice,” she says. “It required everybody giving their best effort to finish strong for Billi. It was healing for us because we were all so close to her.”
The homeowners feel blessed to include some of Springer’s personal items among their collection. Says the wife, “Billi was a very metaphysical person, and she felt that there was a spirit in this house. She was so respectful of honoring that spirit and keeping what was here, but also of enhancing it. Billi is here and not just in spirit. She is definitely here.”
Author: John Roark