Canyon Culture: A House Built into a Rock Wall

In Cortez, Colorado, the ultimate natural home incorporates a cliffside and celebrates a view of archeological significance.

Cortez home exterior

The rusted red roof and pine board-and-batten walls of Dan’s home blend with the cliff.

Photo By Laurie Dickson

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The oldtimers say that McElmo Canyon breathes. By day, the wind blows east through the high sandstone cliffs toward Cortez. By night, it turns west, following the meandering McElmo Creek to the vastness of Utah’s desert. Between the cliffs, fertile sandy soil supports tall cottonwoods, gnarled piñon pines, unruly yellow rabbitbrush, and pungent silver sage. Deer, bears, and mountain lions come here to drink, and the canyon swallows make their mud homes in the cliff wall cracks.

In the middle of this wide canyon, at the end of a long dirt road, is a tiny house, tucked into one of McElmo’s many amphitheaters. If you don’t look closely, you might not see the building at all. Dan Petersen, the owner, intended that effect. His rusted red roof blends in with the crimson rock—in fact, it adjoins the rock—and the pine board-and-batten walls resemble the cliff’s own blond markings.

A house built into a rock wall? The concept wasn’t so uncommon to the Ancestral Puebloan People who once thrived in this high desert locale. Often referred to as the Anasazi, these indigenous people built homes in overhangs and against south-facing walls using sandstone rocks mortared with mud and grass. Thousands of their dwellings and structures remain in the area, although the Ancestral Puebloans disappeared by 1300 a.d. without a trace. In the late 1800s, farmers and ranchers moved to McElmo, drawn by the crop-friendly climate, and a new canyon culture was born.

Outside in

Dan’s home is a testament to his appreciation and respect for his environment. “He wanted the house to be one with nature,” says designer and stylist Arlene F. Bernard. “There’s a sacred feeling to the land here, and we wanted to integrate that feeling.”

With his cliffside back wall, Dan literally brought the outside in. The reddish sandstone, once the bottom of an ocean, is water-carved and wind-weathered. Now a smooth, undulating surface, streaked black with “desert varnish” mineral deposits, the cliff’s textures and colors define the small space.

In the main room—which serves as kitchen, living room, and dining room—the cliff swells to the outside wall, then recedes toward the home’s center. In the bathroom, the base of the cliff flares into the floor like a skirt, necessitating that the toilet be set into the room by several feet. Small pockets in the rock, carved out by time, make perfect cubbies for dried sage and small objects. And from the skylight in the bathroom ceiling, you can see Dan’s “backyard”—a seventy-foot vertical patio.

In their integration with the environment, Dan and Bernard also considered color. Bernard found sandy pink Italian ceramic tiles that perfectly match the back wall, and they chose natural materials for furnishings. “By using earth tones instead of bright colors and woods and fibers instead of synthetics, we got a warm feeling—almost like an extension of the landscape around the house,” Bernard says.

Keep it small

Dan’s home is small—about 650 square feet for his main room, bathroom, office, and sleeping loft. “I like living in a compact area and using the outdoors as much as I can,” he says. To this end, he has a wide front porch, fully covered by the home’s shed roof, which is ideal for sitting outside on hot summer days when temperatures can reach up to 100 degrees.

Although compact, the space does not feel cramped. Dan achieved this effect with generous windows, thirteen-foot ceilings where the roof meets the rock, and a relatively open layout. To increase the flow between the bathroom and office, Dan installed his bathroom mirror with door hinges that attach to the top. The mirror opens, window-like, into his office. A brass hook, attached to the base of the loft, keeps the mirror ajar. Not only does this trick allow the home to “breathe,” it also helps with temperature control.

Made for a man

Visitors agree, the home feels decidedly masculine. “All the guys who came to work on this place just loved it,” says finish carpenter Grimes. “It’s got a Western style, plain and simple, with lots of wood and not many frills.”

Inside, the walls, cabinets, trim, and doors are sugar pine. “There are two sides to the wood,” Grimes says. “We used the rough side for the walls, which are tongue and groove, and we used the smooth side for the trim and cabinets.”

The cast-iron, wood-burning stove that sits in the corner also lends a rugged feel, and Dan admits he enjoys cooking on it in his one frying pan. “That’s all you need,” he says.

Going back out

The outdoors is what drew Dan to McElmo Canyon, and its mysteries begin right outside his front door. In addition to the geological majesty, reminders of the Ancestral Puebloans abound. “Dozens of gray pottery shards appeared in the dripline of the roof every time it rained,” Grimes recalls. And within feet of Dan’s living room are the small remains of an Anasazi dwelling. “Originally, my house was going to be right on top of it,” Dan explains. But while excavating for the foundation, he discovered the low sandstone wall, so he shortened the pad and added a last-minute living room window to view the ancient handiwork.

Just around the corner is a panel of Anasazi petroglyphs—spirals and figures chiseled into the soft stone. A reclining Kokopelli plays his flute as he stares toward the stars.

Roaming his property, Dan points to project after project that he wants to complete—from eradicating the invasive tamarisk to building a small gathering hall for his Open Focus clients (see “Working the Land,” page 45). Even with his ambitious to-do list, Dan takes the time to enjoy the land—to hike on the slickrock or simply sit still in this animate canyon, and breathe. NH