photos and story by Susanna Starr
Although the gallery that I’ve owned for decades, Starr Interiors, has been housed in the old home of one of the founding artists of Taos, New Mexico, E.I. Couse, it is only recently I have become entranced with the history of the building. I’ve known about it, but it’s always been in the abstract. My deed was signed under the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, but the building which was originally constructed as a private home, existed long before that. I’d never given much thought to the previous owners and the part they played in the colorful history of Taos.
Since making a connection with Virginia Couse and her husband, Ernie Levitt, who direct the Couse Foundation, I’ve become inspired to do some of my own research into this historic building. They’ve been good enough to provide us with some photos from the time when Virginia’s grandfather and his wife, the first Virginia, lived in the house, from 1906-1909, calling it Las Golondrinas. It was there that her grandfather built his studio by opening up the roof and adding on what looked like a greenhouse to provide him with the northern light needed for his painting.
He also often painted in the courtyard. This courtyard was beautiful and a photograph captures Couse sitting in the doorway at his easel with a handsome young model from the Pueblo standing in front of him. In another, we see him sitting in the courtyard on one of the rocking chairs with his wife stretched out on the grass, hollyhocks and Virginia creepers lining the walls of the building.
The hollyhocks and Virginia creepers are gone now. The courtyard has been closed in with a portal (entryway) and a wrought iron gate. It has gone through many transformations over the more than hundred years since the Couses had made it their home. I have just as strong a connection to plants as the original Virginia had and the courtyard, since the 1970’s when we moved in, has been the most photographed in Taos. Now the abundance of different plants and flowers surround and provide a backdrop for displaying the rugs and pillows that are housed in five showrooms of the currently restored space once known as Las Golondrinas.
Although the building has gone through extensive restoration, conscious efforts have been made to retain all that we could of the original historic quality. The slightly sagging large vigas that support the ceiling are original. The only doorway left from the time it was built remains as well although, because I’m under five feet tall, I’m one of the few persons who can walk through it without ducking. The skylight that Couse installed was taken away and covered over when he and his family moved a few blocks away to the house still owned by the family.
When we went to visit Virginia and Ernie at the “Couse House” (in the family since 1909), we sat in rocking chairs under their portal chatting about the history of Couse and his family. Just outside were the extensive gardens put in by grandmother Virginia. It was a lovely Taos setting. The rocking chairs were the very same chairs that appeared in the photographs of the Las Golondrinas courtyard more than one hundred years ago, now home to Starr Interiors. That was the continuity that I found so stirring.
For me the chairs were a symbol, not only of times gone by, but of what Taos was like when these sophisticated artists relocated there to make their lives and their art. It was a time when someone who made a chair made it to the best of their ability, taking pride in each piece they produced. Unlike so many of today’s commercial, churned out, low-cost items that are mass produced, this was an era when things that were hand made were designed to endure.
The value of that which is hand made, which has the stamp or thumbprint of it’s maker, is that which I value the most. The business that I’ve been in these 40 years and the house that I’ve lived in for that same amount of time reflect that. The artwork, mostly folk art, that I’ve collected, reflect that as well. Maybe that’s why sitting on the rocking chairs at the present Couse house that were carried over from the building to which I’ve been so connected for all these years, has so much meaning to me. That feeling of continuity, especially in an age of “right now,” is a reminder that there are some things that do really endure.
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Susanna Starr is an entrepreneur, photographer, speaker, artist, writer, and traveler and holds a degree in philosophy from Stony Brook State University of New York. Susanna has over twenty years experience in the hospitality business as owner of Rancho Encantado, an eco-resort and spa in Mexico. She has lived in Northern New Mexico for more than thirty five years and has lived in and traveled throughout Latin America. Susanna is the author of the book: Fifty and Beyond: New Beginnings in Health and Well-Being her blog is here. Her new book can be seen here.