Judy Muller’s 'Last Straw'
by Jessica Newens | Photos by Brett Schreckengost
Jul 05, 2011 | 3220 views | 1 1 comments | 21 21 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Cheery blue entry doors in the front welcome visitors inside.
Cheery blue entry doors in the front welcome visitors inside.
Natural light fills both sides of the entry hall, which features antique brick flooring recycled from an old warehouse in Denver.
Natural light fills both sides of the entry hall, which features antique brick flooring recycled from an old warehouse in Denver.
THE EMBRACING ARCH of the library nook.
THE EMBRACING ARCH of the library nook.
a view through the living room and into the kitchen. The custom cabinetry was designed around the antique shutters to the right of the fridge.
a view through the living room and into the kitchen. The custom cabinetry was designed around the antique shutters to the right of the fridge.
THE BREAKFAST NOOK where Muller wrote her latest book.
THE BREAKFAST NOOK where Muller wrote her latest book.
The home’s “truth window,” housed by an antique mailbox.
The home’s “truth window,” housed by an antique mailbox.
We drove down this road like we were in an old John Ford western – ‘This is it, Ma, this is where we’ll build!’” says Judy Muller, describing the scene, years ago, when she and her ex-boyfriend spotted the perfect piece of land on which to build. But really it was more like “forty acres and a fool,” she says today. “It’s only later that you find out about expansive soil.”

All joking aside, Muller is thrilled with the straw-bale house she built on Norwood’s Deer Mesa in 2001. “This house is such a sanctuary for me, because my life is so crazy.”

Indeed, Muller is an Emmy and Peabody award-winning broadcast journalist based in Los Angeles, where she teaches full time at the University of Southern California. She also writes and hosts a weekly radio show for KPCC-FM called Town Hall Journal, and is a commentator for National Public Radio’s Morning Edition. Before teaching, Muller was a correspondent for ABC News for 15 years, reporting for Nightline with Ted Koppel and World News Tonight with Peter Jennings. She has published two books, Now This: Radio, Television – and the Real World (2000) and her just-released Emus Loose in Egnar, Big Stories From Small Towns, which begins and ends in Norwood.

Muller’s connection to Norwood comes through her brother, John Mansfield, who has lived in the area for 21 years. It was while visiting him that Muller found the land on which her second home now sits; she bought it the next day. After sitting on the property for four or five years, she finally decided to build, at which point her brother set up a meeting with his Ridgway architectural designer friend Lynn Kircher, at Kircher’s home in Pleasant Valley.

“The minute I walked into her house, I knew she was the one,” says Muller, who immediately fell in love with Kircher’s style.

Kircher accepted the job with one caveat: she would do the design, but she would need to be fairly hands-off through the building process. As the project evolved, however, she found herself quite involved, largely because Muller, busy in L.A., couldn’t take care of many of the details from afar.

Muller recalls receiving a phone call from Kircher when she was right in the middle of a breaking news story for Nightly News.

“We were all adrenalized and I get this call. Lynn asked me a question about wood for the ceiling and I said to her, ‘We have a wood ceiling?’ There was a long sigh. I said, ‘I am your worst client, aren’t I?,’ and she responded, ‘In some ways it’s actually better.’

“Lynn is an artist; I am not,” says Muller. “But we had the same sensibilities. Her interpretation of my vision is what made it all happen.”

Muller liked the southwestern adobe look of straw-bale houses, so Kircher began with that concept, visiting the land many times before deciding where to place the house.

Because straw-bale structures are inherently right-angled, “in order to give it some grace, she designed a square and a rectangle and connected them with a wood and glass hallway – so she could bend it,” says Muller.

To accommodate a second floor, Kircher planned a post-and-beam structure with straw infill. Drawings complete, in the summer of 2000, under the direction of Ridgway builder Brian Peters, and later, Norwood’s Joel Coniglio, construction on the house began.


