To come upon flowing water in Northern New Mexico seems such a blessing. One recent afternoon, photographer and writer Don Usner and I paused on a small footbridge over the Acequia de los Ortegas in Chimayó, appreciating the mini-spectacle. He pointed to a place just beyond, indicating where they used to divert water to irrigate inside the Plaza del Cerro. That was back when the plaza was a place of constant activity, both social and agricultural. Today it’s filled with weeds and a few trees, mostly of the weedy variety.

Some weeks ago, young people from a Texas church group cleared a third of an acre of the plaza in front of an old, abandoned home. That parcel and the one-room house have been purchased by the Chimayó Cultural Preservation Association, on whose board Usner serves. The historic domicile is in the middle of a substantial restoration directed by Cornerstones Community Partnerships, which works with communities to rehabilitate adobe buildings. “We started a building fund two decades ago, but we’re very fortunate that Cornerstones has taken this on as a project and has helped fundraise,” Usner said.

They’re hoping the little house’s rebirth will inspire other improvements in and around the square, which architectural historian Chris Wilson and architect Stefanos Polyzoides call the state’s “most intact fortified plaza” in their 2011 book The Plazas of New Mexico. The earliest known mention of the Plaza de San Buenaventura de Chimayó, its original name, was in a 1785 baptismal record. The 1.6-acre square was developed with a defensive priority because of threats by raiding Apache, Comache, Navajo, and Ute Indians at that time. Except for openings at two easily defended points, the plaza was surrounded on all four sides by an unbroken line of houses with no outside doors or windows. An oratorio (chapel) was built on the west side of the plaza in about 1830. The altar of the building, which still exists, has panels that were quite possibly painted by José Rafael Aragón, the santero whose work graces the famed Santuario de Chimayó in the neighboring community of Potrero. “The oratorio is wonderful,” Usner said. “It’s mud with gypsum, or yeso. A guy would come through Chimayó with a wagonful of yeso and they’d bake it in an horno and make a powder, mix it with water and put it on the walls.”

As the threat from Indians subsided, people added outside windows and doors and, with new materials available from the Santa Fe Trail in the mid-1800s and from the railroad later that century, residents could fancy up their houses with pedimented lintels and metal roofs. “You could tell where the patrón lived; he had a pitched-roof post office, a general store, and a big piece of land. And on the west side of the plaza, it was all the people who were migrant laborers in Colorado.”

The dynamism of the plaza culture faded after World War II, with too many young men either not returning from the front lines or not caring to go back home. Fewer than 10 people live on the plaza today, but Melita Ortega once showed Usner a paper from 1878 listing more than 40 people who helped maintain the oratorio.

Among the treasures in the Chimayó Museum is a portable reed organ that Ortega, a schoolteacher, played for the children. She was the sister of Usner’s grandmother, Benigna Ortega Chávez, who nourished him with atole and cuentos when he was a boy and inspired a love of local history. That passion resulted in his 1995 book Sabino’s Map: Life in Chimayó’s Old Plaza, in which he lovingly details the history of the plaza and the lives of its people. He went on to co-found the Chimayó Cultural Preservation Association 22 years ago, and helped establish the museum, which is next door to Ortega’s Weaving Shop. “And for 22 years, we’ve been dreaming of ways to try to protect and preserve buildings on the plaza. A lot of these buildings were intact when I was a kid. They’ve really degraded in my lifetime.”

The CCPA’s past projects include the stabilization of the Acequia de los Ortegas (via a McCune Charitable Trust grant) and the restoration of the historic oratorio (with help from the Thaw Charitable Trust and Cornerstones Community Partnerships). Now the focus is on one old house. “We call it the Casita de Martina,” Usner said, “because Martina Martinez was one of the last people to inhabit the house.” Most of the exterior walls were previously plastered with cementitious stucco, but the association and Cornerstones have removed that and after repairs will do a traditional mud-plaster finish. The walls are structurally sound overall, but Usner said the team patched a large hole in a wall and repaired two of the canales.

At the house on the afternoon of Sept. 12, Cornerstones project foreman Eric Calvert and his brother Dwayne were hard at work on the restoration that had begun in late June. The crew, which also includes construction intern José Whiteman, comes from Ohkay Owingeh. An interesting aspect of the restoration was almost complete: infilling a doorway on the rear with adobes. The idea is to recreate the feeling of the defensive plaza by restoring blank outside walls.

Eric Calvert pointed with a trowel to a water-eroded void in the back corner and told Usner that they will need to take out the lower section and rebuild it with new adobes on the house’s river-cobble foundation. In an interview the next day, Cornerstones director Jake Barrow said that crack-like void was a surprise. It was caused by water running beneath the cement stucco — people choose that material for its permanence compared to mud, but it does not bond well with adobe and hides any water-erosion problems happening underneath. “We found others when the cement was taken off,” Barrow said. “That back wall was really bad.”

