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Stuck on the Mud

Jack Smith

J. Tylee Wilson, the former chairman of the board of RJR Nabisco, found much to like when he visited Santa Fe for the first time 15 years ago: art galleries, museums, the Spanish and Native American cultures, the climate, and the stark beauty of New Mexico’s high desert. He and his wife, Pat, enjoyed the town so much that on a subsequent visit they began looking for a place to build a Santa Fe pied-à-terre. However, it never occurred to Wilson that he might wind up living in a house made of mud.

"I prefer to call it adobe," he says.

Adobe, then. But regardless of what it is called, the residence that Santa Fe architect Robert Ritter designed for Wilson is long and massive and stunning. Its baronial reception hall has a 15-foot-high ceiling and numerous nichos (niches) that showcase Wilson’s collections of Indian pottery, weavings, and beading. The doors throughout the dwelling are equipped with hardware as hefty and as elaborately detailed as that on medieval town gates. "We use door pulls instead of knobs," says Ritter. "Every artist in the world comes out here to make it in the galleries. When they don’t, they wind up in construction. So we have the world’s greatest artisans."

Ritter himself is no slouch in this respect. He designed and constructed much of the furniture for the Wilsons’ home, including the living-room coffee table, which he crafted from mesquite and adorned with hardware from saddles and gun holsters.

The Jemez Mountains and a dormant volcano in the distance offer dramatic visual counterpoints to the interior. "When friends come out here," says Wilson, "they say how beautiful it all is, how different. And if they know anything about the West, they’ll say how Western. I think that with this house, Bob has really captured the flavor of the West."

Still, what most distinguishes this home from the other 12 that Wilson has owned around the country is the mud. "This house is built from 53,000 adobe bricks," Wilson says. "Here in Santa Fe, if you’re a purist, you have to have adobe."

At one time, everybody in this part of the country lived in adobe. The term, Spanish-Moorish in origin, has three meanings: the earth, the bricks into which the earth and straw are formed, and the houses that are built of those bricks. The Pueblo Indians were building with mud here for millennia before the Spaniards arrived. Like the ancient (and, in some cases, current) inhabitants of North Africa, the Middle East, Mesoamerica, and the Andes, the Pueblos recognized that adobe was a simple and cost-effective form of construction (provided that labor is inexpensive, because building with adobe is labor-intensive); all a pre-Columbian builder had to do was dig up the earth where he planned to build, mix that dirt with water and straw, and then mold it into something that resembled a house, temple, or fortress. This process produced such landmarks as the Taos Pueblo, located an hour’s drive north of Santa Fe. The sprawling condominium, which is at least 550 years old, remains inhabited by the descendants of its builders.

When the Spaniards arrived in the Southwest, adobe construction became more sophisticated. The Europeans poured the earth-and-straw mix into wooden forms and set it out in the sun to bake. Once these bricks hardened, builders could set them in place with a coating of more mud that served as mortar and form larger, more complex structures.

In addition to being easy to build, ancient adobes, like modern ones, had physical properties that made them particularly inhabitable. An adobe is naturally warmer in winter and cooler in summer than are other types of dwellings, and its walls absorb sound waves, bestowing an almost eerie quiet on its interiors. Adobe construction also is durable. With a little daubing on the walls to replace worn spots, even the most humble structures can last for millennia.

But these characteristics alone do not explain why, as Wilson suggests, some homeowners in the City Different—as this community of about 65,000 styles itself—will settle for nothing but adobe in their high-desert Xanadus. In other parts of the country, people don’t know or care how many bricks or shingles have gone into their seaside cottages or brownstone manses.

"Adobe lies at the heart of everything that is Santa Fe," says Christine Mather, coauthor of Santa Fe Houses (Clarkson Potter, 2002), whose own home, naturally, is crafted from adobe. "It’s a link to our past, a time before everything was mass-produced. But it is not for everyone." Indeed, Mather explains, the owner of an adobe house makes a commitment. The accoutrements people take for granted in other homes—plumbing, wiring, closets—must be built into the walls as they are being erected. If you plan to hang a portrait in the living room, you first have to install a "gringo block," a brick-sized block of wood, in place of the adobe behind the interior plaster, so that you can drive a nail into the wall. Nevertheless, says Mather, for the aficionado, an adobe home is the ultimate work of art. "There are no two adobe homes alike," he says. "Each one is an individual piece of sculpture."

today santa fe is as much a brand as it is a place. It has become the epicenter of cowboy chic, and it is perhaps the only town with both a potato chip and an automobile named for it. Even the most prosaic structures here convey a sense of tradition and romance. State buildings, museums, grocery stores, and strip malls are sepia-toned—like faded photographs—and crowned with vigas (timber beams) or canales (decorative downspouts). The structures seem to billow from the ground like inflatable sculpture. Collectively, they confer a kind of Southwestern feng shui on the streetscape.

