In this land, once upon a time, there was only adobe. About a thousand years ago, Native peoples made use of the tensile strength of logs and branches for part of their roof structures, but on this arid plateau, trees were in short supply. Homes were made of adobe, or earth. And although the Spanish brought a few new technologies in the 16th century, their villages along the Río Grande and the Río Santa Fe were still far from mountains and trees. They also built with earth. They had learned from the Moors to build with adobe bricks, made in wooden molds and then sun-dried. But in many respects, their dwellings in northern New Spain resembled those of the local tribes.

The Spanish often built around placitas (courtyards) and had doors rather than the Indians’ rooftop entries accessed by ladders, but the basic form of the earthen home was a constant in this area for a very long time. Lumber, brick, and glass were available via the  Santa Fe Trail beginning in the 1820s, but it wasn’t until the last half of the 19th century that local sawmills and brick kilns, and then the railroad, brought great change to buildings.

Santa Fe’s leaders anticipated that the train would bring prosperity to the city. It certainly accelerated the face of modernity in the built landscape — witness the 1880 St. Vincent Sanatorium, the 1881 Palace Hotel, and the 1891 Catron Block on the Plaza, all boasting architectural splendors in the French or Italian styles. However, the railroad did not bring a great deal of wealth to Santa Fe. In 1912, the year of statehood, the local wags and shakers decided to forsake Victorian charm and instead pique tourist interest with a focus on heritage architecture.

Archaeologist Sylvanus G. Morley, in 1912, may have been the first person to use the term “Santa Fe Style” for a building form that he and others with the Museum of New Mexico synthesized from a photographic survey of the oldest structures in town. It was a revival of the Spanish-Pueblo form. This and the more stately Territorial Revival style, formulated by John Gaw Meem in the 1930s, are both known as Santa Fe Style. There is more to the description, though. City code differentiates between Old Santa Fe Style, which means the old adobe buildings and newer ones that very much look like old adobe buildings; and Recent Santa Fe Style, which allows buildings to show a small percentage of stone, brick, and other materials as long as the overall effect is, as the code states, in “harmony with historic buildings.”

The city’s Historic Preservation Office is currently dealing with projects that David Rasch, its director, sometimes argues represent an evolution of Santa Fe Style. The Historic Districts Review Board, whose duty it is to uphold the provisions of the city’s 1957 Historic Styles Ordinance, has been known to disagree. Rasch offers a talk titled “One Hundred Years Ago and Now: What Is Santa Fe Style?” in a free noon event at the New Mexico History Museum on Wednesday, April 4.

“Basically this lecture talks about the vocabulary of Santa Fe Style and all the voices that have gone into that: Pueblo Indians, Spanish, and Anglo,” he said. “It identifies each one of the voices, then it brings them together in Spanish-Pueblo Revival, which is Spanish, Pueblo, and Anglos, because it was the Anglos that did the revival. Then it also shows how the style developed over the 20th century and beyond, and questions what it is, just like we did in 1912.”

One case that exemplifies this controversial realm is a house designed by Santa Fe architect Trey Jordan on Armijo Lane a few years ago. It has a grayish brown stucco, crisp edges, and a large, slatted window cover on the street. The Historic Design Review Board (or “H-Board”) approved it, but after it was built, some members were aghast. Rasch insists that the stucco is still brown, that the grille is simply an evolution of a traditional window grille, and that the home has a proper scale in the Cerro Gordo neighborhood. “The vocabulary is still there, but that’s where the dialogue is now, because the preservationists don’t see that as a Santa Fe Style building and the architects do. My whole issue is, I’m OK with a tradition evolving. That means it’s living; it’s not a dead thing. Just like Spanish Market and Indian Market; they’ve evolved to allow for innovation within the tradition. And that’s what old Santa Fe Style and recent Santa Fe Style did in the 1957 ordinance.”

The H-Board, which rules on changes to historic windows and fences as well as on entire new buildings, is so important. Without that control, bit by bit and project by project, Santa Fe loses its character. One of the critical features in Santa Fe’s historic fabric has to do with sightlines — to the surrounding mountains, for example — and thus with building heights. Rasch said “height creep” is an issue for the H-Board. “Everything is slowly getting a little higher. So, again, we’re doing the same examination we did in 1912, when we said, ‘Look what we did. We’ve Anglified everything and now it looks like Anywhere, USA. What did we do to Santa Fe?’ Here we are again, because architects keep feeling like their creativity has been stymied.

“What’s happening is we’re seeing architecture shifting again. It goes through these periods where it’s about design and ornament and then it gets very brutal and minimized, and we’re kind of at that minimization again. My argument is you can’t get too minimal with Santa Fe Style, because then you’re at regional modernism, which lacks the vocabulary that is essential.”

The Jordan-designed residence at the corner of Armijo and Cerro Gordo lives in the midst of all kinds of residential designs and elevations and conglomerations of materials and styles. Rasch calls it “a tapestry,” coining a term often used by homebuilder Sharon Woods, who was an H-Board member and chair for many years. Historic Santa Fe is “not all homogenous. A lot of people think it is, like ‘It’s all brown,’ but it’s actually about a dozen browns,” Rasch said, laughing, in a reference to the palette of allowable stucco colors in the city code.

The essential characteristics of Spanish-Pueblo Revival buildings, besides their earthy brownnesses, include rounded edges, roomblock massing, and protruding vigas. And some of these features of central Santa Fe’s personality are endangered by an important new protocol: sustainable building. The city’s green-building code frowns on “thermal bridging,” or breaks in wall insulation. Vigas projecting through a wall from inside the building look good, but they conduct heat out of the building in the winter, so residents have to turn up the heat. “But as soon as you chop off vigas, you lose the vocabulary,” Rasch said. “If you get rid of headers [lintels] and vigas, it destroys our style.”

Buildings boasting Territorial Revival style have crisper edges, brick coping along the rooflines, and obvious wood framing (often capped with pedimented lintels) around windows and doors. Rasch wonders why these window frames on new buildings can’t be brushed aluminum instead of wood. Just about a century ago, Meem — who is acknowledged as the dean of Santa Fe Style — pushed the envelope by using a lot of pentile (hollow tile blocks produced by the old state penitentiary), because he believed in more permanent, maintenance-free materials as long as the adobe look was there. Rasch’s favorite example of the Spanish-Pueblo Revival style is architect Isaac Rapp’s 1917 New Mexico Museum of Art, which was built using brick from “the pen.”

“We still need protruding vigas, but they can be Corten steel,” he said. “I don’t think the material is the most important aspect, but the preservationists want these portales and vigas and canales to be wood. There’s a difference between listed historic buildings and new construction. You don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. With listed historic buildings, you have to preserve that old material. You have to keep the wood portal, and when it rots, replace it with wood. It’s required. And if somebody plows into the portal at the Palace of the Governors, you want those vigas replaced with wood. But if you’re doing a new building, you can do metal instead of wood. You keep the tradition alive, but you allow for innovation.” 

There is another reason why new buildings, or additions to existing buildings, in Santa Fe’s historic district should sometimes employ modern materials, and even a few tastefully contemporary design elements: A century from now, 2018 construction should be distinguishable from that of earlier times. And if it’s exceptional, it also may be prized alongside the old. “It shouldn’t mimic the old so perfectly that you can’t see the evolution of our style,” Rasch said. “As soon as everything looks the same and you can’t date it, it’s dead. It’s the vocabulary that’s important, not the material. And that’s where I think it needs to go, to preserve Santa Fe Style.”   ◀