Judith Davidson Chafee
Written by C.E., daughter of Judith Chafee
Information contributed by Kathryn McGuire , associate of Judith Chafee
Early life and education
Judith Chafee (8/18/1932-11/5/1998) was born in Chicago, the daughter of Dr. Percy Bernard Davidson (1896-1932) and Christina Affeld (1901-1992). When her father died 4 months before her birth, her mother returned from Boston to her hometown, Chicago. While still an infant, Judith’s mother married Dr. Benson Bloom, and they moved to Tucson Arizona,where Judith learned about the anthropology and archaeology of the Southwest. Judith Davidson Bloom attended high school at the progressive Parker School in Chicago. She majored in Visual Arts and History of Art and Museums at Bennington College. In spring of 1954, Judith Bloom spent her independent study term in Boston, where she gave birth to a daughter, the author of this piece, whom she gave up for adoption. She graduated from Bennington in June of 1954. She worked in New York for a couple of years as magazine editor and in a hardware store, where she gained a fascination for hardware, which affected the interiors she designed. She studied architecture at Yale University from 1956 to 1960. In 1959, in order to receive the Yale University Fellowship Award for Hospital Design, she had to enter through the kitchen of a men’s club. From 1959-1964, she was married to Richard Chafee, an architectural historian whom she had met at Yale. Judith Davidson Chafee received a master and bachelor degree in architecture from Yale University in 1960.
Career in Architecture
Chafee worked in the offices of well-known architects in the northeast: Paul Rudolph 1961-1962;The Architects Collaborative 1962-1963; Eero Saarinen 1963-1965; Edward Larrabee Barnes 1965-1969. She opened a private architectural practice in Hamden, Connecticut in 1969 and designed a home in Guilford, Connecticut, and a vacation home in the Berkshires. Always yearning for the open western horizon, Chafee moved back to Tucson and opened her office there in 1969, where she worked where she worked on commercial and residential projects until her death of emphysema, on November 5, 1998.
Major Buildings and Projects
- Ruth Merrill House, Guilford CT, 1969
In 1970, the house she designed for Ruth Merrill in Guilford, Connecticut was the cover story in Architectural Record, “Record Houses”. Citing Richardson and Aalto as her inspirations, this shingled New England house also reflects Chafee’s southwestern roots. “The Merrill House also had nostalgia for pueblo forms in the way it is stacked on the mesa of the large south-facing, sun-collecting deck”(Chafee:the Region of the Mindful Heart). In addition, the wall housing an adobe-like fireplace and some small shelves is reminiscent of Judith Chafee’s childhood home in Tucson. This project was a Record House in 1970, and was the first woman architect to be published on the cover of Architecture Record magazine at the time.
Funking House, W. Stockbridge, MA 1970
The design for a compact vacation home in the Berkshires draws inspiration from the pullman car of a train and was featured in Architectural Record and House Beautiful. For the same client, she later designed two theater interiors in the 1970s and 1990s for the Westchester Broadway Theatre in Elmsford, New York.
- Viewpoint, Tuscon AZ 1972
“Viewpoint” was the first house she designed in Tucson and was for her mother, Christina Davidson Bloom Johnson, a retired interior designer for Carson, Pirie and Scott in Chicago. It incorporated such details as “eyebrow windows” to shield her aging eyes from the direct light of the desert, and a built-in windowsill herb garden. In a television broadcast Chafee stated, “I love concrete” and in 1984 would receive an award for “The Most Unique Use of Concrete” from the American Concrete Institute. In this house, she incorporates concrete in the cool, polished floors and as a frame( resembling aged marble)for the windows. The craftsmanship, which incorporates modern materials with old, referencing the past, extends to the ancient design of the wooden front door, which is adorned with rustic hardware.
- Blackwell House, Tucson AZ 1979
Because of the controversy surrounding it, Blackwell House was one of Chafee’s better known houses. A low-profile concrete structure, nestled in the Catalina Mountains, it was built in 1979 for a Tucson Studio executive. The mass and placement of its concrete beams and overhang provided passive solar heating in winter and shade in the summer. In the 1980’s it became one of the properties bought up by the county to be part of Tucson Mountain Park. Under county ownership, it was vandalized, then slated for demolition. Although faculty and students at the University of Arizona fought to save it and raised money to maintain it as a model of desert architecture, the demolition eventually took place in 1998, several weeks prior to Chafee’s death.
