People call Santa Fe “The City Different.” And it is in many ways, but the one most visible to any visitor is its architecture. There’s something distinctive about it, something not found anywhere else, something reflecting its 425-year heritage.
Santa Fe Architecture Defined
Upon arriving in Santa Fe, one may declare, “All the buildings are brown!” And so they are, at least most of them. With real or faux adobe, many buildings have rounded corners, canted walls, irregular parapets, and other features of pre-Territorial houses. Taller buildings have stories stepped like ancient pueblos. Roofs are flat, supported by carved corbels or vigas — bark-peeled wooden beams — with latillas, branches laid across the tops to create the foundation for the roof. It’s the
original Pueblo Style.
The Preservation Ordinance
This was how Santa Fe looked at its inception. It was a look city leaders admired and wanted to preserve. It’s a style so distinctive — with preserved historic districts and dedication to cultural conservation — the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Santa Fe one of its Dozen Distinctive Destinations in America in 2009.
As you’ll soon read, keeping that look wasn’t a foregone conclusion. There were invading styles that threatened the image of The City Different. And so, the city codified the look it wanted with its Historic Preservation Zoning Ordinance of 1957, mandating that adobe be the only architectural style permitted in Santa Fe. It still applies today, and perhaps is the principal reason why the city looks as it does.
With the signing of the Gadsden Purchase in 1846, New Mexico became part of the United States and settlers from the East began arriving. They liked the business opportunities they found. They liked the climate and the positive impact it had on tuberculosis and other respiratory diseases. But you could have heard them say . . . “All the buildings are brown!” . . . and they began to import new styles.
First, they introduced what came to be known as Territorial Style, buildings constructed of brick with straight walls and no step-backs. They used square-cut posts and headers instead of corbels to support doors. They built decorative balustrades, shutters, and window and door surrounds. Builders introduced Neoclassical, Greek Revival, Romanesque, Victorian, and Gothic elements to structures. More and more, buildings featured front porches, pitched roofs, brick copings, and double-hung windows.
Santa Fe Railroad’s Role
The Santa Fe Railroad arrived in 1880. Now it was faster and easier to obtain new building materials, to match and copy architectural styles popular back East. From boxcars came commercially milled finished woodwork, metal façades, and Italianate-style stonework. The railroad, itself, shifted the look of the city. It built depots and hotels with white stucco, red-tiled roofs, and arches, all reminiscent of California’s Spanish Mission Revival Style.
Santa Fe Discovered
Santa Fe was becoming “Americanized.” The city sat at a turning point. In the early 20th century, New Mexico finally attained statehood, and people had begun to travel. Trains took them everywhere, and cars soon would surpass rail travel. Santa Fe was “discovered.” It was certainly different from places like Charleston, Chicago, New Orleans, and even Denver.
The Santa Fe Railroad and the Fred Harvey Company organized Southwest Indian Detours, side trips for train travelers which became immensely popular. The city was among the reasons why people came, and Santa Fe’s leaders realized it was the look, the architectural style, they came to see. But how to safeguard it?
Pueblo Revival Style
The first thing was to define what they wanted to preserve. They called the preferred architectural style Pueblo Revival — returning the city to what it looked like before the 1800s became the 1900s. Santa Fe’s leaders examined their town and saw the centuries-old tradition of Pueblo and Spanish architecture wasn’t a liability. It was an asset they could employ to attract tourism and the flourishing economic benefits that accompany it.
Pueblo Revival imitates traditional adobe pueblo architecture, though many newer buildings use brick and concrete instead of sun-dried mud bricks. If adobe is not used, structures are built with rounded corners and thick, canted walls to simulate it. Walls are covered with stucco and painted in earth tones. In some buildings, vigas continue to support flat roofs, but sometimes only the external part is visible as a decorative element.
The ordinance also limits the number of stories a building can have — there’ll be no World Trade Centers in Santa Fe. With some exceptions, buildings are capped at 45 feet in height. John Gaw Meem: Santa Fe Champion In the 1930s, renowned architect John Gaw Meem developed the Territorial Revival Style, which contributed to the desired look. He based his designs on buildings in Northern New Mexico in the mid- to late-1800s. They featured symmetrical forms, larger windows, and classical woodwork. Following World War II, Meem turned his attention toward modernist homes of adobe, steel, and glass.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Pottery House
Even legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright applied his unique imagination to an adobe-style home in Santa Fe. His “Pottery House,” the only adobe he ever designed, was conceived in 1942 but wasn’t finished until 1959. It was designed for land in El Paso, Texas, but was built in Santa Fe after Wright’s death. A unique architectural concept, the spheroid design of the home was said to be inspired by Native American pottery and curved to enclose a central patio within its walls.
Sustainable Pueblo Style
It’s been slightly more than a century since New Mexico became a state and more than 60 years since Santa Fe approved its preservation ordinance. Santa Fe Style blends aspects of terraced, puddled-adobe blocks of pueblos with structures of traditional Hispanic homes.
It incorporates Greek Revival-style pediments over windows and doors, delicate wooden porches, and some Victorian details. It even shows itself in certain aspects of California Mission Style in the old Santa Fe Depot.
In the new century, there are initiatives for conservation of land, air, and water. There’s the movement to sustainable energy and use of recycled materials — dressed up as Corten steel and brushed aluminum. With a constantly changing world, with evolving ideas and attitudes among the population it’s going to require a Sisyphus-like effort to maintain the look of The City Different.
You can’t define Santa Fe Style as you can an engineering feat, like the Rio Grande Gorge bridge. It’s more of an amalgam of architectural forms, a compilation that renders a certain “Santa Fe feel” to the city. It’s indefinite, almost defying elucidation. The best way to describe it is to say, “You’ll know Santa Fe Style when you see it.”
Top image: San Miguel Chapel is a Spanish-colonial mission church built around 1610. Although called the oldest church in America, it was rebuilt twice in the late 1600s and again in 1710.
Story and photography by Bud Russo
Originally published in Neighbors magazine
Posted by LasCruces.com