Painter Randall Davey’s house is like a time portal to 1964. Bookcases and shelves are full of Davey’s books and his classical music albums. The silverware and dishes are in their proper places in the kitchen, and all his brushes and tools and paints and easels are in his studio, ready to use. The house at the end of Upper Canyon Road is full of family photos and framed, painted portraits, including several large nudes of his second wife. But Davey will not walk in to offer you a drink from the retro bar; he’s been dead since 1964.
Now the home of Audubon New Mexico, the Davey House celebrated the 100th anniversary of the arrival in Santa Fe of artists Davey and John French Sloan this month.
Davey’s abode began life as a stone sawmill. Following the 1846 American takeover of Santa Fe, the U.S. Army built the mill to provide lumber for the construction of Fort Marcy. Almost 75 years later, Davey and Sloan discovered the old mill. The artists, who had both shown paintings in New York’s Armory Show of 1913, were inspired by stories of Santa Fe’s light, scenery, and architecture, related to them by a mentor, artist Robert Henri, who had painted in Santa Fe in 1916 and 1917. So, in 1919, the men and their wives, Florence Davey and Dolly Sloan, loaded up a Simplex touring car and hit the road.
“The trip took six weeks,” says Bob Basler, a docent for the Davey house and studio, and a member of Friends of Randall Davey. “Sloan wrote about it later, enumerating the things that slowed them down. He used the phrase ‘the imminence of prohibition’ because they were people who really loved to drink and apparently they were taking advantage of taverns while they still could.”
Once in Santa Fe, they looked up Sheldon Parsons, another artist who had moved to the capital city, in his case because of the area’s healthy climate for tuberculosis sufferers. “He put them in his buckboard to show them around,” Basler says. “They went all the way to the end of Canyon Road and saw that this was for sale.” The following year, Davey bought the property.
Sloan went on to spend more than 30 summers in Santa Fe, living and painting in a house on Garcia Street. But Davey took up permanent residence in 1920. He converted the two-story central section of the old sawmill into his home. He built additions, including his studio, using the native adobe-brick technology.
When you go into the house, it’s difficult not to notice the huge hand-hewn beam running its length and anchoring a series of lateral beams that support the roof. One of the first things Davey did was to have a trough cut all the way down the big beam for reinforcement with steel — to guarantee support for the second story and its floor of poured concrete.
In the dark bar, you see the original stone construction in two unfinished walls. Against one of them stands an old barrel. Davey’s first 13 years in Santa Fe corresponded with the duration of the National Prohibition Act. Basler says the artist compensated for that deficiency by periodically sending the barrel off to a moonshiner in Arroyo Hondo for a refill.
The old stone house is very quiet. The thickness of the walls show up particularly in the deep sills, some of which hold large potted geraniums. The extent to which everything is unchanged, especially in Davey’s studio, is due to the efforts of Kate Cullum, Davey’s sister-in-law. “Almost all the art in this house is Davey’s,” says Carl Beal, manager of the Randall Davey Audubon Center and Sanctuary. “Davey’s second wife, Isabel, had a rule against hanging anybody else.”
The New Jersey native took courses in drawing and architecture at Cornell University and studied painting with Henri in New York City. While he obviously loved Santa Fe, none of its distinctive clothing, buildings, or landscapes are discernible in his art. “Davey was a bon vivant and a raconteur, but after he was enticed to come out here because of the scenery and color and everything, he just went indoors and started painting nudes again, which he could have done on the East Coast,” Basler says. “If you look at his work, there’s hardly anything that says ‘Santa Fe,’ like you see in Georgia O’Keeffe and Gustave Baumann and so many others.”
Davey painted one of the framed portraits on the walls in sittings with Cullum, who survived Davey and in fact was the last family member to live on the property. She also got the ball rolling on the donation of the property, ultimately to the National Audubon Society. “Audubon took ownership in 1985, and this has been the state Audubon office since 1995,” says Jon Hayes, executive director of Audubon New Mexico. “One of the things we hope this center does is serve as a gateway into conservation and nature. People who come here to see the house may stick around and walk on the trails and maybe see bird species they’ve never seen before and realize more about the natural beauty of Santa Fe.”
Virtually every painted image in the house and studio (as well as a couple of etchings and two small figurative sculptures) is by Davey. One exception is the only known portrait of Florence Davey, by George Bellows. “The reason is that in 1930, Davey got a major commission to do a portrait of Cyrus McCormick III,” Basler explains. “The McCormicks had a place in Nambé, and in the course of coming here for sittings, Cyrus and Florence fell in love, then they got divorced and married. After that, Davey methodically set about destroying everything he’d ever done of her.”
He married Isabel “Bell” Holt in 1932. She is the resplendent (and over-endowed in this painting)subject of the dominant painting in the parlor. Basler tells a pithy story about this work, Nude With Geraniums. “In 1985, Audubon had a huge auction of Davey material and sold a hundred of his paintings, including this one, to fund an endowment. A businessman here bought it for $19,800 and shipped it to a farmhouse he had in Virginia. His wife was staying there at the time, and he told her, ‘Look what I got.’
“When she took the lid off the crate, she said, ‘Not in my house!’ So he sheepishly called Audubon and said he had a painting he wanted to donate. He met them in the parking lot at Tomasita’s, and we got the painting back.”
Besides being a prolific artist, Davey was also a seminal breeder of Arabian horses in the Southwest. Beal refers to a six-page article published this year, in Issue No. 4 of Arabian Horse Life magazine. In it, author Tobi Lopez Taylor writes, “Randall Davey, who preferred painting horses to almost any other subject, might have taken some satisfaction in knowing that his mare Santa Fe — his sole contribution to Arabian breeding — would become a progenitor of note.”
Davey lived in the house for 44 years, until his death in a driving accident at age 77. His grave, and Bell’s, are near the house.
Tours of the house are held at 2 p.m. on most Fridays of the year.
“For my money, it’s the best-kept secret in Santa Fe,” Basler says. “It’s on the radar of every concierge, but locals just don’t seem to know about it.” ◀
▼ Randall Davey Audubon Center and Sanctuary, 1800 Upper Canyon Road
▼ Suggested donation $5; 505-983-4609 ext. 23, randalldavey.audubon.org