- Jacobsen House, Tucson AZ 1977
In the Jacobsen House(1977), Chafee capitalized on the owners’ large collection of books and created a library which is a reader’s delight. The result was a room composed of bookcases which are also functional stairs which ascend, graduating in size to accommodate over-sized books at the bottom and miniature ones at the top. A reading loft at the top includes seating facing a window with a bird’s eye view of three mountain ranges.
Ramada House, Tucson AZ 1976
Chafee’s best known house is the Ramada House(1976), now on the National Historic Register, and frequently on the Smithsonian tour of the southwest. Notable for its reference to Tohono O’odham shelters, which are generally constructed from ribs of the saguaro cactus, twigs and logs, the lattice top of this ramada was built of wooden slats and supported by twelve(unfinished)telephone poles which are incorporated into the house. Not only does the ramada serve as a cooling device as air currents are pulled across the roof, but the visual play of shadow and light across the white slump block exterior enhances the textural contrasts. With its shallow steps and various levels, there is a natural flow to this house. One of the upstairs bedrooms has a patio shaded by the ramada, and there is desk that is adjustable by height, which is attached to one of the supporting poles.
Finkel House, Tucson AZ 1985
This house was built as an “allergy-free house”. Conventional building materials emitting formaldehyde were eschewed and steel, glass, concrete and ceramic tile were employed. Because gas could not be used, electricity and solar power were used in heating and cooling. The house has a high-tech appearance with light reflecting from the glass cabinets and counter tops and with it filtering into the kitchen from the attached greenhouse.
Rieveschl House, Tucson AZ 1988
Judith Chafee’s most ambitious and technically sophisticated design. Situated at the foot of the Coronado mountains, this 7,200 square foot home is a work of modern art, built for an art collector. When he asked her which of the building lots she would use, she responded that she would use both. This entailed a design in which the two-part building, connected by a long corridor, straddles a central ridge. One side of the house appears to have sprung from the mountainside, while the other is an aerie perched high on concrete pilings, looking out upon surrounding hills and tallest saguaro cacti. There is a balance between modernist sleek detail, using materials such as concrete and glass, and attention to natural materials– at the entry, the inclusion of natural rock that was uncovered in the blasting for the creation of the foundation; the rough stones used in the massive master bedroom and living room fireplaces. There is a hearkening back to to nature and the natural elements which are inherently pleasing to us. The views from the glass walls are of the surrounding hills and the road leading south to central Tucson. There is also a self-referencing of the house, as parts of it appear in windows, viewed from various angles. The waterspout from adobe architecture has been created anew, in a contemporary context. The master bath is separated from the rocky mountainside by a mere window–a boulder has been selected from outside and has been set on the edge of the bathtub, adding a zen touch. The living room fireplace is massive and central, like many others of Chafee. As part of the rough rock which contrasts with the smooth concrete and glass, there is also the Coyote Den, a cave-like, womb-like area for reclining on a couch, with a cubbyhole to house one’s book or drink and a vista from the the glass wall, looking south toward Tucson, perhaps viewing the night sky, and even the stars.
Hansen House, Crystal Falls, MI 1995
Judith Chafee’s last house. Although it may initially seem like a departure from most of her work, it has several parallels to the first house she designed. Like Merrill House in Connecticut, this house has a wood shingle exterior, was built for a northern climate–Michigan’s Upper Peninsula(Crystal Falls) and has a barrier-free design. The house was built around the exterior walls of an original “settler’s log cabin” from the 1920’s, which was incorporated into a kitchen/dining area. The cabin composes one wall of the living room, which has a soaring 18 ft. ceiling, with a large natural wood column taken from the site . There are two wings with bedrooms and baths off the central living area. While a more closed construction might be expected in northern Michigan, in this open plan house, there is a very warm ambiance which emanates from the wood of the old cabin, the “wall” of open wooden shelving in the kitchen area, a brick wall, the wood floors, exposed beams and white walls. Lighting plays an important part in achieving this atmosphere: there are clerestories, dimmer switches, track lighting to highlight the objects on display in the kitchen, and a solar greenhouse/entryway. Chafee has capitalized on the beautiful natural setting and the views of the Paint River with the design of the home’s numerous windows.
