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Sustainable New Mexico Architecture
Rachel Preston Prinz
Twentieth-century architecture began to paint a different picture of New Mexican architectural values. That picture is one of architecture from other places that is unsuitable for our climate, at worst. At best, it is one that copies the architecture of our place but with total disregard for historic materials and methods that are designed to work well with our climate. This ultimately means our homes cease to work for us and are dependent on technology to function. What can we do to change that and make architecture work for the people of New Mexico again?
If it is true, as Brooke Hindle suggests, that architecture is a “three-dimensional embodiment” of history, then it is clear that the history of New Mexican architecture is a story about several distinct groups of strong and independent people, who appreciate simplicity and celebrate living. There is much we can learn from each of these periods of historic architecture to relearn the lessons our forefathers knew and put ourselves on track for a more sustainable future.
The indigenous people, who settled in this less-than-hospitable place, knew that you chose land that was fertile, had year-round streams, and had easy access to building materials, hunting and gathering, and medicine. They kept it simple, building with materials nearly right at their feet, and orienting to the sun, so they could capture its rays in winter when heat was needed and shed the heat in summer when it was not. Like the Hispanics who settled here next, they started small and worked into larger and larger places as they improved their position, grew trade relationships and gathered more tools. They shared body heat in smaller rooms and stored food in dark recesses they planned for in the center core of their homes. They planned for securable spaces that could be naturally heated and ventilated because they were designed well.
The Hispanic settlers had an intimate knowledge and understanding of architecture and agriculture and of using microclimates to improve both. They had learned engineering from the Moors and Romans, so their approach to design was sophisticated. They built places before they built spaces, bringing in irrigation, natural ventilation, massing and construction techniques that they adapted to make spaces that were very much of their place. They adapted to each location, using science to improve performance and pure wherewithal to push through what another person might consider an impossible task—like starting an agricultural village in the desert. They realized that securing their water source in a courtyard and pairing that with solid science and shading meant that natural ventilation was improved. Shade, in the form of trellises and portals, made outdoor spaces accessible in the heat of summer and the cold of winter. Community leaders came together in these protected, south-facing, sun-basking spaces to argue positions and make decisions for the community in what would come to be known as the resolana.
The Americans brought with them the tools and materials to change the way we built to adapt even more to a particular climate. Pitched roofs and milled details allowed us to capture the sun for solar gain, and bigger operable windows allowed more light and ventilation into spaces. When we added full-length porches, we found out we could precool the air before it entered the home. When all of these ideas were merged, we got architecture that stands the test of time.
Now, that is sustainable! And it is all within our reach, if we do what we can on our own, then come together with our communities and share with our children how it is all connected—and how we are all connected.
As early as 700 A.D., the area we now know as New Mexico was settled by indigenous people who were morphing their lifestyles from a nomadic hunting and gathering existence to a stable agricultural one. They began to build permanent structures, including pit houses, cliff dwellings and pyramid-shaped pueblos. These structures were almost purely functional, providing protection from the elements and natural enemies, as well as places to store a growing collection of farming implements. In historic documents, this period of architecture is called Indian Style. Today, however, the architectural forms from this early indigenous settlement are referred to as Pueblo style.
One of many interesting aspects of indigenous architecture in New Mexico is that Puebloan peoples will sometimes allow a building to die. They believe that, as in life, everything has a season, and sometimes that season ends.
Puebloan buildings are built close to the mountains, in most cases, where trees for roof framing are easily accessible. Also, there is year-round running water on the site.
Traditional Pueblo Style architecture is characterized by materials that reflect and respond to their place. Structures were most often constructed of puddled adobe (poured like concrete), sun-dried adobe, or stacked stone that was collected or made on-site. Floors were usually dirt. These buildings are often two or more stories tall, oriented with their main façade facing south or southeast and stepped back on upper levels to facilitate passive solar collection and good views for feast dances. The earth-colored walls are covered in mud stucco as a kind of chinking, like that used in log homes to prevent air infiltration. The mud plaster was repaired or replaced annually.
The roofs and floors between levels were supported by random-length, peeled log vigas supporting aspen latillas—willow twigs, split cedar or pine—then laid over with grasses or straw and, finally, adobe mud, dirt, or sod/turf.
