At the Desert's Edge: A native Tucsonan brings modernism home with a redesign of his 1963 Foothills condo. - Tucson Home Magazine

At the Desert's Edge

A native Tucsonan brings modernism home with a redesign of his 1963 Foothills condo.


David Papanikolas, owner of Tucson-based design and construction firm, Alta Constructors, is a die-hard California modernist. Yet, "Tucson and its surrounding desert and mountains are in my bones," he says. A native Tucsonan, Papanikolas combines the feel of an older Tucson with a current modernist aesthetic in his work. "Because these two things are so much a part of me, I'm able to bring them together naturally," he says.

When Papanikolas came back to Tucson in 2004, he didn't plan on staying. He'd spent nearly 16 years away, during which he studied in the master's program at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, received his MBA at UCLA, and worked in several Southern California architecture and design firms, as well as living in San Francisco, France, and Philadelphia. He returned to Tucson to do a remodel for Alta, his family's business. By the end of that year, more projects came his way and he decided to stay. By 2007, Papanikolas was president of Alta and looking for a home of his own.

Papanikolas discovered his home and personal remodeling project in a cool little neighborhood just south of Skyline Drive near Campbell Avenue. It's a slice of serene desert with the Santa Catalina Mountains as a northern backdrop. But when he wants a taste of the city, he's a five-minute walk from gourmet food, coffee shops, and even Latin dancing.

Located in Catalina Foothills Condominiums, the 1,500-square foot condo is one of 16 original single-story units (plus a caretaker's home) designed by renowned Mexico City architect Juan Worner Bas and built by the Murphey Building Company in 1963 as winter vacation rentals. Atwostory building with eight units was added a few years later, and the development was converted to condos in the 1970s. Worner Bas also designed the Murphey house in La Paloma and other Tucson residences, as well as the addition to Joesler Village and later, St. Philip's Plaza.

Though Papanikolas intended to buy a house, he was attracted to Worner Bas' design, which, like his own work, blends a regional feel with modernist elements. The mortar-washed masonry wall, corbelled beams, steel casement windows, and desert/mountain views represent the Southwest and Mexico, while the cantilevered overhang above the rear patio, exposed post-and-beam construction, corner window glass, and strong relationships between indoor and outdoor spaces express mid-century modernism. But the clincher for him was the common area off the patio. It includes a koi pond and an angular swimming pool with a waterwall that features modernist, sculpted plaster steer horns discreetly protruding and receding as water cascades over them. "It's almost exactly what I would expect from a Latin American architect designing in the early 60s," Papanikolas says.

While Papanikolas made a number of significant changes to his home—giving some rooms more space while borrowing from others—he lived there for six months first, studied the condo's functionality, and investigated how to utilize furniture and cabinetry to optimize space before beginning the remodel. The actual remodel took seven months. In addition to the remodel, Papanikolas also designed much of the furniture, including the bathroom vanities, bathtub apron, master bed, office desks, hallway shelves, and entertainment center. "I didn't want to mimic what was already here," he explains. "What is new should read as new but still correspond to the old and enhance—not detract from—the original."

He chose to use utilize steel paneling and trim in combination with zebrawood in his design. "The steel ties in well with the steel casement windows, and the zebrawood ties in with the exposed wood beams and masonry block walls," Papanikolas explains. He also chose to push the modernist elements because it meshes with who he is. "I have a very calm, understated disposition, and the clean, minimal lines of modernist work reflect that," he says.

Papanikolas' three favorite rooms are his living room, kitchen and...the laundry closet. He came to a new appreciation of Worner Bas' use of diagonal lines to create spaces when he discovered a perfect recess in the living room for his piano. And though he seldom cooks anything other than breakfast, Papanikolas enjoys his kitchen because "it feels good with lots of natural light, windows that open onto the front courtyard, and extensive counter space." And finally, he is especially pleased with his laundry closet in the master bathroom. "It's a great use of space. I've achieved the functionality of an entire laundry room in one closet," Papanikolas says.

If you're thinking about remodeling, Papanikolas advises living in the space before committing to how you want to remodel it, having an overall plan making sure that every decision falls within that plan, and being courteous to your neighbors. The best thing about doing a project like this, he says, is "living in an environment totally tailored to my needs with the aesthetic that I love so much."