Aleshanee at Estancia: Southwest home becomes desert playhouse for Minnesota natives
This desert home dances amid boulders and beneath the Southwest sky.
Tom and Michelle Tiller’s 7,500-square-foot two-level insets a hillside acre at Estancia, the premiere gated golf club community adjacent 3,148-foot Pinnacle Peak in north Scottsdale.
“We like to climb two boulders by our bedroom — our Sunset Rock — enjoy cocktails and watch the sunset and city lights,” she says. “It’s just gorgeous.”
Designed by Craig Wickersham, AIA, and built by R.J. Gurley Custom Homes, both of Scottsdale, the Italian Villa Vernacular-style custom — called “Aleshanee West” by the couple — includes three bedrooms, seven bathrooms and a one-bedroom casita.
The Vermont natives and high-school sweethearts also enjoy a four-car garage, theater and an outdoor kitchen, heated infinity pool and spa, all dramatically sited at the approach.
Tom Tiller’s cousin, and also a native Vermonter, Debbie Villeneuve, ASID, with Debra Villeneuve Interiors, of Houston, provided the contemporary interior design, with the collaboration of the Tillers, Wickersham and Gurley. Because of their distant locations, they teleconferenced for most of their planning meetings.
The Tiller family started visiting Arizona 10 years ago on vacation from cold Minnesota, where they have lived for 13 years.
They moved in about a year ago. “We have great friends here, and there is so much to do here,” says Michelle Tiller, who dedicates much of her empty-nester time for charities, such as raising money to build a home in the Valley for Honor House, which helps transition combat-wounded soldiers from the battlefield to new lives at home.
“I love my house in the sun.”
Dances in the sun
With Michelle Tiller’s guidance, Wickersham designed a terpsichorean Aleshanee, a woman from the folklore of the Coos Native Americans of Oregon.
“It means, ‘She plays all the time,’ meaning that our Southwest home would be my desert playhouse, an opportunity for me to have fun with the colors, furnishings and finishes appropriate to the desert lifestyle,” says Michelle Tiller, who returns to Minnesota for the summer.
Wickersham designed the symbol of the dancing woman in conjunction with a solar-shaped heart and a saguaro with five arms, representing the five Tiller family members, including their three sons, 19, 22, and 25. “We have one representation made out of iron over our front door, and we carried the symbol into the casita and throughout the house,” she says.
“Michelle brought her own personality and design tastes to the house, for sure” says Wickersham, a graduate of Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s schools in Arizona and Wisconsin. He has been designing superlative homes in the desert-sensitive Wrightian tradition for 35 years.
Wickersham had formulated the initial home design with his original client who was unable to continue, and the Tillers purchased it after the foundation was in and most of the framing completed. At this point, Gurley began working with Wickersham and the couple to finish the home.
“Italian Villa Vernacular is a good style for hillside living,” Wickersham says, noting that the home reveals elegant rusticity from the outside, incorporating quarried rock from Montana and earth tones that complement the colors of the indigenous granite.
To optimize the views, he oriented the home so that the primary living and entertaining spaces look south to Pinnacle Peak, the Estancia links and city lights.
“What I find awesome about the home is the feeling you get when you are in the main living space/kitchen,” says Gurley, whose dad, Bob, began building luxury homes in north Scottsdale in 1990.
“Craig did an amazing job. By tucking the motor court down and the garages under the living space, he was able to turn the presentation of the view around 180 degrees,” says Gurley, who graduated from ASU in 1994 and then joined the company. “When you are up in the kitchen, living room, bar or pool patio, you are left with an amazing view, yet still you feel private.”
Among a number of changes to the original plan, as requested by the Tillers to Wickersham: Gurley converted the space above the motor court into a partners’ office and a deep crimson-colored home theater, where Tom watches NASCAR on one screen, college basketball on another and golf on the third. Gurley also converted one garage bay into an exercise room and made other small changes.
Although the lower-level motor court required extensive but sensitive hillside excavation, Wickersham was adept at leaving massive boulders in place and building the home and views around them.
“When you come up to the front door, Craig has set the view of the huge boulder in front and, in the back, a killer view up the hill through the large window,” Gurley says. “After you experience that, you walk toward the kitchen, and the western view knocks you out!”
One multi-ton boulder in the back appears to be rolling down the granite-strewn slope through the earth-toned site wall and into the Tillers’ Zen Garden. Wickersham then selected indigenous rocks and the Montana stone used throughout the home to integrate this intentionally ironic collision with the meditation area, which includes a soothing fireplace, seating area and a serene “rusting” steel-tub water feature designed by Michelle and fabricated locally.
Villa in the Valley
“We had seen lots of Tuscan homes in the desert and wanted something different,” Michelle recalls of the first plan revisions with Wickersham and Villeneuve. “We wanted the house to feel like a villa in the Mediterranean. But we also wanted the outside to fit and feel like it belonged in Estancia, so we were careful to choose exterior stone and colors that blended with the environment.”
At the same time, the Tillers envisioned an indoor/outdoor living space — a contemporary home, filled with light — Villeneuve explains, noting the challenge of using the existing footprint while redesigning the space.
“Interior details were simplified, and new material selections were luxurious, sleek and simple,” she says. “Doors and windows were added, enlarged and repositioned to capture breathtaking views.”
A skylight, for example, was requested above the bar area, just off the foyer, and two new windows near the ceiling in the master bedroom — above the original line-of sight windows by the bed — provide additional dramatic vignettes of the boulders on the hillside.
“I had seen homes in Italy that were restricted on the exterior by law to remain ‘Old World,’” Wickersham explains. “The intention of this is to preserve the beauty and heritage of the historical vernacular.”
However, these homes had very contemporary interiors, with the color palette traditional but the design, both in line and geometry, upscale and modern. “What really excited me was Michelle’s desire to let me blend the two worlds here in Arizona,” he says.
As a result, the color scheme is not a typical earth-tone palette, Wickersham says. “Warm grays and pearlescent plaster walls attract a healthy amount of natural light inside, thus avoiding the darkness of the typical Italian hill town villa,” he says, noting that gray, one of Michelle’s favorite colors, was also used on the dark-stained white oak hallway flooring and on a number of doors for a contemporizing effect.
Materials, custom furnishings, multi-color abstract artworks and other details reinforce this Contemporary eclecticism. The kitchen cabinets and other millwork showcase rich acrylic finishes, stone floors are imported from Europe, and the front-entry breakfast room includes an Alcantara-finished banco for a table faced with polished agate imported from Israel.
Additionally, a custom-cut pool bath sink countertop, manufactured by Vitraform, is in cobalt blue, which makes Michelle think oceanically, the dining room table blends an oak top with an underlit crushed glass center and brushed-steel trim and the television in the master bedroom pops up from the foot of bed.
The Tillers also celebrate shared Vermont roots and their winter home in Minnesota. The partners’ desk is made of maple — the state tree is the sugar maple — and the shelves in their chic wine room were milled from oak trees from their Minnesota property. And, they have personalized their home with many family photos.
The result is a modern desert villa — a haven, Villeneuve says. “The Tillers desired a vacation home that seamlessly transitions the rocky desert exterior into a contemporary and fresh interior. The floor plan and furniture arrangements highlight the panoramic views, natural light and outdoor living areas. Friends and family are drawn into the home’s heart — offering comfortable gathering areas and providing solitude, peace and privacy.”