By Kate Manchester ∙ Photos by Stephanie Cameron
With all the options for lodging in Taos, it wasn’t until a visitor from Los Angeles mentioned Casa Gallina that I discovered this hidden gem. My first reaction when I opened the door to the Barred Rock Casita at Casa Gallina was to call my husband and tell him to forget buying a vacation property—I had found it, and I was home. Walking into the space for the first time and seeing the bright reds and blues of the comfortable furniture, the fanciful array of local artwork and Mexican textiles made me feel like I had stumbled upon the best kept secret in New Mexico. Looking around I could hardly believe my good fortune, and suddenly understood why Richard Spera, owner of Casa Gallina, had insisted on a minimum stay of two nights. Over the phone Richard had promised me that once we were there, we wouldn’t want to leave.
Awaiting us on the butcher block island in the center of the room was a thoughtful selection of tasty bites; a soft local goat cheese with sun-dried tomatoes doused in fragrant olive oil, a bowl of green olives and herbs, some crisp rice crackers, a few misshapen apples, and a much needed glass pitcher of cool water. Glancing around the small, bright kitchen I spied a bowl of speckled blue and brown eggs still warm from the chickens clucking just outside our windows. In the refrigerator was a container of organic half and half, freshly ground fair trade coffee, and some fresh butter. A knock on the door revealed a delightfully energetic—and handsome—Richard, our attentive host and the creative spirit behind Casa Gallina.
Richard came to Taos twelve years ago from New York City, and like many who have fallen under the spell of Taos, he knew he was home. A refugee from New York’s high-powered, high-pressure restaurant world, Richard attended the Cornell Restaurant School and was director of operations for a large restaurant group. Leaving the restaurant world was easy, but hospitality is in his blood. Cultivating and creating an atmosphere of comfort and beauty for people is clearly what he does best—Casa Gallina is the manifestation.
Richard has a gift for transforming spaces—he plants roots. He loves planting trees and watching them grow; it feels like a miracle to him. Creating Casa Gallina has been a gradual and largely organic process, unfolding and developing over the last ten years. Much of the work he has done himself, everything from gutting interiors to re-roofing to landscaping. Starting with one property with two casitas, Richard lived in one and fixed up the second. Three years later he bought the property next door and renovated two more casitas. Blessed with an eye for color and detail, Richard has infused the property with comfortable, playful panache. The interiors and exterior of the property are lovingly and beautifully appointed with vibrant textiles, local antique and artisan furniture, paintings, and local folk art. Richard loves art and proudly boasts that he has never hung a piece that didn’t come from an artist he knew personally. The art is all for sale—people rarely buy but love being surrounded by it. Richard advises, “There are no price tags, but if you see something you love, ask.” The work of two local artists in particular are featured prominently around the property: a variety of wood, stone and alabaster carved statues six-inches to twelve-feet tall by artist Zachary Powell; and the wildly-popular-with-guests bird masks and sculptures by Dwayne O’Hagan.
During our visit Richard planted seeds on the day of the new moon, and talked about his vision for the property. “I saw the empty canvas and I wanted to create an oasis of home, I wanted it to feel like the best home you’ve ever been in. And I knew I didn’t want to just live next door to someone, I wanted people to come and go.” He relies upon local artisans, farmers and businesses to furnish his spaces, and he chooses fair trade, local, and organic products to stock the larder. He uses only organic or earth friendly cleaners, and participates in the Kit Carson Electric Cooperative Green Program; he has purchased pollution-free wind-energy credits to offset his energy usage at Casa Gallina. He recycles everything, and encourages guests to do the same. While we were there we fed our table scraps to the chickens, who in turn blessed us with fresh eggs each day. People’s reactions are the things that keep propelling Richard forward. “I get so much positive feedback I know that this is my right livelihood.”
Just a mile from the plaza, the four adobe casitas that make up Casa Gallina sit on three pastoral, green acres, bordered on each side by the Rio Pueblo and Rio Fernando. An acequia runs through the middle of the property—this area was the agricultural belt of Taos and the soil is fertile, rich and black. Richard flood irrigates the property in early spring and summer, and drip irrigation waters the surrounding trees, vegetable gardens, and flower and herb beds that frame the property. Once the beds are established, he lets them go. The vegetable gardens grow kale, spinach, carrots, lettuces, beets, squashes, and sugar snap peas. Close by raspberries and a strawberry patch abound, and herb beds grow throughout the patios and courtyards. Richard encourages guests to forage for vegetables and herbs to complement the daily supply of fresh eggs from the twenty happy chickens tended lovingly in Richard’s handsome backyard coop.
The nearby Rio Grande Gorge is known as one of the world’s great avian migratory routes; it defines Northern New Mexico as a wildlife haven. Inasmuch as Richard created a paradise for his guests, his attention to detail and welcoming habitat extend to nature as well. A visit to Casa Gallina wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the gazebo in the backyard. An elevated deck, covered with a wild array of sunflowers, houses a hammock and overlooks the iconic red reeds that populate the wetlands of Northern New Mexico. This little spit of green earth is a miraculous stopping-off point for a variety of migratory birds, making the gazebo a private bird watching paradise and a perfect spot to enjoy a quiet cup of morning coffee or a late afternoon glass of wine.
Each guesthouse features a private garden courtyard for relaxing or dining, queen-sized beds with organic bedding and goose down comforters, fully equipped kitchens, fireplace or wood stove, DSL connection and wireless laptop, DVD player, cable television and stereo. Skiing, snowboarding, hiking, biking, shopping, galleries, restaurants and museums are just minutes away, but my guess is you won’t miss any of them. You won’t be sorry if you choose to stay put at Casa Gallina instead.
We opted to stock our fridge with food from nearby Cid’s Market and sat in the backyard of our casita for lively conversation over breakfast, and later, long after a sunset dinner, marveled at the number of stars visible in the clear night sky. And Richard was right—when it came time to leave we didn’t want to. Don’t wait too long to make reservations, Casa Gallina has a loyal and dedicated following who have fallen under its spell, and like us, can’t wait to return.
609 Callejon, Taos; 575-758-2306, www.casagallina.net
Kate Manchester is the former publisher of edible Santa Fe; she writes about food, travel and gardens.