A Contemporary Catalina Foothills Home with Adobe Walls


When developer John Murphey joined forces with renowned Tucson architect Josias Joesler in the late 1920s, it is unlikely that either realized how legendary their collaboration would become. But by his death in the mid ’50s, Joesler had designed hundreds of buildings in the scenic desert town, most under the aegis of Murphey. Today, theirs are hallowed names in these parts.

The duo’s masterpiece, most locals agree, remains Catalina Foothills Estates near Sabino Canyon, a 7,000-acre tract that was intended to lure well-heeled Northerners seeking warm-weather second homes. Their formula’s success continues to this day, as evidenced by the couple who bought this Joesler-designed property as a vacation getaway. Both fashion executives, the couple fell in love with the architect’s signature amalgamation of genres—primarily Spanish colonial revival, but with accents of Pueblo, Italianate and Deco, among others—which suited their divergent predilections: One is a traditionalist, the other a modernist.

The home, built in 1935 for novelist Walt Coburn, was in good condition but needed a little freshening up, says the traditionalist partner. “It was more about peeling off the outer layers” of successive renovations, he explains. “We were fortunate that the original beauty underneath was still intact.”

They were also fortunate to be in the good hands of an excellent design team that included New York-based designer Scott Sanders, an old friend, and builder John Woodin, whose experience restoring many historic properties in Tucson proved invaluable in the house, where all the walls are 16-inch-thick adobe rather than wood frame and Sheetrock. “You don’t see internal adobe walls anymore,” says Woodin. “These types of techniques are starting to be forgotten.”

Woodin restored the home’s intricately carved doors, sandblasted ceiling beams harvested from the surrounding Santa Catalina Mountains, and uncovered details such as a painted-over tile mural in the breakfast area. He also converted the old master bathroom into a walk-in closet and then co-opted about 30 feet of a 70-foot porch to create a more luxurious bath.

The small kitchen was gutted and a drop ceiling removed to expose pitched wood beams. Kitchen designer Katrina L. Mullinax moved a refrigerator to the vestibule of the adjacent cellar steps, freeing up more room. She then created custom cabinetry and installed an island. Additionally, says Mullinax, “White made the space feel so much larger.”

For the rest of the home, the clients asked Sanders to create a sense of “approachable luxury.” Furniture and fabrics “had to relate to the architecture, but they did not necessarily need to be what would have originally been found in the home,” says Sanders. “We mixed antiques with fresh pieces—many made to look aged—as well as used old wood to make new furnishings.” The designer balanced the owners’ tastes, he says, “by mixing transitional and clean-lined traditional furnishings and keeping the palette very neutral with small amounts of color.”

This careful use of color can first be seen in the home’s cozy Arizona room, where comfortable furnishings provide relaxed seating in a ginger hue. Red shades continue with cayenne-tinted draperies in the dining room and custom accent pillows on the breakfast area banquette. The master bedroom remains a soothing neutral retreat.

Outside, landscape designer Genevieve K. Rothkopf resolved the prob- lem of the front door. “It was enclosed by a courtyard, so as you drove up, it wasn’t clear which way you should go to get in,” recalls Rothkopf, who opened up the courtyard by creating a dramatically wide walkway.

She also cut down and salvaged about 30 pine trees that obscured mountain views and moved tropical plants—palms, citrus and Australian bottle trees—from the front to the back, replacing them with more site-appropriate agaves, saguaros and ocotillos.

In the end, the historic home in the desert received a stunning reno- vation that merges today’s comforts with the beauty of the past, and perhaps no one would be prouder with the results than the team of Joesler and Murphey.the results than the team of Joesler and Murphey.

—Jorge S. Arango