A 20th Century Cliff House

In the 1970s, retired construction contractor Charles Nystrom became fascinated with the idea of building a Native American-style cliff house, though with modern amenities, and finally did so in 1977.

| July/August 1980

064 cliff house - cliff face

Exterior face of the Nystrom's cliff house. The chimney at right was built from rock removed during the blasting of the cave.


When groups of Anasazi (a Navaho word meaning "the old ones") built cliff houses in Mesa Verde during the period between the ninth and fourteenth centuries, they did so for both practical and psychological reasons. The towering walls, of course, offered physical protection from the whims of the desert environment and from marauding bands of war-like nomads. But the rock itself was also a central aspect of Hopi, Zuni, and (somewhat later) Navaho spirituality ... it was seen as the source of man's origins in the four worlds below, the core of the universe, and the essence of the Mother Earth herself.

An integral part of each family's abode was the kiva, a ceremonial chamber most often set down into the ground and entered from above. Each kiva had a small hole, or sipapu—usually in front of the fireplace—which was the pathway down to (or up from) spiritual realms. The spirits which were invited to rise through the sipapu were called kachinas ... though today the word is often used to describe the ethereal illustrations found on native American pottery.

To the north of the historic cliff dwellings—near the farthest reaches of the Hopi domain—outcrops of similar geological origin loom above the Colorado River ... just west of Grand Junction, Colorado. There, nestled in a southwestern exposure of Mesozoic sandstone (the record of a former ocean's edges), stands a twentieth-century version of the ingenious Anasazi abodes. Like the pueblos (a Spanish word for "towns") of Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde, Charles Nystrom's rock-sheltered home provides protection from the extremes of the high desert climate, and—in different but equally important ways—suits his own sense of spirituality.

A Preoccupation

The concept of a modern cliff dwelling was first suggested to Chuck by a friend—while they were rafting on the Colorado—and it proved to be an idea that the builder just couldn't get off his mind. For five full years he researched cave and cliff houses to develop a design that would combine brightness, security, and efficiency ... while still reflecting the heritage of the earliest proponents of cliff living. And when Chuck retired from his busy contracting practice in 1976, he set about "etching" his ideas in stone.

Since there were no natural openings of acceptable size on his property, Nystrom hired a mining firm's demolition expert to help him make a suitable cave. They first experimented by blasting out a garage, and—after encountering no major technical problems—began dynamiting for the house in early 1977. Though the blasting man was skilled in mine excavation, the idea of making a hole for its own sake was new to him. So Chuck urged the expert to proceed slowly and carefully ... and it was nearly two months—and $9,600—later when the man-made cave was finished.

One Wall, No Roof

Once the excavation was done, the construction of the 1,920-square-foot, three-story interior actually turned out to be less difficult than that of a comparable "wide open spaces" building. Since a cave house requires weather protection on only one side, the retired contractor was able to avoid the effort (and expense) of placing insulation in the walls, floor, and ceiling ... as well as that of installing waterproof roofing and siding. (However, Chuck did decide to insulate the floors of the second and third stories, to prevent any irritating thumps and squeaks from being transmitted to the rooms below.)

mother earth news fair


Oct. 21-22, 2017
Topeka, KS.

More than 150 workshops, great deals from more than 200 exhibitors, off-stage demos, inspirational keynotes, and great food!