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La Casita de Maria

La Casita de Maria

In this article azarchitecture.psstudiosdev.com's architectural reporter Taz Loomans digs into the history of La Casita de Maria, a signature Adobe compound that was restored by one of our favorite Architects, John Douglas, FAIA. This unique home offers a genuine and authentic Arizona experience that harkens back to its 1920's roots, seamlessly updated for modern living...

“One of the reasons we moved,” said Jan Frieder about her and husband Bill’s move to Arizona from Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1989, “was that we wanted good weather.” This, no doubt, was the same reason the original owners of La Casita de Maria moved to sunny Arizona and why they built their wonderful desert dwelling in the mid 1920s that the Frieders bought some sixty years later.

According to John Douglas, the architect who designed the renovations, this house is “a rare example of the way people lived in the desert in the early days.” People in the 1920’s generally came to Arizona for their appreciation of the desert and its climate, and La Casita de Maria was designed in a way that its residents would experience the magic of the desert on a daily basis.

The house is actually more of a compound and is composed of three buildings woven together with beautiful courtyards. Jan and Bill Frieder bought it from the daughter of the original owner, Maria, in 1989, for whom the house was named. But the house had been neglected over time and had definitely seen better days when Jan and Bill found it. Jan, who saw the beauty of the house despite its sad condition, had the foresight to put together a very talented team to restore it. And so a dream team came together to work on the house composed of architect John Douglas, landscape architect Christy Ten Eyck and builder Jon Kitchell in partnership with Jan, who drove the meticulous restoration of the house.

Part of what makes this house special is its materiality. The house, true to its desert setting, is made of adobe brick covered with traditional stucco. One of the challenges that John Douglas and Jon Kitchell faced was that the stucco had cracked over time, letting water inside the walls, which eventually eroded the adobe brick. But the team formulated a brilliant solution by adding a layer of waterproof synthetic stucco over the original adobe brick. They didn’t stop there though. On top of the waterproof stucco, they added a layer of traditional stucco that matched the original look of the house and was allowed to weather. This traditional stucco was left unpainted, and rather was integrally colored with the same color of the original house that Jon stumbled upon earlier during his work on the house.

The team went beyond waterproofing the building envelope to modernize the house and make it more durable. They also added air conditioning to the buildings whereas it was only fitted with evaporative cooling before. They also replaced the original roof with a highly energy efficient and reflective foam roofing. Eventually, the house was retrofitted with modern-day conveniences such as a master suite, a big kitchen, a garage and a swimming pool.

As it stands today, the “Main House”, the largest of the three buildings, houses a living room, dining room, kitchen, laundry, additional bathroom and a master suite. The “Middle House”, the building that acts as the west boundary of the central courtyard, can be used as a family room, caterer’s kitchen, auxiliary dining room, pool bath and dressing or a full additional living space. And the third building, the guest house, contains an office, an additional bedroom and bath, and the signature adobe staircase to the roof deck.

Though it may seem unusual to have three separate buildings form a single residence, the house was brilliantly designed this way to achieve an indoor/outdoor living experience appropriate to the desert climate. The courtyards that form the interstitial space between the buildings “were as nicely developed and livable as the inside of the buildings,” says Jon. When the Frieders bought La Casita de Maria, the courtyards were barren and a lot of non-indigenous vegetation had found its way into the compound. So one of the first things that Christy Ten Eyck did was to evaluate what should stay, what should go and what could be added . She added hardscape to the courtyards to make them more usable, but she did so in a way that was as simple and hand-crafted as the original buildings. The concrete was integrally colored with a brown dye and rubbed with gunny sacks to achieve an aged look. Another significant landscape maneuver that Christy orchestrated was adding a grove of mature trees that had to be craned in. Some twenty blue palo verde, foothill palo verde, ironwood and native mesquite, which were salvaged from a nearby Army Corp of Engineers canal diversion project, populate the courtyards today. These numerous trees create a thick canopy of shade that make the courtyard experience even more attractive and ultimately even more integrated into the everyday experience of the residents.

The house was so carefully restored and updated that it won numerous awards for historic preservation and exceptionally sensitive design. To name just a few, the restoration and renovation of the house won the AIA National and Sunset Magazine Western Home Awards Special Award, the ASLA National Awards Program Merit Award, the US Senate Congressional Commendation for Historic Preservation, the National Trust for Historic Preservation Great American Homes Award, second place, the Governor’s Award for Historic Preservation, and the Environmental Excellence Awards Merit Award.

Flash forward to today where the current owner has lovingly restored the gardens to a level that rivals the best botanical gardens, adding a select palette of plants that offer year round beauty and interest. The home continues to be cherished and celebrated including recent publication. There have been significant recent improvements and updates that ensure that La Casita de Maria is not just a romantic nod to the past, but a well detailed home completely up-to-date with today.

We are lucky to have such an exceptional example of desert living as experienced by very early arrivals to Arizona. Not only was the original design of the house extremely fitting and reverent to the desert, but the sensitive restoration preserves the original intent of the house while making it viable for another hundred years by making it more durable and adding modern-day amenities. Only a handful of people have had the privilege to live in La Casita de Maria during it’s eighty-plus history. It’s now awaiting a new resident to experience its magical allure and deep connection to the beautiful desert of Paradise Valley. If you’re interested to learn more about the house, contact Scott Jarson at scott@azarchitecture.psstudiosdev.com or 480.425.9300.