The smallish interior spaces of Puebloan buildings were directly based on the lengths of locally available vigas, which, in northern New Mexico, means spaces about 15 feet wide. Historic interiors were decorated with yeso—painted white with natural gypsums—and may have featured rodestrado—darker, earth-tone, contrast-color paint or manta fabric at the wainscot (inner wall facing) commonly used in later times. If the former decorative technique was used outside, it used bright, vegetable-based dyes. Many rooms had a corner fire pit with a skylight above it. This encouraged a physical reaction in the way air moved through the space, allowing for a natural heating and cooling method—called stack effect—that drew heat from the fireplaces, which were connected on several levels. Rooms were sometimes exhausted via chimney pots, a later addition we can see notably at Acoma Pueblo.
Door and window openings were often low and small, with rough-hewn wood lintels, and rarely located on ground level. Rather, the house was accessed by climbing a ladder to upper floors, then descending another ladder. The crude branch ladders were constructed with rawhide thongs or notched tree trunks. Doorways were often closed with hide or coarse cloth, and windows covered with selenite, mica or oiled hide before wooden doors and glazed windows were introduced in the 19th century.
The Puebloans mastered working with their environment, utilizing every advantage they could find to live comfortably long before the Europeans arrived. They knew and understood the landscape, its climate, the ebbs and flows of the seasons and, thus, the movements of water, plants and animals. They built from things they could find on the site or directly adjacent to it. They built for longevity and built community around the work of keeping their homes maintained. There is much for us to learn from this, if we want to start building lives that are truly sustainable—especially because, if the world were to fall into complete disarray, if all our mechanical systems were to fail and our transportation system were to break, Puebloan people maintaining a significant degree of their traditional ways would have all they need as far as food, shelter and water right where they are. They would be just fine.
Spanish Colonial Architecture
In 1540, 67 years before the founding of Jamestown, Virginia, and 80 years prior to the landing at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts, the Spanish explorer Coronado was exploring what would become New Mexico, claiming the area and its inhabitants for the Spanish Crown. With him, and in subsequent expeditions into the frontier, came Franciscan friars, whose charge was to lead as many of the “natives” as possible into the service of the church, and a number of settlers who would build a new empire by harvesting the efforts of the people and the land. The land was not as giving as Coronado might have hoped and, eventually, in 1680, the indigenous peoples revolted. Spanish settlement had, in fact, created more friction between the tribes. Because harvests were given to the church and king, there was no food to trade. Starving and enslaved, the native people wanted no more of Spanish rule. After the Pueblo Revolt, the Palacio Real, or Governor’s Palace, in Santa Fe, was turned into and lived in as a pueblo for 13 years until Diego de Vargas returned in 1693 to implement the Reconquest.
The architecture of the time was fortified and was designed only to provide shelter. Any structures that were built were supplied by either what could be obtained in the immediate vicinity or on the biannual wagon trains that arrived from Chihuahua, México, on the Santa Fe Trail. Unlike the architecture of California or Texas, there wasn’t the money in New Mexico for elaborate Mission-style churches and homes. There was no police force, little ruling authority and, for many years, nowhere near enough clergy to tend to the needs of the people. New Mexican settlers had to fend for themselves, leading to the evolution of the Penitentes and another major Hispanic contribution to New Mexican culture: artifacts for homes, including beautiful hand-crafted santos, bultos and retablos. By all accounts, New Mexico was still very much a frontier. From the mid-16th century through the late 19th century, the predominant architectural style was referred to as Spanish Colonial.
The early Hispanic period buildings, in most cases, started with only one or two rooms. They were added onto as families grew, until they formed courtyard homes called haciendas. The hacienda was the ideal form for its day, built surrounding a patio, with a portal all around or across one end of the enclosed courtyard. The hacienda had small exterior openings, so the space could be secured from animal and human predators, which also led to somewhat of an interior focus. The zaguan, a covered room on the outside wall of the courtyard home, had a large gate on the outside face and an opening into the courtyard at the inside. This allowed people to bring in their livestock and wagons in case of attack.