The town’s nostalgic, displaced-in-time look is by design, not by accident. The master plan was conceived in 1912, the year New Mexico attained statehood. Those were hard times for Santa Fe. The cattle drives that once fueled the local economy were gone, and without them the town appeared destined to become a backwater. In the hope of reversing the decline, the town fathers turned to Santa Fe’s longest-standing landmark, the Palace of the Governors.

Built in 1610, the palace is the oldest public building in the United States, and it features a block-long covered porch in front, vigas extending overhead, a flat roof, and walls with gently rounded corners. More to the point, the building attracted travelers, and its allure was not lost on civic-minded Santa Feans. What if, some asked, the entire town emulated the appearance of the palace? Might Santa Fe then draw even more tourists? Thus the city embarked on a development plan that would preserve the narrow, winding streets and require that all new structures embody what has become known as the Spanish-Pueblo Revival architectural style.

What had been a civic-spirited recommendation became law in 1958. The city enacted an ordinance requiring new and rebuilt buildings in historic districts to exhibit ?a Pueblo or Spanish Territorial design. (Spanish Territorial is a form of Pueblo architecture distinguished by portals or porches, sloped roofs that are often made of tin, and brightly painted window frames and doors.) However, because of the rising cost of adobe bricks and the labor-intensive nature of working with them, builders abandoned adobe in favor of concrete blocks, wood frames, and other less-expensive construction materials and methods. Once covered with stucco, this "faux-dobe," as the locals call it, looks like the real thing.

Meanwhile, since the early part of the 20th century, Santa Fe had been undergoing another, no less profound metamorphosis, promoted by banking heiress Mabel Dodge Luhan, a patroness of the arts and hostess of salons from Florence, Italy, to Greenwich Village. In 1919, Luhan settled in the mountain community of Taos, which is located some 50 miles north of Santa Fe. There she established an artists’ and writers’ colony, attracting such icons as D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Wolfe, Willa Cather, Carl Jung, Georgia O’Keeffe, Leopold Stokowski, and Greta Garbo.

Though Luhan did not think highly of Santa Fe—she once described it as a "mud hovel"—similar art colonies soon emerged there. Thus the state capital became a popular place for wealthy Eastern families to send their sons and daughters, nieces and nephews who did not fit in with the straitlaced society or the family firm in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, or Chicago. In Santa Fe, eccentrics had the freedom to be whomever or whatever they wanted to be.

"Santa Fe was one big alternative community," explains architect John Midyette, who restored the Santa Fe Opera after a cataclysmic fire in 1967. "People would arrive and be welcomed with parties that lasted for days. They used to dress in costume a lot. The backdrop, the look of the town, became part of the fantasy."

a hotbed of bohemianism, Santa Fe also emerged as a fashionable place to visit. Then, in 1992, it became an equally prestigious place to live when the Lyle Anderson development company opened Las Campanas, a 4,700-?acre gated community located just northwest of town. Las Campanas has magnificent views of the Sangre de Cristo and Jemez mountains, two Jack Nicklaus–designed golf courses, an equestrian center, and a number of multimillion-dollar adobe residences, including J. Tylee Wilson’s.

"It was Las Campanas that spurred the resurgence in adobe," Midyette says as he leads the way through his Santa Fe studio and into his adjoining home, where a cockatoo flies across the room and perches on his shoulder. "The mass market still buys faux-dobe, but at the high end, there are more genuine adobe homes being built in Santa Fe than ever before. After all, if you’re going to spend a couple million dollars for a showplace home, you’re going to want the real thing."

For Midyette and other architects, adobe presents an artistic freedom that other forms of construction cannot offer. "It’s free-flowing," he explains. "With adobe you can do anything you want. You’re not limited to a set floor plan. And this isn’t the Hamptons, where the emphasis is on street appeal or a status facade."

Indeed, the view from the inside, not the outside, characterizes architect Mike Fischer’s Crescent House. Before sketching a single line of his adobe masterpiece, Fischer studied the hill on which it would be situated. "I was climbing trees, peering through branches, watching sunrises and sunsets, trying to capture the view," he says. He did not rush things; Fischer spent a year gazing at the Sangre de Cristo and Jemez mountains, the Rio Grande, and the cityscape beyond, after which he was ready to sculpt a house as dramatic as the view it commanded. He had built 100 dwellings using adobe exclusively, but the Crescent House incorporates features rarely seen in an adobe.

