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.

  • 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.
  • 064 cliff house - standing on balcony
    Chuck Nystrom and his dog admire the wide open view from the balcony.
  • 064 cliff house - living room
    Exposure to the cave's wall within the comfortable living space—along with a stone fireplace and wooden beams—help to maintain a feeling of the home's origins.
  • 064 cliff house - interior rock wall
    The incredibly convoluted cross-bedding of the Mesozoic sandstone achieves textures unrivaled by human efforts.

  • 064 cliff house - cliff face
  • 064 cliff house - standing on balcony
  • 064 cliff house - living room
  • 064 cliff house - interior rock wall

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.)

1/27/2021 5:10:50 AM

Is this the Jack and Judio Ronzio house?

10/1/2019 12:25:01 PM

I have some beautiful property in ElMorro,NM that has awesome cliffs and a cave that I believe would be great for building a cliff house. I'm having to sell it due to health issues 😣 it's 19 acres with a great well, natural stock tank with water rights and electricity. It's a steal for 59500. And I would be willing to carry a note with 1/2 down. You can contact me by text or phone if interested 9707081716

2/26/2018 2:34:09 PM

I was particularly interested in this article when it came out, because I lived in Durango, Co. in the late 6o's and was captivated by the architecture of the Anasazi cliff dwellings. For my own amusement I designed my idea of a contemporary cliff house. Lately I've been reminiscing about those times and wondering about the condition of this house now

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