Southwest solitude inside a stucco fortress
Defended by huge agaves, Bob’s front porch sits sheltered from the nearby crush of traffic.
There is something deliciously guarded and clandestine about the old adobe house on Fifth Street West, not simply because it daily contends with the rush of traffic and guttural stammer of the four-way stop just yards beyond its front door. Hedged behind the swooping incisors of pterodactyl-size agaves, curtained under the low mantle of terra-cotta eaves, battened down behind a stucco fortress with shutters as thick as a woodsman’s ax, this is a prudent house that doesn’t make eye contact. It’s confidential, reticent to yield much to casual observers.
Now juxtapose it against most contemporary architecture—our demand for light and space and walls of glass and high ceilings and clerestory windows and infinity pools, where everything is open and nothing is left to imagining—and you find evidence of just how much society has blurred the boundaries of private versus public space, home versus world.
This, indeed, is why the old adobe charms us, why it feels so peculiar, so appealing, so tight-lipped.
But walk through the door and the adobe becomes a striking host, a hacienda of alternating warm and cool, of weathered decor, of chiaroscuro contrasts and earthen grace. The other equally inviting host? Well, of course, that’s Adobe Bob.
This is, after all, the most idyllic spot for margaritas conceivable. The yearning begins in the cool white stucco interior of the living room, where large exposed beams of a low wooden ceiling superintend a masculine scene of leathers, hunting landscapes and heavy furniture, and deep-silled casement windows pour squares of faraway light onto the floor. A Civil War-era portrait of a formidable and black-whiskered man hangs over an L.C. Smith double-barrel shotgun and the mouth of a majestic, wood-columned clay fireplace. Floating above it all like an oddly weightless anvil is a funky iron chandelier, handmade in Tijuana and rescued from a Dumpster. But what beckons most about this room is a radiant open doorway, spilling forth a back patio’s Elysian effusion of hanging flower baskets, cheerful tile work and the singsong of a fountain. Not to mention, of course, the neon “Adobe Bob’s” sign, which significant other, Cindy Osborn, had custom-made for him—the singularly perfect birthday gift.
“He had only had this place six months before everyone started calling him Adobe Bob,” she laughs.
Have a seat outside in the shade. Blended, or on the rocks? Your choice.
Owner Bob Thorup is not only the nicest guy, he’s the reason this clay and stucco casa feels authentic.
Only an inveterate general contractor like Bob could funnel the proverbial blood, sweat, tears (and curses) into a meticulous restoration of a Sonoma señorita on his own time and dime. Because of Bob, it is now a beautiful, traditional adobe, not the sagging rental cottage it suffered through for decades.
Big and generous in all he does, Bob has the shoulders of Atlas, an indomitable smile and bleached-blue eyes, mellowed by a lifetime of outdoor work. He takes things in stride and talks in broad, summative strokes—”I just put in a quickie rock retaining wall over there”—so much so you have to remember that the Homeric achievements required in salvaging such bleak architectural wreckage did not just spring forth overnight.
The house was “neglected and abused,” Bob recalls, shaking his head, and Cindy boasts the battle wound to prove it—a scar on her leg from falling through the laundry room floor.
When Bob first viewed the property, a chunk of inheritance burned a hole in his pocket. He planned to invest it in a property he could improve. What he didn’t intend was to buy an adobe, but apparently, the adobe had other ideas. In August 2005 Bob fell for her camouflaged charms, decrepit visage, decaying decks, musty carpet and all.
Still, “I thought it had a lot going for it. The front porch, or corridor, really sold me. It looked like the Barracks or Mission.”
For months after his purchase, Bob’s recurrent refrain as he puttered around his new pad went something like, “What in the WORLD were they thinking?” or simply, “What’s up with that?”
The house had a more promising beginning. In 1938, riding the crest of adobe revivalism, high school teacher Frank Pensar built himself a simple, lasting family home with help from his students, who mixed adobe bricks from the property’s rich clay earth before sun-drying and laying them.
But years passed and somewhere along the way, things went horribly wrong. In “interior decor speak,” that usually means the 1970s. Whatever happened, it was not good. Renter upon renter churned the property through its decades-long trajectory of abominable stylistic decisions and near irrevocable wear and tear. At some point someone imagined a “green and white vacation cottage,” and slopped on the corresponding color. The tenure of each tenant is marked in near-geologic layers of paint.
Bob’s vision was to uncover the original allure: Whatever enhancements were needed, he vowed they would be in keeping with the house’s traditional adobe design. He borrowed or bought every book he could get his hands on, researching adobe construction, decor and style.
A month after he bought the place, “He already had drawings and plans for every room,” marvels Cindy.
All extensions to the home have been built with authentic adobe bricks, some of the last made in California (Madeira, to be exact). You now have to go to Arizona to get the real deal.
At one point, “We were unloading 9,000 pounds of adobe out of a flatbed truck at 10 p.m., but we were lucky to have it,” says Cindy.