That was being reconstructed by various means, including “infill” and “keying.” For voids less than four inches deep, the Calverts were using infill. “Usually we just build it out with mud,” Barrow said. “Keying is for larger situations when we insert new adobes into the old to reintegrate the structure of the wall. And when you’re keying in new adobes, whenever you pick up a load, you pack it in using a drier mud mixture.”

Inside the little house, Calvert talked about the challenge of mating real adobes with “modern,” asphalt-stabilized adobes that were used in a prior restoration. “We had to mess with the [clay-sand] mix like crazy. We tried ten or more mixes and the one that stuck the best, we used.” Some of the adobes the crew is using were made by local people and visitors in brick-making events staged by Cornerstones in the Palace of the Governors courtyard and at San Miguel Chapel last May. Cornerstones used other adobes from those workshops in a church-renovation project that was recently completed in Las Trampas.

Barrow said the Historic Santa Fe Foundation has been another partner on the Chimayó job. “Their chairman, Mac Watson, donated the windows and the foundation had them installed, and they will do the door. They were able to secure roof repair, which was donated by Nick Martinez, MGM Roofing. And the foundation’s Mara Saxer is a window expert, so she and an intern repaired and installed the windows.

“This is a major preservation effort on a plaza building and it’s for the benefit of the community. You would hope it would be the beginning of something. What we dream about is, could there be a summer youth jobs program making adobe bricks and having the young people working on some of the buildings? They could make adobes in the spring and local people could pick them up for summer repair projects.”

About the Casita de Martina project, Barrow had a singular compliment for the participants. “Prior to hiring Eric Calvert, I asked him if he had any sensitivity to working on a traditional Hispanic cultural artifact like this and he expressed an enthusiasm for it. I then asked the board of the association how they felt about having a Puebloan native leading the project, considering potential cultural sensitivity. They also enthusiastically endorsed it. I find this interesting in light of all the recent contention, and it demonstrates how comfortable these diverse cultures can be working together.” Barrow said necessary work on the Casita de Martina back wall depleted funds, and Cornerstones is now trying to raise at least $15,000 to complete the project.

As we walked, Usner pointed to a huge cottonwood tree. “It’s the largest cottonwood in Chimayó. The museum has poetry under the cottonwood every September.” This year, readings are given at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 24 (call 505-351-0945 for information). He said his fantasy is to clear the whole plaza and have some kind of agriculture project going on. “My personal vision is to have the buildings restored, all mud plaster, just buildings that we use for museum classes, lectures, storage, and bringing people in small groups to see them and talk about the history. And we’d still have mixed use with the [Rancho Manzana] bed-and-breakfast and some residents.”

It’s probably impossible to restore a truly living plaza. For one thing, the lack of sewer lines and an inability to install more septic systems limits population expansion. And the ownership profile is complicated, especially since a Congress-ordered land survey was made following the passage, in 1922, of an act to provide for settlement of small holding claims on unsurveyed land in New Mexico. “They failed to recognize that the oratorio was communal, so they just mapped it, ‘No owner.’ They also failed to map these streets as public rights of way. They mapped over them and assigned ownership to each house owner.” Usner, mentioning the government’s “inability to recognize communal property rights,” referred to documents he has from the mid-1800s that, in part, record a local land-use conflict. “The mayor came out from Santa Cruz and he said, let’s get the oldest men in town. They came and they said, no, no, no, from the founding of this plaza, it was recognized that three varas [a little over eight feet] were to remain free and clear for public access.

“This is all a delicate dance, what we’re doing, because we don’t want it to become a big tourist attraction that transforms it from being what it is: a really sweet, unaltered plaza. That’s one of the reasons it’s gone so slowly. We didn’t want to disrupt the community. I have tried to generate the notion within people here what an incredible resource it is for them, remembering, honoring, being proud of and understanding their own history.

“We had a heartwarming thing happen the other day,” Usner said. “We were at the site and this woman showed up, maybe thirty-five years old, and she said, ‘I wanted to come tell you guys that I want to volunteer, any way I can.’ I was so blown away. She said, ‘This place is amazing. It’s incredible. I didn’t know it was here.’ She’s from Potrero, over by the Santuario. Once people in the area wake up to it, there’s a tremendous feeling. We hear ad nauseum all the statistics and drumbeat of how terrible things are in Chimayó and Northern New Mexico, and I see this as something that could really nurture a counter-narrative. We have a history that’s so cool, so unique, and we should really embrace it.”