The Spanish Crown had rules for size and shape of all elements of common buildings. South-facing hillsides were preferred for building locations to protect buildings from the north and west winds and snow, to maximize solar gain in winter, and to offer a secure high-vantage point from which to defend the buildings.
In most cases, buildings were constructed of thick courses of sun-dried adobe bricks, a technique the Spanish learned from the Moors. Buildings were constructed as one-story structures, with rooms linked together linearly and opening either into one another along one side or through a covered porch. Most had short parapet walls at the joint of the roof and walls to prevent people from climbing onto the roof, as well as to give defenders a place from which to shoot during an attack. The mud-plaster exterior walls were remudded each year in an enjarre, which was almost always done by women. Most homes featured bee hive-shaped, raised corner fireplaces with adobe chimneys. These Spanish Colonial buildings most often utilized a low-pitched or flat earthen roof supported by round, peeled vigas and latillas and, eventually, planks, which were sometimes painted or covered with bleached muslin. Better tools made of metal—not stone—made possible refined cutting of vigas, and these were eventually cut into rectangular shapes and allowed to rest on large carved brackets, which allowed for longer spans and taller, larger spaces. The Spanish preferred one large, multifunction space to the many smaller, single-use spaces that the Native Americans preferred.
Interior walls were whitewashed, in most cases, to reflect light from the small windows through the space and featured a gingham or similar fabric wainscot. Elaborately carved woods and colorful paint detailing at ceilings, arches, between rooms, or over doorways were usually reserved for the interior of the building for maintenance reasons. The earthen floors were pounded with adobe mortar and, eventually, planed wood. Many were covered with a locally made jerga, a black-and-white geometric cloth carpet.
The small windows we see in Spanish Colonial period buildings might have originally been made of selenite, mica, or oiled hides. They were sometimes covered with wooden shutters, which allowed the rooms to hold heat in at night. Wooden grilles over openings mimic Spanish metal grilles and allow for ample natural ventilation. With tools came the ability to make things, and two of the most important items made during this period were doors and hinges. Metalworking of iron and tin was introduced, and we see these details used first in churches and, later, in private homes. Glass and cloth were also being traded on the wagon trains from México, and we start to see beautiful detailed embroidery with bird and floral designs on altar cloths, walls and glass. Those symbols were derived from Oriental, Persian and Moorish motifs.
The Spanish used the same basic principles of good design that the Puebloans did, and they introduced tools, natural ventilation and decorating techniques that made their larger spaces shine.
Architecture in the Mexican and American Territorial Periods
When the Santa Fe Trail opened in 1821, New Mexican architecture began to change. Still considered a wild and primitive place, New Mexico was growing and evolving, and architecture began to reflect its “civilization.” In 1815, French and American fur traders arrived in Taos, which would become the southwest gateway to the ports of trade in the central and western states. These hunters and trappers fared well in the unruly town that Taos was and amassed their wealth and power in several homes along Ledoux Street. Gardens burst to overflowing with flowers in the summer.
From the transfer of what would become New Mexico from Spain into Mexican hands, in 1821, to the American occupation in 1846, commerce and social development were centered at the regional trading posts, where money, goods and ideas were exchanged.
As indigenous raids were quelled, people began to move to the areas just outside of the town proper and build their homes around small placitas. You can see this influence today while strolling the Taos shopping district on Paseo del Pueblo Norte, as well as in the neighborhoods behind and around La Loma Plaza. In fact, the Taos Inn is one such grouping of homes around a small plaza, only the homes are now combined into one building, and its courtyard has been enclosed to form a space for a bar and lounge, complete with corner fireplace. The original well sits inside, covered up by a sculptural fountain and skylight.
In the eastern United States, Greek Revival architecture was in very much vogue at the time. While the rest of America was dancing to the beat of Grecian drums, it was not until the opening of Fort Union’s new officers’ quarters in 1869 and Fort Marcy’s construction in 1870 that Greek Revival took a firm hold in New Mexico in an unadulterated state. The introduction of American forces was intended to quell tensions between the many people claiming New Mexican lands and, of course, to protect the Santa Fe Trail, which provided both a financial incentive and supply support for U.S. expansion into the frontier. With the arrival of the U.S. Army came access to a much higher degree of skilled workmanship, as well as the most significant intervention for New Mexican architectural design prior to the railroads, that is, sawmills, which allowed for much finer detailed trim and carpentry. The second and third most significant donations to New Mexico’s architectural development were nails and window glass. Taos had structures influenced by both Greek Revival and Colonial Revival on its plaza before the plaza burned down in sections over the 1920s and 1930s.
