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Judith Chafee: Dean of desert architecture

The renowned Arizona architect “smoked, drank, cursed, and built houses.”

Judith Chafee’s Ramada House from 1975, which blended traditional shading techniques and modern design.
Robin Stancliff

Judith Chafee did not suffer fools. When discussing the modern desert homes she designed for her hometown of Tucson, streamlined and uniquely suited as refuges from the harsh terrain, Chafee didn’t mince words: “We like to say they have balls.”

In short, Chafee was a badass, known for beautiful designs and blunt language. Graduating from Yale in the ’60s as the only woman in her class, she went on to work in the studios of legends like Eero Saarinen, Paul Rudolph, and Edward Larrabee Barnes. The first home she ever designed by herself, the Ruth Merrill Residence in Guilford, Connecticut, landed on the cover of Architectural Record magazine.

But she turned away from the architectural world on the East Coast and found inspiration in her home in the high desert, a place she called a “region of the mindful heart.” It was there she found her true self—as her many friends recall in a documentary about her life, “she smoked, drank, cursed, and she built houses.”

While Chafee wasn’t offered any large-scale public commissions—and saw one of her designs, the Blackwell House, demolished during her lifetime—she didn’t let the setbacks stop her from creating some of the Southwest’s most respected modern homes. She simply did what she knew. "My perception of what should be built in the desert stems from having grown up in the desert,” Chafee once told a reporter for the Arizona Star.

Biography

Chafee’s experience with buildings and design began in her childhood, when she moved into an adobe house in Tucson with her mother at 5 years old. Dressed in overalls, she played outside and observed Mexican and American-Indian laborers building bricks from backyard mud as they added additional rooms.

Chafee’s childhood learning wasn’t confined to building. Her mother, Christina, who studied archaeology and anthropology at Harvard, kept quite a circle of friends in Arizona, introducing her daughter to Margaret Sanger, Eleanor Roosevelt, and even Frank Lloyd Wright.

Known as a ramada, from the Spanish word for branches, rama, the wooden slats are a cooling and shading technique mastered by the Tohono O'odham tribe.
Robin Stancliff

Chafee’s formal education would take her to Chicago for prep school and Vermont for undergraduate studies at Bennington College. But her true schooling was at Yale, where Paul Rudolph was then dean. Chafee graduated with a master’s in architecture, the only woman in her class. When she won a student prize for designing a hospital, she had to pick it up at a ceremony held at a men’s club, and was forced to enter through the kitchen.

“She was hard-driving,” says Tucson architect and former Chafee student Bob Vint. “She was making it as an architect at a time when 90 percent of architects were male.”

Chafee briefly worked in the Northeast after graduation, spending time at the firms of preeminent modernists and briefly running her own practice in Connecticut, but felt drawn back home. In 1970, she returned to Tucson. There, she picked a fitting office, carving a workspace out of four adjacent Sonoran row houses, traditional adobe dwellings in the historic center of town (the office redesign would win an award from the county historical commission).

Chafee spent the next two decades focused on residential commissions. Tucked away on private drives or secluded lots, these buildings—like her Ramada House, which was published in scores of magazines—showcased unique adaptations to the climate.

Sadly, Chafee’s best-known local design was demolished. In 1979, she designed the Blackwell House for a private client on a remote desert site. According to Vint and many others who saw the austere concrete home, it was striking, a perfectly sited example of modern design. Chafee used the material as the “adobe brick of our time,” he said.

But the county, and many residents, didn’t see it that way. After it was left by the owners (the county denied them a permit to rebuild a water line) it became abandoned and covered in graffiti, and fell into the public domain. The county, which viewed the home as a “bunker,” wanted to turn the lot where it was located into a park, and a multiyear preservation battle ensued, with architectural supporters and Chafee students trying to save and rebuild the home, while city officials pushed for demolition. The county won, tearing down the home in 1998.

Chafee, who was suffering from emphysema during the battle for Blackwell, would see one of her masterpieces demolished months before she herself passed away. But she never backed down. During an interview over the home’s fate, the architect, breathing through an oxygen tube, smiled when she described her pride in the home, and how it stood up to the elements. It was “the least architecture possible” for a site surrounded in nature.

Ramada house surrounded by the Sonoran desert.
Robin Stancliff

Buildings to know

Chafee’s most important design was perhaps the 1975 Ramada House, a 3,800-square-foot desert residence in the Catalina Mountain foothills capped with a lofted grid of wood slats (known as a ramada, from the Spanish word for branches, rama, a technique mastered by the Tohono O'odham tribe). The home, an AIA award winner, exemplifies her ability to incorporate traditional shading and design into the modern context. The lofted wooden grid is an aesthetic marvel, with the exposed support beams (simple telephone poles) becoming part of the interior design while providing shade and focusing the breeze to cool the home. Critic William Curtis described the visual impact of the structure, saying, “the roof was a stable horizontal incident in a turbulent landscape of cacti, sand, and crags.”

The Revischal House, another Chafee masterpiece, is lesser known, mostly because it was never entered in any award competitions and didn’t draw press attention when it was completed. Designed on a larger scale, the 7,200-square-foot home was one of her largest projects. A series of cast-in-place-concrete rooms connected by a long hallway that straddles a ridge, the home offers perfect views of the landscape. A massive fireplace built from stones collected on-site was described as a “coyote den.”

Legacy and reputation today

Chafee’s body of work—though it only includes a few dozen projects—has an outsized influence on the Southwest architectural community. While Chafee never received larger public commissions, her work was widely respected. She was the first woman in Arizona named an AIA Fellow, and, in many ways, her decades of teaching, mostly at Arizona University, left a huge imprint on a generation of architects. “She set the standard for sophisticated design in southwest Arizona,” says Vint.

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