Not so long after buying, Bob walked into the kitchen one day and heard the sound of running water. Further inspection revealed a plumbing component had rusted through and broken. When he peeled up the kitchen’s tacky parquet floors, he found a 9-inch-deep lake of standing hot water. Naturally, “I went to the fridge and opened it and got out a beer,” he said. And then he sat.
And realized the magnitude of the morass that lay before him. (Later he would find a gas leak, from a pipe located an inch from electrical wiring.) The emergency response, after a cold one, involved two sump pumps, lots of trips to Friedman’s and the ripping out of the kitchen and laundry room floors. Today glowing red oak covers much of the floor, with simple Saltillo pavers in the kitchen, guest bedroom and bathrooms.
But another debacle literally hung over his head.
“I’m not a roofer,” says Bob, but he knew enough to know that the structure above was near collapse.
“It leaked in a dozen different places,” he says, still incredulous.
He and his friend Tim Hillary met one summer morning to strip the roof. Except, “We were dummies: We picked the worst day to do it.” The mercury spiked that day to 104 in the shade.
They still managed to tear out six tons of concrete tile, which made way for a vivid red tile roof.
Of all the house’s woes, recalls Bob, “what made me cry the most was this ugly vanilla paint on the beautiful knotty pine ceilings.”
To remove the stratified onion of paint on the house’s lintels, trim and even fireplace, Bob had to either sandblast, apply coats of stripper or simply chip away until every last fleck was gone.
To supersize the exposed ceiling, Bob “boxed” out the beams in all the rooms. He replaced the single-pane windows with authentic-looking, double-pane casements, adding “rattail” fasteners and making shutters by hand out of 200-year-old wood.
He constructed almost all the doors and gates himself, antiquing the wood and using basic Stanley Hardware hinges but “roughin’em up” with a grinder so they practically seeth with rusticity.
Though Bob has enjoyed abundant assists from willing friends—from Cindy to contracting partner Robert Lancer to masons and blacksmiths and other industry experts—he’s sweated plenty of the big and most of the small stuff himself. To boot, he has become a weatherizer, buying fixtures and doodads from basic hardware stores and after this or that—a certain stain or sandblast, a patina, a layer of mottled sponge paint or a good old-fashioned pressure wash—and said item looks grizzled as a wagon axle fresh off the Oregon Trail.
At the same time, Bob’s outfitted the home with a mélange of modern-day amenities, from double closets and a flat-screen television in the master bedroom to wiring that supports air conditioning and central heat (although the benefit of adobe is that the clay bricks insulate so efficiently there’s almost no need for mechanical cooling in the summer).
Bob’s deft touch is pervasive everywhere in his home—an accomplishment few homeowners can boast. No interior decorator was necessary: At a local antique shop Bob saw the potential of an old wooden vanity embellished with carvings around its frame. He took it home, then bought a similar mirror and replicated the carvings. (They now adorn the master bathroom over a stained concrete countertop.) It’s Bob who has selected the earthy, terra-cotta tones of his home, and Bob who has chosen the large, rough-hewn furniture that occupies rooms with the solemnity of boulders.
There’s something magical and magnified about the filtered light of a true adobe. Most of the walls in Bob’s master bedroom are a warm sandstone color, but as the day progresses and light wanders through, their colors mutate, waver, blazing gold to peach to dusky pink.
“They turn five different shades every day,” he grins, with a bit of awe.
Down a margarita and stay long enough—you might see eight. Both the master bedroom and the living room open out onto the pièce de résistance of Bob’s whole house—the covered patio and yard. Shaded by a steep overhang, the cantina-cool patio is set upon Saltillo pavers and trimmed with decorative tiles. It houses a colorfully tiled natural-gas barbecue and creates an alfresco haven for year-round entertaining. Interposing splashes of warmth everywhere are built-in lantern-style lights and flower baskets (hung from old wrought-iron chair legs) overflowing with fuchsia, while groupings of Mexican pigskin “equipale” chairs await the cocktail hour.
Originally, said Bob, “The patio was a mishmash of bricks that were a complete tripping hazard. Then they had this series of crazy redwood decks, all rotting. You couldn’t step on any of them.” To add insult to injury, “They had been trying to grow grass.”
Now, just beyond the patio, a gravel courtyard is framed by a low retaining wall and a lush wraparound garden of geraniums, purple fountain grasses, succulents and other hearty plants. A 5-foot fence, filled out with stucco and decorative bricks, provides the perfect intermediary between Bob’s oasis and the neighbor’s. (Her house is in a Japanese design, so Bob constructed and outfitted the other side of the fence in that style.) On the far side of the backyard, Bob applied a flagstone veneer to a wall of the detached garage and installed a tiled garden fountain.
The front yard required major work as well. Sadly, previous residents had ripped many of the older agaves out, but Bob’s agaves have rebounded in voracious explosions, happy-go-lucky knives searing
From the Winter 2008 Issue of SONOMA