A tour of Muller’s house reveals an earthy, comfortable, quiet home with intimate details and lovely views through thoughtfully placed windows. The outside stucco blends with the surrounding landscape, but the royal-blue front entry doors pop into view, inviting visitors inside, into the large, antique-bricked hallway that serves as a transition between the sleeping and living areas.

A step down from the entryway is a large open living room and kitchen, with double doors leading to a sizeable, sandstone patio (where Muller spends a good part of her days during summer visits). Large recycled Douglas fir beams define the ceiling; the walls are a barely yellow plaster and the larch floors are stained dark to resemble teak. The feel is southwestern, but not overly so; Kircher gently nudged Muller away from that, reminding her that this is Colorado, not New Mexico.

A small library nook off the living room is defined by a large archway, drawing you into the space, which is filled with books and family photographs.

“I sent Lynn a picture of a small library with deep, gorgeous shelves,” says Muller, but “when I saw the framing for this one, I said, ‘Where’s the rest of it?’ In my mind it had been a whole room, but Lynn interpreted the space differently.”

Because of its embrace, Muller now believes that the nook is the centerpiece of the whole room.

The arch of the library is mimicked throughout the living space – by the fireplace, the kitchen sink window, and a built-in shelf above the kitchen island. The stained-green kitchen cabinetry was designed around some antique shutters Kircher and Muller found in Telluride. There’s also an antique hayfork fridge handle, a surprise gift from the cabinetmaker.

“A blending of old and new is something I wanted,” says Muller. “You can mix and match reproductions and antiques quite well together.”

A corner breakfast nook is made cozy by built-in bench seats and pillows, surrounded by southwestern-facing windows.

“I wrote my book there, looking out at the elk and the deer… My creativity flows here. I can sit at that table for five hours of writing, and it doesn’t feel like work.”

Walking across the room, Muller says, “This is something I love,” pointing to a tiny square operable window between the living room and outdoor patio – a typical Kircher detail.

Kircher also added sandstone slabs as countertops and ledges throughout the house. “The charm is in her details,” Muller says.

The ground floor master bedroom is spacious but intimate, with a built-in fireplace and large window-seat. The bathroom has French doors to the outside and large windows above a soaking tub.

“To be taking a bath and look out and see a deer looking in on you is really quite something,” she says.

Above the bathroom sink are mirrored folding doors that open into the bedroom.

“I never close them,” says Muller, preferring to see a view of the Lone Cone while brushing her teeth. “Almost every room in the house has a view of Lone Cone.”

Upstairs are two guest bedrooms, both characterized by pitched ceilings and dormers, window seats, vintage metal frame beds covered in antique quilts, and several pieces of furniture from her grandmother.

Surrounded by family heirlooms, as well as several works of art by her brother and sister-in-law, Muller says, “I feel more at home here than at my [L.A.] condo,”

A set of sconces by Ridgway artist John Clark line the wall in the hallway, which is bright and spacious, with windows along the entire northwest side and pale-grey washed pine floors.

“Every time I’d visit, Lynn and I would go shopping. By the time I reached the upstairs bathroom, I realized, ‘Oh my god, I’m spending too much money.’”

But Muller didn’t squander on the downstairs powder room, which features an antique marble-topped armoire sink she acquired from Telluride antique dealer Suzanne Metzger. One day Muller received a phone call from the builder, who said, “How much do you care about the value of that sink?” Turns out, the sink would not fit through the bathroom’s narrow doorway, so they had to cut the base in half and put it back together inside the small space.

“They did a really good job,” says Muller.

Around the corner from the bathroom is the home’s “truth window” – an antique mailbox that, when opened, reveals the walls’ straw contents.

“The house is so tactile,” she says, “maybe because of the straw and undulation of the plaster. It feels warm and welcoming and quiet. It’s womb-like.

“The house itself is a work of art,” Muller continues. “It was a combination of everyone that was involved in it – and they all thought it was special… It’s a sanctuary for my family and friends. For my grandsons, I hope this will be the special place they remember,” as they grow up.

And for Muller, nothing decompresses her like coming home to Norwood.
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January 15, 2012
a wonderful story about a wonderful woman in a wonderful house on the mesa!