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.

| September/October 2001

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.

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