The interiors of most adobe homes include kivas, or beehive-shaped fireplaces, and nichos, two of the more popular conventions of Spanish Pueblo decor. However, the word kiva also can refer to a sacred place, a sanctuary, or, in the case of the Crescent House, a 30-foot-diameter guesthouse. The roof of Fischer’s kiva serves as a patio around which the entire upstairs living space extends. One enters Crescent House via an elevator crafted from Lexan, a transparent material used to make aircraft canopies. On the second level, steel and natural wood vigas, windows, interior walls, cabinets, and even the rosy travertine floors are curved. Fischer wants the house to stand on its own as a work of art, so furnishings are minimal. As a nod to convention, the kitchen features a rotund kiva that can cook a pizza. "I know," says Fisher. "I’ve done it."

Other adobe houses might have as many kivas as they have rooms, and sometimes a dozen or more nichos will be molded into a single wall to display works of art, candles, artifacts, or shrines. The walls themselves can be coated with dull or high-gloss beeswax, or they can be left untreated, retaining the appearance of dried mud, with the straw still visible.

"You just want to take a bite out of it, don’t you?" architect Tony Atkin asks as he points to one of the unfinished adobe walls in his home. Atkin found a location for the modern, geometric structure that would mitigate the harsh desert climate and capture the most appealing views, and then a crew began digging on-site for mud. Once the two-story dwelling had taken shape, workers installed a roof system that collects water for the adjacent herb gardens. Windows, roof overhangs, and a contemporary veranda maximize solar gain in winter and shade in summer. A natural channel leads water from the roof, over rocks, and along the front of the residence to humidify the air and add a musical note to the house.

Although construction is now complete, Atkin expects that he will continue to work on the house as long as he resides there. "The Pueblos have a ritual," he says. "Every year they go out and remud the walls. They make a party out of it. That’s what I expect to do."

Atkin walks over to a deck and looks toward the setting sun. "This is my 80-mile view," he says, pointing out the Jemez Mountains in front of him, the Sandia Mountains to one side, and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains behind him. "When I sit out here with a glass of wine, or feel the straw in the walls inside, I feel like a very lucky man."

with such a view, Atkin’s house does not need a meditation room—another common feature in adobe homes. The floors of these spaces traditionally are coated with a mixture of mud and ox blood, which, if all goes well, dries to a hard finish. Santa Feans still talk of the builder who included a meditation room in a home that he constructed on spec at the Las Campanas community. His crew evidently used the wrong proportion of ingredients, and the mystical mix refused to dry. For several years thereafter, anyone who walked through the sacred space stuck to the floor like a bug on flypaper.

The restoration project that won architect Craig Hoopes both the New Mexico Historic Preservation Division and Santa Fe Historic Preservation awards for 2006 is a more successful example of a traditional adobe. "This place was a rabbit warren when we first got in," says Hoopes as he unlocks the door to the main house on the property, a family compound that was constructed in the late 1800s. Hoopes planned to remove the home’s later additions while preserving its original elements, including the carved corbels and architraves, the Mexican tile work, and the original kivas. He also revitalized the door frames, nichos, and walls by applying a fresh coat of mud. "We tried to restore the house in a very understated manner," says Hoopes, as he looks around the living room and then pokes his head into a built-in steel vault before moving on to the bedroom. "Our intention was to restore the flow of the house, its sense of proportion. There’s a lot of integrity to these old adobe homes, a sense of weight you just don’t get in frame construction."

Occasionally, says Hoopes, people become carried away when designing the interiors. "You’ll see a corbel supporting a beam and fancy designs carved in the wood and painted all colors of the rainbow," he says. "Or nichos everywhere surrounded by tile work. One of the joys of this project was demonstrating that you can take a modest house and maintain its original style while making it lovely and usable by today’s standards."

In the bedroom, he casts a glance at the latillas, the slender strips of cottonwood that form the ceiling, and says, "Originally those latillas would have been covered with a foot of dirt for insulation. But there’s such a thing as carrying authenticity too far."

When drawing near to Saddleback Ranch, it can be difficult to tell where authenticity ends and fantasy begins. The $15.5 million cowboy ideal was created for Richard Fisher, a New York real estate tycoon and philanthropist who died in 2006. The main ranch house is a handsome, broad-shouldered structure. With the American flag waving high above its parapets and vigas casting shadows down its sculpted facade, the residence recalls a cavalry fort on the Western frontier. "There are over 100,000 adobe bricks in this house," notes architect Eric Enfield, the owner’s representative for the 2,500-acre property, as we move down a hall and into the reception room, which has a vaulted ceiling and a massive, two-way stone fireplace. "There are single and double adobe in the interior walls," he says in reference to the number of brick layers that form the walls, "single and double adobe in the stables, and triple adobe on the outside walls.

