‘She just was who she was’: Betty Stewart

Author Mark Cross with his dog, Napoleon; photo Lynne Wallace

Betty Stewart grew up on a ranch in Harding County, New Mexico. As an adult, she dressed like a cowboy and had a bit of Calamity Jane in her, with her boisterous drinking and carousing. Her legacy is that of a contractor who fought the Historic District Review Board (otherwise known as the H-board) for the right to build houses with pitched roofs — in defiance of the Historical Styles Ordinance, which requires homes in the historic district to have flat roofs. But there’s more to Stewart’s story than controversial architectural choices, says her biographer, Mark H. Cross.

A Tale of Santa Fe: Betty Stewart in the City Different (Caminito Publishing, 238 pages, $26.95) is Cross’s first biography. He is also the author of the Encyclopedia of Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico (2012). Cross writes that Stewart overcame significant challenges to become a successful builder, nationally famous for her design style. She wrestled with attention deficit disorder since childhood, and later developed alcoholism. She got sober in 1968 when it began to seriously threaten her health. And Stewart was a lesbian “in a time and place when homosexuality was most often a shameful secret.” Cross calls her ability to forge a fulfilling life in Santa Fe a “tribute to both her and her adopted city.”

Cross, 70, heard about Stewart’s pitched-roof controversy when he was researching his first book, and was enchanted by her personal life. The retired proofreader for the New Mexico legislature was raised in Virginia and moved to Santa Fe when he was in his 40s, a refugee from mainstream America — which is how he sees Stewart and many of her Anglo artist contemporaries who moved here in the early to mid-20th century. “They were escaping where they were from. They didn’t want to change Santa Fe,” he says. “They wanted to protect Hispanic and Indian cultures.”

Stewart died from a stroke in 1994, when she was 68 years old. People who knew her say she wasn’t particularly self-reflective, preferring to deal with what was in front of her, not what was inside of her. She didn’t write letters or keep a journal. She left no papers. Much of the information Cross collected about Stewart came from public meeting records and people who knew her. His main sources were her brother Pete Stewart’s partner, Douglas Atwill, who remained close with Betty and her mother after Pete’s death from cancer in 1975, at age 46. Other stories came from Merrily Pierson, Betty’s partner in the final decade or so of her life.

Cross believes that Stewart’s charm and charisma came from her upbringing in a family that loved her unconditionally. That kind of love (and financial support) bred a devil-may-care confidence that was attractive to others. It may have also given her the wherewithal to be true to herself, when many other women still hid in the closet. “If you have to realize you’re a lesbian in the 1950s and decide to leave [your hometown] — that’s not an easy thing to do,” Cross says. “And she had to stop drinking, and that doesn’t just happen. You have to do a lot of work.”

During Stewart’s childhood, the family split its time between Dalhart, Texas, and their New Mexico ranch, about 80 miles away. Stewart’s father, Victor, sold cars and drank too much. Her mother, Anne Lu, was a Southern belle from Dalhart. Betty was born in 1925, and her younger brother, Victor, came along four years later. Betty nicknamed him Pete, which stuck. Betty and Pete loved each other, but they had a somewhat antagonistic, competitive relationship their whole lives. After spending time in Santa Fe on and off as a kid, Stewart moved here for good in the 1960s. Pete arrived at the end of the decade, and they got into designing and building homes, though neither were licensed architects. They often worked together on real estate and building projects, many of which were financed by their mother, who also lived in town. Although the world would come to know “Betty Stewart houses” in the 1980s, the open ceilings and pitched roofs that were part of her signature style originated with Pete. According to those closest to them, however, Betty took his vision and ran with it, becoming the more accomplished designer.

Though pitched roofs existed in Santa Fe’s historic district, they predated the restrictive 1957 ordinance that enshrined Santa Fe’s Pueblo Revival architecture style into law. Stewart called her preference for pitched roofs a matter of taste and didn’t think she should have to justify herself when there were already pitched roofed houses along Acequia Madre, where she wanted to build. And pitched roofs are just one marker of a Betty Stewart house. Other aspects of her style are now imitated by contemporary homebuilders, and sought after by those looking for “authentic” Santa Fe style. Cross writes that “she used natural materials — adobe bricks for the walls, red brick for the floors, old, hand-hewn beams for the trusses, hand-worked plaster and simple metal light fixtures. It was as if she had studied the Modernism rule book — in her houses, form follows function and materials look like what they are.”

Cross says that he wanted to write a book about a Santa Fe woman who hadn’t gotten her due — and he felt personally connected to Stewart. “I used to drink too much and smoke too much, like her. And then I quit doing that, like her,” he says. “Betty was irrepressible. She was happy. She was good natured, but she had a hard time acknowledging that anyone had authority over her, other than her parents. She wasn’t angry, mad, or hostile. She just was who she was.” ◀

Mark. H. Cross reads from and signs copies of A Tale of Santa Fe: Betty Stewart in the City Different in a free event at 5 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 7, at Travel Bug Specialty Book Store and Coffee Shop (839 Paseo de Peralta, 505-992-0418, mapsofnewmexico.com).

(1) comment

Rebecca Clay

Congratulations, Mark, on publishing your new book -- look forward to reading it!

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