The Francisca Hinojos House at the corner of East Palace Avenue and Martinez Street was built in about 1885 by French artisans whom Archbishop Lamy brought from Louisiana for his St. Francis Cathedral project. One of the city’s pre-Santa Fe Style gems, the house was severely damaged by fire — and the top sections of some adobe walls were eroded by high-pressure fire hoses — in February 2013. More than two years later, a move by trustee First National Bank of Santa Fe to demolish it was quashed by the Historic Districts Review Board. Late last winter, the city’s Historic Preservation Division staff gave contractor John Wolf, who had purchased the house, administrative approval to rebuild its damaged portions “in-kind.”
“They just said, All we ask is that you make it look like it did before the fire, and I said, I’ll do it,” Wolf said at the site on March 10. “I said, I’m not going to do mud — I need concrete and steel — and they said fine.” But the job was then put on the March 22 agenda of the H-Board for approval of an “exception to remove historic materials.” Wolf told me that morning that the city’s historic approvals process was “pure harassment, in my book. I don’t know what I’ve done to be beaten up by the city. This was the house the H-Board fought to save, and I joined them. I said, I’m going to be the fool to fix this thing up, and what do they do? They stop me from fixing it up.” But then, that evening, the board granted the exception and Wolf proceeded with a handsome restoration of the house for himself and his wife.
Now David Rasch, head of the Historic Preservation Office, is wondering, “Once you have a certain majority of damage, is it still a historic house? That’s a very big question.” There is a danger that the idea of historic status may be watered down if a high percentage of the materials are new. “Exactly,” Rasch said in September, “and that’s why I think the Hinojos House should be downgraded to ‘noncontributing,’ because it’s no longer a historic building.”
This case illuminates some of the challenges that come up in Santa Fe’s historic district. The board’s judging job is made trickier by subtle building issues regarding authenticity. For example, the city code dictates that each building “be recognized as a physical record of its time, place, and use. Changes that create a false sense of historical development, such as the addition of conjectural features or architectural elements from other buildings, shall not be undertaken.”
Over and above the details of this discussion, it should be stated that no one will understand the sacred mission of the (oft-reviled) H-Board who doesn’t also have a love for historic Santa Fe, with its adobe-building heritage and small, winding-street neighborhoods such as those around East De Vargas Street, Alto Street, and Cerro Gordo Road — historic streetscapes with an intimacy that relies on humble buildings and views of the surrounding mountains. This feeling is as important as the town’s distinctive architectural palette in charming visitors and keeping downtown vibrant. It’s all about stylistic conformity, to a certain degree, and it’s certainly about limiting the scale and type of new buildings in the area.
Within that area — five historic districts that occupy about 6.25 square miles of central Santa Fe — the H-Board rules on everything from repairing fences and updating windows to major construction and demolition projects. Preservation standards are applied to buildings that have been given “contributing,” “significant,” and “landmark” historic status. “The members of the board don’t represent the city; they only take quasi-judicial action for us,” Rasch said. “The staff works for the city manager, but the board works for the governing body — the mayor and city council. The staff interprets and enforces the city code, and we make recommendations to the board.”
The Historic Districts Review Board (formerly known as the Historic Design Review Board) consists of seven people who have demonstrated interest in and knowledge of the city’s historic character. City code specifies that there be one historian, one business owner in a historic district, one architect, one representative of the construction industry, one Old Santa Fe Association board member, and two members-at-large.
The “bible” of both staff and board is the 1957 Historic Styles Ordinance, which had a name-change in 1983 to Historic Districts Ordinance and then was expanded into the historic-preservation realm in 1992. “The original was a styles ordinance to keep Santa Fe architecture somewhat homogenous,” said homebuilder Sharon Woods, who served on the board for a total of 16 years (most of that time as chairman) before being removed, along with members Bonifacio Armijo and Christine Mather, in a May 2015 board shakeup by Mayor Javier Gonzales. “There are a lot of people frustrated who want to do more contemporary things, which is much harder to do in the historic district — but I’ve always felt it was important to keep the flavor and the feeling of historic Santa Fe by not introducing steel-and-glass high rises. We’d be another Albuquerque Old Town.
