Santa Fe’s cityscape is not utterly unique because of its mix of old and new buildings. But it is unusual to see centuries-old adobes side-by-side with brand-new adobe-style buildings that look quite the same.
We’re talking about the durability of a building style called Santa Fe style. That term encompasses buildings — houses, churches, and institutional and commercial buildings — designed in either the Spanish-Pueblo Revival or Territorial Revival style. It is broad enough, however, to include old Spanish-Pueblo and Territorial buildings as well.
Richard Martinez is a local architect who works in two realms. In Santa Fe’s central historic districts, he has done renovations and additions to historic buildings, and he has the ability to subtly mesh new and old.
Martinez says, “Usually, when I’m working outside the historic districts, people want something that is Santa Fe style but more contemporary.” He explains, “They want a more industrial look, with big open spaces and large openings in the walls. To be able to marry the two has value because most clients still want to feel like they’re in Santa Fe. ” Even in houses sporting contemporary design, people like beamed ceilings and walls that glow with hand-troweled plaster. But they sometimes like steel in place of wood elements, sort of an abstracted Santa Fe style.
That raises a point about adobe: Almost everything in Santa Fe may look like adobe, but most of it isn’t. Martinez said in December he was at the home of one of his clients who had bought a house built in the mid-to-late 1940s. He said it wasn’t adobe, but pentile.
Pentile is a hollow clay block that was manufactured at the old state penitentiary from 1915 to the 1940s. It was a favorite building material of architectural designer John Gaw Meem, a prolific exponent of Santa Fe style from the 1920s to the 1950s.
Martinez explains, “A lot of the architecture that was done in Santa Fe was done to try to look like adobe. That’s an example of how the style endured but was transformed [by] using modern technology, modern materials.”
When asked about his favorite Santa Fe buildings, Martinez talked about the Trujillo, Prince and Sena Plazas on East Palace Avenue. Once courtyard houses, they now hold commercial enterprises that include Rainbow Man, The Shed and La Casa Sena. “I love those because it seems like a little piece of old Santa Fe still left here,” he says.
In the days when Indian attacks were a reality, buildings fashioned in that traditional Hispanic courtyard architecture often offered only blank walls to the street. Says Martinez, “The houses all opened up inside. That courtyard model would define streets, because they came right up to the street.”
Martinez notes, “When you look at the old Kings Map [of 1912], you can distinguish the traditional Spanish houses and the American houses just by the way they’re shaped and how they’re put on the lot. It’s fascinating.”
For 300 years, the Spanish colonists borrowed strategies from Pueblo Indians, including ones for their houses and churches. They copied Pueblo techniques for their roofs and earthen walls, although in the latter case using sun-dried “adobe” bricks the Spanish learned about from the Moors 1,300 years ago.
The Hispanic settlers added the bell-shaped, corner-set fogón fireplaces, windows of selenite (a translucent mineral), paneled doors with rudimentary pintle (peg-and-hole) hinges, and post-and-beam portáles (porches).
Following the American takeover in 1846, buildings sported Territorial elements such as milled lumber, pedimented lintels and brick parapets that resembled Greek Revival dentil cornices crowning the exterior walls. Later, the elements also included pitched metal roofs.
The railroad reached Santa Fe in 1880 and this sped up the migration of Anglos from the East. Many were fascinated with the tricultural milieu and the more relaxed lifestyle. By the late 1800s, “progress” meant imported forms. Many of the European-flavored structures, such as the ornate Palace Hotel and the first capitol building, burned down. Among those still standing are the Italianate-styled Catron Block on the Plaza and the Romanesque Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi (which supplanted the adobe parroquia, or parish church, built in the early 1700s).
In 1912, after thirty years of economic decline, Harry Dorman of the city planning board sent letters to city leaders around the country asking for advice. They touted the virtues of the twenty-year-old City Beautiful movement, which emphasized the beautification of parks and the building of grand museums and other public buildings, often in the Parisian Beaux Arts style.
City Beautiful was all about formality and symmetry — and we can see exactly that in the 1910-13 re-do of the Palace of the Governors and the 1923 U.S. Post Office.
Santa Fe’s adaptation of the City Beautiful plan included a local revival style based on a survey of the town’s old architecture. New buildings boasted the new Spanish-Pueblo Revival style. Boosters coined the term “the city different.”
The first architect known for his work in the new revival style was Isaac Rapp. He and his associates designed the first building of the New Mexico School for the Deaf, the Gross Kelly Warehouse, the New Mexico Museum of Art and La Fonda.
But Meem is the best-known revival designer. His résumé included a substantial addition to La Fonda, the Laboratory of Anthropology, the Villagra Building, the Santa Fe Public Library (built as the city’s municipal building), and many houses, churches and schools.
The Villagra Building is an example of the “Territorial Revival” style that Meem innovated in the 1930s. Both that and the Spanish-Pueblo Revival forms are known as “Santa Fe style.”
People elsewhere may, fittingly, think of Santa Fe style as including other unique features in this city, which is situated at the southern end of the Rockies and has both mountain and near-desert ecosystems. Those aspects include its Indian and Spanish backgrounds, famous opera, robust art market, chile, architecture, and, in the oldest part of town, its interesting little streets.
In 1970, architect John McHugh wrote in the Santa Fe New Mexican, “The most rapidly disappearing aspect of Santa Fe’s charm is its medieval street pattern.” In that newspaper article, he noted, “This [street pattern] is something that is especially ours. Only Santa Fe and Boston have this fascinating variety of twisting streets of varying widths, with the resulting ever-changing vistas.”
And only Santa Fe has this intriguing assemblage of buildings that boast a human scale; a soft, rounded appearance; and the colors of the local dirt. As attested to by two of the common and distinctive Santa Fe building styles in this area — the single-story, flat-roofed house and monumental buildings, such as Cristo Rey Church and the New Mexico Museum of Art — our buildings can look as if they’ve risen right out of the earth.
Paul Weideman has written about architecture, historic preservation, photography, archaeology, art, real estate and culture for the Santa Fe New Mexican and other publications for 30 years. He is the author of the 2019 book ARCHITECTURE Santa Fe: A Guidebook.