It was not uncommon for Greek Revival-influenced homes to use the concept of a separated front and back parlor, usually one large rectangular room separated by a structural wall and some curtains, so we look for this hallmark in renovated buildings to determine their period of construction.
Early efforts to introduce the ancient Grecian temple-influenced style to New Mexico were deeply affected by the existing architecture of the region and its inhabitants’ propensity for ignoring trends of style. The resulting architectural form—a fusion of vernacular models and Greek-influenced parts and pieces—is called Territorial. In this period, wealth was not grandiose. Wealth was indicated by having good woolen blankets and rugs, iron locks on the doors and larger rooms.
Territorial architecture was usually constructed of thick courses of sun-dried adobe bricks and was sometimes framed, most often in one or two stories. In Santa Fe and eventually elsewhere, Territorial architecture utilized newly available bricks at the top of the parapet wall, at the roof, to reduce maintenance. These homes often used a central hall plan, with rooms placed somewhat symmetrically across the hall from one another to allow for better ventilation.
Small, unassuming wooden pediments were placed over exterior doors and windows, ostensibly to shed rain. The trim, which might have included square rather than round porch posts, as well as cornices, corbels and brackets, was almost always painted white, although blue and turquoise are also common now. In all likelihood, this was an architectural practice that was purely sentimental in value; using these milled-wood details would mean the houses looked more homey. Interior spaces often had whitewashed walls to bounce light into the space, with gingham or similar fabric wainscot to dampen sound and hide scratches, or they might have used brightly painted upper walls with a neutral base at the wainscot in the more native style. While earthen floors were still predominant on the exterior spaces, interior floors were almost always planed wood.
We also see this architectural style start to open up to the street. Doors and windows are larger because they have the tools and access to glass needed to make them so. Windows are double-hung, and both top and bottom sashes are actively opened and closed to improve natural ventilation. The front doors often utilized sidelights and an operable transom at the top, to provide better daylighting and natural ventilation. Porches faced the street. We also see the first wood-burning stoves, which allowed people to warm the spaces now cooled by the larger windows. Like homes on the East Coast, brick fireplaces are located outboard of the structure, placed centrally on the building’s end walls. A wooden mantle completes the homey conversion of the fireplace, and a mirror above effectively bounces more daylight through the space. These buildings start to feel more open.
Places like Las Vegas, New Mexico, which were removed from large populations of indigenous and Hispanic settlers, became highly Americanized. Builders in these areas followed Colonial and subsequent design styles, adding pitched roofs and fine shingle details to framed buildings, while Santa Fe and other more historically connected locales preferred dirt-covered flat roofs and brick details.
Northern New Mexico Architecture
Because of the scarcity of skilled crafters and the lack of railroad access in northern New Mexico, when Territorial in other locations was getting quite decorative, the style of architecture in the north was minimalist, with a central-hallway floor plan, a single-façade portal facing the street, simplified Territorial-style trim and door decoration and no use of brick. The architectural style of the north was most often modified with a pitched metal roof. It can be assumed that at least part of the cause for this change was weather-related, because a pitched roof will shed snow, maximize winter solar gain and protect the earthen walls from needing as much repair each year. The uniquely northern combination of old and new was given its own style, called Northern New Mexico style.
Queen Anne and Victorian Architecture
By 1879, the asymmetrical Queen Anne style—unrelated to the queen for whom it was named—had already been vastly popular in the eastern U.S. for more than 20 years. When the railroad arrived in New Mexico that year, so did change. The rails made access to materials and labor more manageable, so large expanses of glass, metal, milled lumber and milled and fabricated details became commonplace. With the introduction of Queen Anne style into New Mexico, various infusions of the Victorian style came into vogue: steep, scalloped-metal shingle or clay tile roofs, wrap-around porches with elaborate, turned wooden details, like those added to the green and white Walter Ufer house on Des Georges Lane just east of the Taos Plaza; shingle details and pure Queen Anne details, like those found on the Miramon house on the northeast corner of Morada Lane and Kit Carson; and corner towers, dormers, bays, and turrets. The Victorian was a particularly embraced fashion of building in the Territories because it encouraged individuation and experimentation with materials, two skills for which the territorialists were renowned.
