Passersby and neighbors of the house at 524 Alto St. have seen the progress of some remarkable work during the past six months. What looks like a little house from the street (only about 18 feet wide), the García House is 75 feet deep, and all along those walls, workers have painstakingly cut away small sections of concrete stucco. This work revealed that the adobe walls underneath had suffered water damage, in some places drastic. As often happens with these durable cementitious veneers, the condition of the structural walls was hidden.

The Historic Santa Fe Foundation, whose mission is to preserve and advocate for heritage properties, spent two years on restoration work after its 2000 purchase of the García House, which is listed on the State Register of Cultural Properties and the National Register of Historic Places. It once was part of the neighboring Donaciano Vigil House, 518 Alto St.; they have a common wall. Its name reflects the long ownership of both properties by the family of Vicente García Sr. (1827-1889). The neighborhood, the barrio de Guadalupe, was developed in the 1800s to house the parishioners of Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church. Its main thoroughfare — now Agua Fría Street — was the trade route between Santa Fe and Chihuahua, Mexico, according to Architecture Report: 518 Alto Street, Santa Fe, New Mexico, prepared for the foundation by Catherine Colby in 2011. The high ground between the main road and the Santa Fe River was known as los altos (“the heights”); hence Alto Street.

In 2013, worry about the state of the García House’s walls prompted explorations for a re-stucco project, and at that point, the extent of the damage was discovered. “When we began, we knew we would have to do a little adobe repair,” said Sean Kaltenbach, owner of New Mexico Earth Works, “but we never imagined anything like this.” He pointed to the area below the canale (roof drain) above the front door. There were deep furrows and voids extending outward and downward, where water had found its way behind the stucco and eroded the adobe wall. During a visit in September, Charles Coffman, the foundation’s preservation specialist, showed another problem. The deeper voids at the front revealed two wythes of adobe — like a wall inside the outer wall — and they’re not tied together. The gap between them is 6 inches to 1 foot, and in one place, the outside wall is just leaning on the inside wall.

“But the house is solid, right?” I asked. “These vigas are sitting on earth walls.”

“Well, if this earth wall leaned any more, I’d say, ‘Hell, no, it’s not solid; it’s dangerous,’ ” Coffman said. “But that’s what we’re hoping to fix.”

The work crew used shovels to dig out all the loose earth that used to be adobe bricks. As the dirt and half-degraded adobes were removed, the workers cut two-by-fours for wood braces. “As we move through our adobe repair, we’re catching the load,” he said. “This is all mass, and as you unload areas, it has to be supported.”

Door and window framing had to be at least partially dismantled for the next step: replacing voided areas with new adobe bricks and mud mortar. Evan Lucero from Kaltenbach’s crew said the adobes — 3½ inches thick, 10 inches wide, and 14 inches long — were bought from an Albuquerque supplier. The bricks set in the lower courses were the asphalt-stabilized type for greater long-term water resistance. Mortar for the joints was made onsite from local clay and sand.

On the long eastern wall, New Mexico Earth Works had to repair big cracks and pour concrete footings to help support the rebuilt adobe. On Aug. 14, 2015, most of the wall sported new adobes. I asked Lucero if the workers used a level. He said they did, but he added that Alan “Mac” Watson didn’t want the walls to be too level: After all, this is an adobe house. Watson, who has a 40-year career working with adobe, is vice chair of the foundation and was sought as a resource on the García project. He said this was one of the worst “cancers” he has seen in an earthen building.

Kaltenbach explained, “Moisture is the biggest issue, and what you see at the García House is years and years of water getting to the walls through leaky roofs, canales, parapets, and cracks in stucco, and along the base of the walls.” He added that the problem is exacerbated by changes in naturally occurring salt crystals in the earth and the water.

Besides the adobe bricks and mortar, two other materials were used. One is dry-packed mortar. “After the adobes are laid with mud joints and it’s all dried, then we come in and fill in any voids with dry-packing. You just push it in and compact it, and it’s just solid and tight.” The other variant Kaltenbach called “cob mix.” This heavy mud-straw concoction is employed in larger quantities to build up concave portions of the wall so it’s all more or less in the same plane. At press time, that was just about finished. Next would come chicken wire to anchor the stucco.

Although cement stucco is a villain in this story, the foundation is going to finish the project with a new coat of just that. Cement’s advantage has always been that maintenance is very minimal. On the other hand, a natural mud or lime plaster must be patched frequently and redone every several years. “This project is a fine balance of budget and necessity,” as Kaltenbach put it.

“This is a great preservation story,” said Pete Warzel, executive director of the foundation, “in that any other owner would have opened this up, seen the cancer, and asked the city for a demolition permit.” He described the García House as “a real piece of vernacular architecture. This is how poor people lived. Every window is different.”

“We have taken on this exceptional undertaking because we feel that the house is an important example of vernacular architecture in Santa Fe,” Watson said, “and that the project allows us to preserve and protect this example of an endangered architectural type. We are proud to be part of preserving it in sound condition for future generations to enjoy and to learn from.”

One of the learning experiences for me was the way these adoberos can make sense of an amorphous-looking puzzle of earth and void and contrive sound remedies by adding more earth, in very specific ways. As Kaltenbach described it, “Adobe is an incredible medium to work with. And combining it with my earth plastering, I believe it is like art for me.”

The project also afforded some priceless experience for Sonia Vinajeras-Gallegos, the 2015 summer intern in the foundation’s Faith and John Gaw Meem Preservation Trades program. The Albuquerque native recently graduated from the University of New Mexico with a master’s degree in architecture and a certificate in historic preservation and regionalism and was able to work with adobe at the García House and with lime plaster at El Zaguán on Canyon Road.

Work on the García House should be complete by mid-November. The project was made possible because the foundation recently sold the small Rivera House at the rear of the same Alto Street property. The price tag will fall somewhere between $80,000 and $100,000, Warzel said. “A lot of the new people who come and buy these old houses don’t have any idea what’s under the surface,” he added. “They imagine it. They see adobes. But if it’s 100, 150 years old, what does it really look like under the concrete?” ◀

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