Deep in the Utah desert, home is where you park your mountain bike at the end of a long day on the trails. Erinn Morgan goes in search of a secluded retreat
Photography by Jeremy Swanson
The setting is unforgettable. Flanked by powerful buttes and towering mountains, the deep, rich-red rock spires jut towards the sky. Fine granules of cinnamon-colored sand coat the landscape.
It is the stunning desert land of John Wayne movies and the muse of celebrated environmental author Terry Tempest Williams. The Colorado River runs through it. And, the unpopulated, pristine expanse just east of Moab, Utah, near Castle Valley and the infamous base-jumping destination of Fisher Towers is exactly where Scott Dolginow and his wife, Patsy Wilmerding, chose to build a modern oasis that blends seamlessly with the landscape.
“The spectacular site for this project is fairly remote and 20-something miles from Moab,” says Dolginow, an Aspen veterinarian and owner of the Mill Creek Animal Hospital in Moab. “The last 2 ½ miles in from historic Dewey Bridge is on a fairly rough road that has one spot that occasionally washes out.”
Though this home’s location served up logistical challenges — including difficulties getting materials and labor to the site — Dolginow chose the otherwise covetable parcel of 80 acres, which is surrounded by lands managed and protected by the Bureau of Land Management.
“This house is probably my third or fourth midlife crisis. I had bought a house in Snowmass [Colorado] and appreciated it a lot, but I really loved coming to the desert and trail running and biking,” Dolginow says. “I turned 50 and didn’t know how many more years I could trail run or bike, so I found this spot in Waring Canyon. It was closer to Aspen than Moab was, and it was isolated but still had power. I thought, ‘This is exactly what I want.’”
In addition to the extreme desert climate, driving in workers daily from Fruita, Colorado, more than an hour away, and the challenges associated with supply delivery, the remote site’s sand turned out to be unsuitable for drainage and the home’s foundation. As a result, the native sand had to be dug up and removed — and replaced with sand of acceptable size.
Dolginow worked with his longtime friend, architect Doug Rager, to create a modern, functional home that blended in with the spectacular landscape. “Where we are there are no other houses,” says Dolginow. With the goal of blending in visually, the house was stucco-colored to match the desert sand and rock. Rager also created a single-level design to better fit into the landscape.
“It’s a fantastic spot. We have a lot of … love for that area so we really wanted to make sure we built the house with respect,” says Rager.
Rager spent some time on the site developing an understanding of it before starting the design. “Establishing the access drive and orientation plus building location was first,” Dolginow says. “We really wanted the house to blend with the natural landscape but also provide shelter from prevailing wind and the intense desert exposure.”
What resulted was a modern, three-bedroom Moab home with another bedroom separated for privacy from the main portion of house. The secondary sleeping quarters, accessible via a covered exterior terrace, was designed for Dolginow’s partner in the land purchase and home build, Larry Marks.
The garage is also detached, and a small, semi-enclosed, fruit-bearing orchard is located between the house and garage. “Developing the outdoor terrace areas with a lap pool and hot tub was a priority,” says Rager. “Returning and restoring the natural, existing desert landscape right up to the house footprint was an important original goal that was accomplished.”
The house was also oriented to take advantage of the area’s nearly 360-degree views, with each room having different perspectives. “It’s basically three walls of glass,” says Dolginow. “We made it all about the views and feeling like you’re outside even when you’re inside.”
Dolginow also tapped the talents of Basalt, Colorado-based designer Karen White to curate the look of the Moab home’s interior. “I came in during the construction phase to help them finish the interior, including selecting finishes and colors,” says White. “When we first approached the house on the road, about a mile out where the road crests, we stopped the car and [Scott] said, ‘See if you can find the house.’ It literally took me a few minutes and I found it. It’s an amazing blend of the architecture and the land.”
White created a contemporary look for the home. “Our goal was to make it easygoing, relaxing and soothing, almost spa-like,” she says. “This is a home built to relax in after exploring the endless miles of desert trails on foot or bike.” To hone the look, White focused on keeping things simple and letting the natural elements shine. “We used a clear finish on the floor, thus letting the wood be the wood,” she explains. “The kitchen cabinets are maple, and we did a natural, clear finish on those to let the materials be as pure as possible.”
Dolginow was also conscious of choosing durable materials that would last and withstand the desert’s harsh weather patterns as well as a brood of canines. “Maple is a very hard wood,” says White, “and the floor is a white oak, which is one of the hardest materials to use for a hardwood floor.”
In the end, luxury meets the desert in this one-of-a-kind home nestled comfortably in a spectacular setting. “Our idea with the interior design was to keep it high quality but simple in earth tones that blended with the environment,” says Dolginow. “A few people have gone there to visit and have said it’s like having your own national park. I describe it as going backpacking in a really nice tent.”