By Richard Connerty
For The New Mexican
Several years ago, I received an intriguing phone call: “Mister Connerty, my name is Doug Hockmeier and I’m with Polo Corporation here in New York. We were wondering if you might be able to come to our showroom here in the city and install a mud floor for us.” He went on to explain that his boss, Ralph Lauren, was coming out with a Southwestern-motif collection of sheets, towels, and other homewares, and his boss was a stickler for providing an accurate environment for these products.
“Ralph expects the real deal for this display... mud plasters, mud floors, Southwestern furniture, Navajo blankets, and so on. Buyers come from all over the world for this annual show. And it’s on the sixth floor of Polo Corporation at Sixth Avenue at 38th Street. On the sixth floor! Can you do it?”
I gave this proposal some serious thought and considered the major factors. I knew how to lay a mud floor as my company, R. P. Connerty and Son Construction Company, had laid several and I had full confidence in our ability. We had learned a great deal about mud floors and mud plastering when we were volunteering with Cornerstones Community Partnerships helping to restore some of the many deteriorated capillas and moradas in Northern New Mexico under the leadership of Sam Baca and Ed Crocker. Also, I had the manpower to do the work as my son Eamon was working for me and I was pretty sure my brother-in-law Kevin, who lived in the City, would be available to help. Kevin was a journeyman union brick mason.
The major factor was procuring the material need to do the job. Doug had given me the the square footage of the floor plan that required the mud floor and I had calculated that I needed about six cubic yards of a clay-sand mix. Now, I’m originally from Boston but I knew the City pretty well as I had lived there for several years before moving to Santa Fe in 1978. I had driven a cab there and I had a good idea of the dynamic of the place and how things got done.
I put a call into my old friend Sweeney with whom I had co-owned a small bar with on East 14th St. and Avenue A back in the day. I explained the situation to him, that I needed a truckload of clay and sand mix delivered to the Sixth Avenue address of Polo Corporation. Sweeney said, “Let me get back to you. My cousin Timmy works as a groundskeeper at Shea Stadium [then home of the New York Mets baseball club] and I think he’ll be able to hook you up!” Sweeney called me up later and said, “You need to talk to the DiFrancini brothers. They have a sand and gravel business in Flushing and they provide the clay mix for the infield at Shea. They specialize in clay tennis courts and baseball infields.”
Subsequently I talked to Ray DiFrancini, the manager of the business, who assured me that he could deliver the six cubic yards of material and gave me a reasonable price. I then called Doug Hockmeier back and offered him a cost figure for the job, including per-diem expenses, which he agreed to. He agreed rather quickly, which made me wonder if I hadn’t underbid the job, but, none the less, two weeks later Kevin, Eamon and I were off-loading a dump truck at the service entrance of Polo Corp’s building in Manhattan, shoveling the clay-mix into wheeled metal bins, where it went up the service elevator and onto the showroom floor, where we mixed the dry ingredients and water in wheelbarrows.
The newly installed mud floor looked nice and the design staff of Polo Corporation was very happy with the result. The only hitch was that, as with all mud floors, they sometimes take a couple of weeks to completely dry out and time was limited here. As it happened, as the other contractors walked back and forth over our almost dry mud floor, they created a great, aged patina that looked terrific.
The best part of this job was that Eamon and I got to spend some memorable time with my dear mother-in-law, who lives on the Lower East Side, who put us up for the seven days that it took to do the job.
A BLOOD FLOOR
There is no one formula for building a mud floor, as Bill and Athena Steen point out in Serious Straw Bale: A Home Construction Guide for All Climates (2000) by Paul Lacinski and Michel Bergeron. The vagaries of soils, culture, environment, and traditions all contribute to the divergent range of earthen floors found throughout the world. It is estimated that between 30 and 45 percent of the world’s domiciles have earthen flooring. In fact, the vast majority of all of the homes in China and Africa have earthen floors. That’s about two and a half billion right there.