- Ruth Merrill House Guilford, CT 1969
- Chafee Architect’s Office Building (remodel) Tucson, AZ 1970
- Robert Funking House West Stockbridge, MA 1970
- “An Evening” Dinner Theater (interior) Elmsford, NY 1974
- Viewpoint/Johnson House Tucson, AZ 1972
- Ramada House Tucson, AZ 1976
- Jacobson House Tucson, AZ 1977
- Stanton House (remodel; additions) Tucson, AZ 1979-80
- Kollar House Tucson, AZ 1980
- Dahm House Pinetop, AZ 1982
- Hydeman Residence, Sonoita, AZ 1983
- Centrum House, AZ 1984
- The Russell-Randolph Adobe House, AZ 1985
- Merriman House, AZ 1985
- Finkel Residence, AZ 1985
- Rieveschl Residence, AZ 1988
- Westchester Broadway Theatre, Elmsford, NY 1990
- Hansen Residence, Crystal Falls, MI 1994
- Nature Conservancy, Patagonia/Sonoita Creek Preserve, AZ 1996
Press and Awards
- 1959 Yale University: Fellowship Award for Hospital Design
- 1970 Architectural Record : Award of Excellence for House Desgin
- 1975 Burlington House Award
- 1975 Architectural Record: Award of Excellence for Design
- 1977 National Endowment for the Arts: American Academy in Rome Mid-career Fellowship
- 1978 AIA Housing Award: First Honor Award
- 1978 American Concrete Institute: Award for Outstanding Use of Concrete in Residential Construction
- 1978 Tucson-pima Co. Historical Commission: Award for Preservation and adaptive Reuse of the the first house of Jules Flin, circa 1880(El Presidio Historic District)
- 1983 Fellowship in the AIA
- 1984 American Concrete Institute: Award for Most Unique Use of Concrete
- 1986 The Nature Conservancy: Recognition for Architectural Services in the Renovation of “Mile Hi” Ramsey Canyon, Arizona
- 1988 University of Arizona Mortar Board Citation: Award for Outstanding Innovative Accomplishments, Selfless Devotion and Initiative in Architecture
Judith Chafee was featured in a number of professional journals, magazines and newspapers, and frequently in Sunset Magazine. She also wrote a definitive article in Artspace magazine in 1982. In addition to her architectural practice, she lectured widely and was dedicated to teaching architecture at the University of Arizona from 1973 through 1998, at the University of Texas in Austin(1976), Washington University(1988), and at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1986 and 1988.
- Curtis, William. Modern Architecture Since 1900. Phaidon, 1996.
- Harlan, Gabrielle Rachel. Becoming the Self: Judith Chafee and the Ramada House. Thesis, University of Virginia, 2004.
- Kemp, Jim. American Vernacular: Regional Influences in Architecture and Interior Design. New York, Viking Penguin, 1987
- Nequette, Anne M. and Jeffery, R. Brooks. A Guide to Tucson Architecture. Tucson, University of Arizona Press, 2002.
- Snibbe, Patricia M. and Snibbe, Richard W. New Modernist in World Architecture. McGraw-Hill, 1999.
- Domin, Christopher and McGuire, Kathryn. Powerhouse, The Life and Work of Judith Chafee. New York, Princeton Architectural Press, 2019
- Chafee, Judith. “Judith Chafee: The Region of the Mindful Heart”. Artspace, Spring 1982. Cover and feature article, illustrations.
- “Record Houses(cover story)”. Architectural Record, 1970.
- “Block-like Forms Nestle into Berkshire Woods”. Architectural Record, November 1972.
- “Record Houses”. Architectural Record, 1975.
- Record Houses of 1979″. Architectural Record, mid-May, 1979.
- “Reinterpreting Regionalism: Arizona: Forms That Change with the Situation”. Architecture, March, 1984.
- Caldwell, Kenneth. “Modernism Comes Home to Tucson(Correspondent’s File). Architectural Record, 11/5/05, pp. 69-71.
- Curtis, J.R. “Contemporary Transformations of Modern Architecture”. Architectural Record, June 1989.
- Jeffery, R. Brooks. “Architects of Influence: Judith Chafee”. Tucson Home Magazine, May 2008.
- Panich, Paula. “Tucson’s Blackwell House: Eyesore…Or Legend?” Phoenix House and Garden, May 1989.
- NPR, Arizona Public Media, Arizona Illustrated: “The Architect, Judith Chafee”, film produced and edited by Andrew Brown, October, 2016