The Oldest House in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Then and Now

The Oldest House

by Emily Van Cleve

At 215 East DeVargas Street stands the DeVargas Street House, aka The Oldest House, one of the oldest buildings in the United States. The unassuming-looking structure, with its thick adobe walls, three small windows and low doorways, is believed to rest on part of the foundation of an ancient Indian Pueblo built in the 1200s that was inhabited by members of a Tano-speaking tribe. The adobe plaster has been removed from a small section of the front exterior wall to show the ancient adobe bricks beneath it.

Now a museum and gift shop that’s visited by hundreds of people from around the country annually, this adobe structure has a colorful history that must be experienced to be truly appreciated. It is only three blocks south of the Plaza, near San Miguel Chapel, a Spanish Colonial mission church that was likely built soon after the city’s founding in 1610.

The Oldest House in New Mexico
The Oldest House is open Wednesday through Monday, 10am-5pm. It is often, but not always, closed on Tuesdays.

The Oldest House’s host is Rick Smith, who moved his store, called The Oldest House Indian Shop (entrance shown below), from La Fonda on the Plaza to The Oldest House in 2015. The front part of the building is rented to Smith’s shop, while the back part serves as a museum. Smith enjoys sharing information about the history of this structure and its interesting artifacts as well as offering a wide variety of Native American and Western collectibles for sale.

The Oldest House
The Oldest House dates back to the 1600s.

Among the items in this historic building’s museum are a wooden cradle and a hand-carved bowl for bathing an infant; both date from the 1800s. Smith isn’t quite sure when the museum’s tattered leather soldier’s field jacket was made, but he suspects it could have been worn in the 1700s. Be sure to ask Smith to tell you the love story surrounding the cast human skeleton in a coffin that’s displayed in the museum.

One of only fifteen buildings on the New Mexico Tourism Department’s list of must-see adobe structures, The Oldest House resides in the historic Barrio de Analco (barrio is Spanish for “district”). The barrio, settled in 1620, is one of the country’s oldest residential neighborhoods of European origin.

The house had two stories, as seen in nineteenth-century photographs and paintings. In 1902, when the building was badly in need of repair, the second story was removed. The Oldest House remained a one-story structure until the 1920s, when a new second story was added.

The first-floor ceiling in The Oldest House is original and includes vigas dating to the mid-eighteenth century. Tree ring specimens taken from some of the rough-hewn vigas in The Oldest House’s rooms show cutting dates of 1740–67. Says Smith, “While there isn’t a lot of documented history of this building, I’ve heard that it was a common practice in Santa Fe hundreds of years ago to take pieces of salvaged wood from old structures and use them to restore other buildings in the area.” He notes, “It could be that some of the very old wood used in The Oldest House actually came from salvaged buildings around town.”

The Oldest House, circa 1885.
Photography ©Dana B. Chase. Dana B. Chase was a photographer working in New Mexico primarily between 1880–1895; photo, circa 1885.

One tidbit of information from The Oldest House’s known history is that it was the temporary residence of Spanish Territorial Governor José Chacón Medina Salazar y Villaseñor from 1709-1710. Another factoid is that in 1881 New Mexico’s first bishop, Jean-Baptiste Lamy, later immortalized in Willa Cather’s Death Comes to the Archbishop, sold the property of the Brothers of the Christian Schools (known as Christian Brothers). The Christian Brothers eventually founded Santa Fe’s St. Michael’s High School, which owns The Oldest House today.

The Oldest House has followed state orders throughout the pandemic and is now able to welcome visitors in larger numbers. “Since early March, when spring break began in communities around the country, I’ve seen a big increase in visitors to The Oldest House,” Smith says.

emily-van-cleve
Emily Van Cleve
Associate Editor

Writing engaging articles for print and websites continues to be one passion of Emily Van Cleve. She has been a freelance writer and journalist in Santa Fe since 1994, serving a wide range of clients including magazines, newspapers, educational institutions and nonprofit organizations. Emily has been a contributor to Santa Fean magazine for many years and is delighted to be working with the Santa Fean and Essential Guide team. An abstract painter and former professional pianist, Emily also enjoys hiking throughout New Mexico and at the Grand Canyon.

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