“I first got on the board in the early 1990s,” Woods said, “and we realized there was no part of the ordinance that protects the contributing and significant structures. More and more were getting torn down and replaced by buildings that filled up the lot because of the value of the real estate. The U.S. Department of the Interior standards for historic districts require that a certain percentage of the buildings in the district be contributing or significant and our percentage was starting to go down, and to lose that status would really be damaging. I worked with the State Historic Preservation Division, and we wrote an ordinance to add to our existing ordinance and it passed the City Council.”
The scope of the H-Board’s purview can be seen in snapshots of a handful of recent cases:
▼ The owners of the commercial building at320 Paseo de Peralta came to the board wanting to replace windows and front-courtyard paving. The building dates to 1866 and 1912, and is listed as noncontributing. Staff requested a historic-status review, with a possible upgrade in mind. The board, after listening to testimony during its meeting, voted to maintain the noncontributing status and approved the owner’s improvements.
▼ The case of the main building of the Ghost Ranch Conference Center, 401 Old Taos Highway, was more complicated. The Presbyterian Church appealed a January 2013 H-Board decision that the 1964 building, designed by Philippe Register, deserves a contributing status, and the City Council granted the appeal. The El Castillo retirement center subsequently had board approval to demolish it and build a new facility, but pulled out of its purchase proposal early in 2016. In a recent interview, Rasch said the building represents a modernized, innovative take on Santa Fe Style, with Register having both preserved and expanded on elements of the traditional architectural vocabulary. Like John Gaw Meem, the architect most identified with Santa Fe Style, Rasch defends the use of permanent materials. “Why does everything have to be wood? Why can’t we have Corten steel projecting vigas? There’s no maintenance problem, but it still keeps the vocabulary.”
Such sentiments fall on deaf ears for the staunchest “defenders of the faith,” among them most of the members of the H-Board, the Historic Santa Fe Foundation, and the Old Santa Fe Association. In a conversation earlier this year, OSFA member John Eddy lamented “a trend where architects in Santa Fe are completely enamored with structural steel, which is very straight, slick, and easy to maintain. But in the historic districts, you’re supposed to be building with materials that are compatible with what’s there, what’s always been there, which is wood and wrought iron. Wrought iron’s out the window. It used to be part of the accepted vernacular in Santa Fe. What’s missing is the hand. And people don’t come to Santa Fe to see structural steel. The city is based on hand-built character.”
▼ The Ghost Ranch structure was downgraded, but another prominent building was just upgraded. The original section of Our Lady of Guadalupe’s parish office, 417 Agua Fría Street, dates to the 1800s, and there’s a 1960s-era addition on the south side. The Archdiocese of Santa Fe wants to replace the front door (on Agua Fría) and the first-floor windows. Rasch’s staff requested a status review, recommending an upgrade from noncontributing to significant. The board voted for the status upgrade. “Now the Archdiocese can appeal that ruling, or they can apply to the board for approval of exceptions if their proposed changes could change the character of the building,” Rasch said.
And what is the advantage for an owner of having a contributing or significant status? It certainly can cost more to go through the historic-review process and pay for specific materials. “There are two types of people — those who really understand preservation and support it, and those who see it as a burden,” Rasch said. “But, if your building is significant or contributing, you can use the tax-credit program to help with the cost of maintenance and repairs. And according to Realtors, houses with historic status have more value; they sell for higher prices.”
Homebuilder Woods disagreed. “If somebody has a building, unless it is truly historic and worthy of preservation, I would encourage him not to try an upgrade because the code so much limits what you can do. It’s sort of the flip side of the ordinance. Yes, it’s great and it helps save buildings in Santa Fe, but it also really limits what an owner can do, period.”
