My mother has always been deeply interested in houses: their layouts and locations, and most importantly, how they function. She would have been a really good architect, I expect. Instead of studying architecture, though, she married my father and spent many years moving around the world. They bought, remodeled and sold several houses in the 17 years I lived at home.
During the four years my dad was stationed in Belgium, my parents rented 34 Rue de France, in Obourg, from the wife of the owner of the local cement factory. It seemed palatial, with travertine floors on the lower level, a spacious front yard (in a town where almost all the houses sat right up on the sidewalk), and huge oak pocket doors that divided the living and dining rooms from the front entry.
My sisters and I each had our own bedroom. My sister, Dana, had a sink in her bedroom. A sink! How extraordinary! We felt like royalty.
Making a place feel like home is a skill that my mother possesses in great measure, and practiced often. I am my mother’s daughter: her interest in homes has made me much more aware of my habitats than your average bear.
So that was the theme of my July: real estate. I “helped” friends look at houses. (Really just an excuse to tour a bunch of homes in my neighborhood. Nosy me.) Some were lovely, others laughable, and yet others uninhabitable. I consulted with another friend about the purchase of a home in foreclosure. I worked on my own garden, cutting weeds and making new raised beds in the back. But the highlight of it all was my visit to one of Georgia O’Keeffe’s homes near Santa Fe.
I drove east to northern New Mexico, in search of a better understanding of O’Keeffe’s life and the landscape where she lived for more than half her life. I had studied her artwork, but wanted a different sort of experience of it. A visit to her house in the village of Abiquiu seemed mandatory.
Tours of the house at Abiquiu are tightly controlled. Visitors meet the tour at the Abiquiu Inn, and pile into a van to go up the hill to her house. (A basic one-hour tour starts at $35, and is often sold out.) No cameras, recording devices, writing or drawing materials are allowed, so when I got back to my car, I wrote down everything I could remember about the place. It was like a memory game: look at a tray of objects for one minute, then try to remember every object when the tray is taken away.
O’Keeffe purchased the abandoned Spanish-colonial compound in 1945 and spent four years restoring it. (It took 10 years prior to that to convince the local Catholic diocese to sell her the ruin, but it had enough land, plus water rights, for her to grow most of her own food, and she persisted.)
I found the place simultaneously stimulating and serene. The furnishings are familiar “modern” pieces by Eero Saarinen, Ray and Charles Eames, and Isamu Noguchi. The building itself is a lovely sculpture in the landscape, with beautiful spaces carved essentially of mud and sticks. The surface of the walls and floors are made of smoothed mud, in shades of earth from dark brown to chalk white. (The maintenance on the place must be astoundingly difficult and expensive.) The living room window frames the view of a fantastically old windswept tamarisk tree. Her rock collection lines the inside of that windowsill.
Two of O’Keeffe’s bronze sculptures sit atop the well housing in the courtyard. A sage bush, trimmed like a bonsai, is the only growing thing there, but the door in that courtyard that O’Keeffe painted many times pulses with life.
An elk skull with an eight-point rack hangs over a bench under a covered breezeway, the site of a famous portrait of O’Keeffe made in 1956 by Yousuf Karsh.
Her Abiquiu studio is enormous, featuring huge doors for releasing sculptures and paintings, and perfectly placed windows for framing the views of the landscape familiar to those who’ve studied her paintings.
The spare, utilitarian kitchen sports a simple wooden table, metal Kenmore cabinets embedded in thick adobe walls, and white appliances (including a mangle). The pantry is spacious, lined with shelves for canned goods, serving vessels, teapots and coffee urns.
Everything seems beautifully composed—like her paintings—and I imagine that she was compelled to have her surroundings be orderly and beautiful.
Surroundings matter deeply to some of us. I know people who move—by choice or necessity—into places that are not beautiful or functional. Maybe they don’t notice or aren’t concerned with those things, but I’m glad Georgia and my mom cared.