Those styles that are a hodge-podge of Victorian tastes are referred to by the state’s Historic Preservation Division as Folk Victorian. Other styles were introduced after the arrival of the railroad, including Italianate and Romanesque.
The Railroad’s Influence on New Mexico Architecture
By this time, the rails were bringing ideas from the eastern and western states, and the timing of the influx of Anglos was like an invasion of sorts—everything that represented the “old ways” or the New Mexico style was admonished. Some of the churches in northern New Mexico were modernized with details of the Romanesque and Gothic Revivals popular in the East. This updating was dictated by the European architecture enthusiast Bishop Lamy of Santa Fe, who was French and a Francophile, as were the mass of missionaries he brought to serve the peoples of his bishopdom. Our historic religious architecture was forever changed by these dictates.
Beginning in the early 20th century, New Mexican architecture began to transform again. By the time of its acceptance into statehood, in 1912, the Territorial period was literally—and figuratively—complete. Three trends emerged: one group of settlers went for the “all new,” merging new forms with old or replacing old forms entirely; another group of artists arrived from the Western art world and began building entirely new fusion homes of their own; while the third group started looking backwards to the “old way.”
Architectural firms like Greene and Greene, based in California, were changing the way people looked at building and inventing a wholly American style of architecture, much of which was a response to what was seen as overly decorative architecture of the Victorian age, and blended with an Indian—as in the subcontinent between the Orient and Europe—concept of a low structure with a veranda, called a bungalow. The California and bungalow styles—simple one-story plans with large porches, squared wooden beams, horizontal emphasis and stone detailing—were in vogue in the West. When people came from California, they brought these ideas with them. Russian-American artist Nicolai Fechin borrowed bits and pieces of all the styles mentioned above, including the new California-influenced methodology, and merged them with wood-carving influences from his home country and ours, creating a style at his home and studio on Paseo del Pueblo Norte in Taos that defies a single architectural attribution.
Merchants and traders, as well as some who had performed military service, found themselves quite rich during this period. Prospecting and other interests made others even richer. Affluence was demonstrated and, as happens, separations between the haves and have-nots became obvious in architecture as in life. This was when the first elaborate lodges were built in the hunting and ranching areas and New Mexico’s first mansions were erected in the cities. Some of the larger, historic haciendas were mansions, in many ways, but they remained true to their working ranch/farm roots.
Spanish Pueblo-Revival Style Architecture Traits
Those who would look backwards were led by the talented architect John Gaw Meem and the architectural firm of Rapp and Rapp. These two powerhouses of great design fused a revival of both the Pueblo and the Spanish Colonial styles into a style unique to New Mexico called Spanish-Pueblo Revival.
Within 30 years of statehood, New Mexican architecture had evolved dramatically. Where, before, structures were nearly purely vernacular, being heavily influenced by the ideals of simplicity and economy, buildings in the early 20th century became, essentially, architectural. They were formalized, codified and elaborated upon to distinguish the frill and fluff from the necessary. Those who could afford to emphasize grand design did so, and those who would not or could not opted for various adaptations of the precedent styles, often using them in new and innovative ways.
Spanish Pueblo-Revival architecture is characterized by a return to adobe construction, often with battered walls; an undulating stepped, parapeted roofline; rounded corners; earth-colored cementitious stucco on the exterior; stepped facades on multistory buildings that rest on at-grade and above-grade foundations. A low-pitched or flat roof is supported by exposed vigas or faux vigas. Corner fireplaces and built-in seating and storage make for inviting, interior respite places. We begin to see painted and stained glass used in windows. And they returned to the days of beautifully hand-carved details, reintroducing carved wooden details on doors, window grilles and corbels.
About the author
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