▼ There were good arguments on both sides in the case of 339 Bishops Lodge Road. The owners of the rental house (pre-1935, contributing) wanted to use elastomeric stucco on the outside walls. Rasch emphasized that the use of the rubbery elastomeric stucco is simply illegal on contributing and significant buildings in the Downtown and Eastside Historic Districts. On Aug. 11, 2015, the board denied the proposal. The owners appealed the decision to the city council. On their side was the fact that it had been stuccoed by the previous owner using elastomeric stucco more than a decade ago, and to go back to traditional cementitious stucco would be more time-consuming and expensive. Also, the house is wood-frame, not adobe, so there is no danger of the more waterproof elastomeric stucco trapping water inside and degrading adobes — one of the reasons for the regulation. Rasch argued that, adobe or not, the rules for contributing and significant buildings in the district require traditional stucco. After much discussion, the council and mayor voted unanimously to overturn the H-Board denial. Gonzales added that “my vote would have been very different” if the home were an adobe.
▼ The modest pre-1928 house at 124 West Booth Street is listed as contributing. The owner came to the board wanting to switch a front door and porch with a window, and demolish and rebuild the front yard wall. Staff was OK with everything but changing the historic porch. The H-Board, after hearing testimony during the meeting, approved everything. “The key was that he will re-establish the porch, which preserves the character,” Rasch said later.
▼ A new high-profile case is 201 Old Santa Fe Trail, the open parcel next to Loretto Chapel. On Sept. 22, the H-Board voted against allowing an exception to permit construction of a 49-foot-tall commercial/office building when the maximum allowable height there is less than 22 feet. Longtime owner Jim Kirkpatrick and his daughter, Maggie Andersson, are likely to appeal the decision.
At the other end of the spectrum are the projects that are in the historic district but don’t require H-Board attention, where Rasch simply approves in-kind replacement. Last fall a driver lost control and smashed into the portal near Sena Plaza on East Palace Avenue. The owner was given administrative approval to repair the wooden portal posts and the damaged adobe wall to look the same as before the accident. “As long as it’s repair and maintenance, like roof jobs, and you’re not changing the character, I approve it administratively,” Rasch said. “It doesn’t go to the board. The board sees about 100 cases in a year, but staff handles 500 or 600 cases without the board.”
Sharon Woods said she’s glad she doesn’t hear the panel called “the hysterical board” so much any more. She credits the turnaround to good outcomes, like the conversion of the old St. Vincent Hospital into the Drury Plaza Hotel. “What a great project. We saved these buildings, and the owners really worked with us; the board had six or seven meetings just with them. Yes, they had a lot of exceptions approved. They replaced all those windows, but they did it in-kind. It was such a great collaboration, and it helped the economic development of Santa Fe.”
The Drury project involved subtle updates to the existing buildings and the construction of additions that blend in very well. On proposals involving more contemporary design elements, Rasch is more progressive than the H-Board. In the house by architect Trey Jordan at the corner of Cerro Gordo Road and Armijo Lane, Rasch can see traditional architectural elements are still present — if abstracted. But that abstraction tends to be a problem for the board members. Woods no longer serves, but she remains passionate about these debates. “It can become too formulized, so everything looks like a brown wedding cake, and that’s not good, either. There has to be room for some innovation, but we don’t want to lose what we have.”
New challenges relate to the city’s Green Building Code: How do rooftop solar panels impact the historic district, for example? Another involves the advance of the 50-year guideline for what’s considered to be historic. “Now a lot of not-so-great buildings from the 1950s in the core historic district are being deemed historic, the same with some of these really funky ones from the 1960s that are super-solar,” Woods said. “And I personally did not sit on the H-Board for all these years to protect a bunch of tract-looking homes. There are many historians that will argue vehemently and passionately that I am not correct, but part of me thinks, ‘What is worthy of preservation?’ And I think the ordinance should be re-examined.”
“I do believe it has to evolve or it stagnates and dies,” Rasch said, “but we have to evolve sensitively and in vocabulary.”
Meetings of the Historic Districts Review Board are held at City Hall on the second and fourth Tuesday nights of each month and are open to the public. See the “Weekly Meeting List” at the bottom of the city’s home page, www.santafenm.gov, for details. ◀