Here in the high desert country of Northern New Mexico, most mud floors are made of local soil with a high clay content, some sand, usually with the addition of some chopped straw, and sealed with linseed oil and turpentine or mineral spirits. But in the ranches, or stations as they are called, in the outback of Australia, earthen floors are often built of the soil from termite mounds. In western China and Nepal, yak dung and clays are the preferred ingredients in mud floors. In the cattle country of East Africa, soil and clay floors are sealed with fresh ox or cattle blood. They do not sacrifice a valuable working animal like an ox just to seal a floor but these animals are “let” — the carotid blood vessel is punctured and plugged and blood is withdrawn daily, to both mix with milk as a breakfast beverage and to seal floors.
Not too long after the Polo job, I received another interesting inquiry, this one from Frances Levine, director of the Palace of the Governors museum. She explained that they were installing a traditional family chapel, or capilla as it is known, in the museum and asked if I was interested in the work. “Of course”, I replied. “It would be an honor.” I knew well that this was one of our country’s oldest buildings, a national treasure. “There is a caveat,” she added. “We would like you to finish it in blood, in the historic tradition. Is that something you could do?”
I assured her that it would be no problem. I had never used blood to seal a floor prior to this, but I was game. I did know that a neighbor of mine up in the Española Valley had a butchery, or abattoir, if you will. I did some more research and discovered that there are different ways to use blood in a floor. One, you can add blood to the soil mix, or, two, you could use it as a sealer, or, three, use it as an ingredient AND a sealer. I decided that I would obtain some blood and use it as a sealer.
The next day I was at Mike Herrera’s slaughterhouse up on Junkyard Road in Arroyo Seco. Mr. Herrera makes a living slaughtering cattle and carving up them up for cuts as well as trimming out deer and elk for local hunters. Mike was amused at my request for the several gallons of blood that I had calculated I would need for the chapel floor but he assured me that he could make it available for me. A few weeks later we had installed the mud floor and I returned to Mr. Herrera’s business to arrange for the delivery of the blood. I asked Mike how much he would charge me and he replied, “I won’t charge you for the blood; we’ll have plenty on hand tomorrow. But see that cow over in the corral?” He pointed out a fat Angus cow in a nearby corral that looked somewhat forlorn to me. “I have to do that one tomorrow and I’m really busy, Richard. My son Mike Junior is no longer available to help me out. Do you think you could help me out for a few hours tomorrow? And you can leave with all the blood you need. I’ll also tell you the secret to keep it from coagulating too quick!” I assured him that I’d be back tomorrow to give him a hand, although I was not to sure exactly what that would entail. In parting he said, “Make sure you wear some old clothes that you don’t care about!”
I will not go into describing the grisly work that Mr. Herrera had me do the next morning but I will say that the floor turned out well. In fact, I inspected it recently and it has held up well, due mostly to the fact that Steve Baca and his crew at the Palace of the Governors had roped off the floor from unwanted traffic. There is a similar mud floor at Georgia O’Keefe’s home in Abiquiú that, although it was installed over 30 years ago, still looks pristine. Of course that floor also has been roped off and never walked on.
People often ask me, “Where did you get the blood for the floor?” I always get a laugh when I reply facetiously, “I used to have a lot of enemies!”
As my friend and colleague Quentin Wilson once wrote about laying a mud floor, “The ultimate test is to make a test batch.” This is very good advice and best heeded.
Do not install a mud floor in a bathroom or kitchen. This would be a recipe for disaster.
Use rugs by doors and other high trafficked areas.
Nothing in our lives is maintenance-free — except maybe good stone masonry construction — not me, not my home, not my truck, and not your earthen floor. Be prepared to refurbish or reseal your floor every two or three years for a long-lasting floor.
Finally, I used to say that there is not a book about laying an earthen floor, but alas, there IS a book on mud floors: Earthen Floors: A Modern Approach to an Ancient Practice (2014) by Sukita Reay Crimmel and James Thomson. No, I have not read this book, but I can tell you that there is a wealth of information on the internet. Google “throwing mud floor” on YouTube if you want to see an amazing video of how it’s done in Ghana. Also, google “earthen flooring” and “mud flooring.” You will get different results for each search. Furthermore, try searching, for instance, earthen floors in Japan and learn about “tataki,” the Japanese traditional mud floor techniques.
Contact Richard Connerty (dba R.P.Connerty & Son Construction Company) at email@example.com.