"And look here," Enfield adds as he opens the door of a closet to reveal the adobe bricks that form the space’s interior. "Imagine using genuine adobe to build the closets. Usually people use wooden frame for the inside of houses. And here," he points out, "is a gringo block for driving a nail from the other side."

it has become a truism that people come to Santa Fe in search of fantasy, but sometimes, says Robert Ritter, "fantasy and reality collide." That happened about two years ago, when he was driving a prospective client along the long dirt road that leads to his ranch. "We came around a corner, and there were a pair of Mexicans with three horses and guns in their holsters," Ritter says. "One of them had blood on his sleeve. They looked for all the world like cattle rustlers. And where was the third horseman?"

However, the interlopers complied when the rugged, 6-foot-6 Texan ordered them to leave his property. Unshaken—or perhaps energized—by that incident, his passenger, Peter Frank, a former managing partner of Pricewater?houseCoopers, hired Ritter to build his retreat in the Tesuque hills. "I used the same materials as in the Wilson house," notes Ritter as he wheels his big black Chevy Suburban through the village of Tesuque. "I just used them differently."

"Differently" is an understatement. The home’s sleek, rectilinear walls are not readily recognizable as adobe. The front gate opens to a rectangular courtyard containing an abstract sculpture by Pueblo Dan Namingha. The house’s minimalist interior calls to mind an urban art museum rather than a Southwestern-style country home.

"Watch out," says Frank as he rushes over to prevent his visitor from walking into one of the 10½-by-18-foot panes of glass that form a transparent wall in the living room. "My wife wants to put butterfly decals on the glass to warn people that there’s something there, but . . . ." He literally shudders at the thought of decals stuck on his vast expanses of glass. "I wanted this house to be simple; I wanted everything to be the same." As a result, he says, the house is perfectly cubical. The walls are uniform from room to room and burnished to a high gloss.

In Frank’s home office, a Japanese waterfall trickles discreetly off to one side. All of the room’s paintings and sculptures appear to be by Namingha or his son, Arlo. Remarkably, given the recurrent design elements and the monochromatic walls, the home appears spectacular, not sterile. It is at once streamlined and tactile.

"I’m an old accountant," says Frank, centering a red vase on a square table. "I wanted everything in the house to work. That’s the great thing about adobe: It’s malleable; it’s plastic; you can do anything with it you want."

Then, looking out the window to a more conventional adobe house below, Frank shakes his head. "Now why on earth would that man have painted his roof blue?" 

THE MUDVILLE FIVE

Architects from around the country, including these five, have come to Santa Fe, drawn by the chance to work with adobe. Here in the high desert they re-create the traditional, meld the classic with the contemporary, and forge new forms in this ancient medium.

John Midyette
When Midyette, a Virginia native who lived and studied in New Orleans for many years, first visited Santa Fe in 1962, he did not know what to make of it: "There was all that adobe and mud and free-flowing lines," he says. Nevertheless, in 1966 he relocated to the city, and the next year he was named the lead architect for the rebuilding of the Santa Fe Opera, which had been destroyed by fire. Midyette’s designs combine ancient elements with a modern idiom. The house he did for one corporate CEO, for instance, features a dining room that is shaped like a kiva and has wooden latillas interwoven beneath a skylight. John T. Midyette III & Associates Architects, 505.983.2639

Robert Ritter
An artist and artisan as well as an architect, Ritter, a fifth-generation Texan, possesses a love of Western lore that is evident in the 40-foot-diameter floor mural he created for the Texas State History Museum. Designed to be viewed from the four-story stairway that rises above it, the mural recounts the history of Texas in a 250,000-piece terrazzo framed in welded brass. The houses Ritter creates, which can range from 2,500 square feet to more than 20,000 square feet, typically feature grand entrances and vistas extending from one end of the structure to the other. Robert T. Ritter Studios, 505.984.3006

Craig Hoopes
"Santa Fe is a designer’s paradise," says Hoopes. "I love the idea that if you want to customize a front door, you can find people to do that for you."

Hoopes, a native of Baltimore, is best known for his historic adobe renovations and restorations. The new homes that Hoopes designs can be starkly minimalist and modern. Because of the time required when working with adobe, Hoopes creates only about three private homes each year. "We are building somebody’s dream," he says, "not manufacturing it." Hoopes + Associates Architects, 505.986.1010, www.hoopesarchitects.com

Mike Fischer
For more than 30 years, Fischer has been combining traditional adobe materials, Pueblo influences, and a keen appreciation for the New Mexico landscapes to create homes he calls "sculptural residences." Fischer, a native of Washington state, initially worked as a laborer to learn how to mix, lay, and shape adobe bricks. He discovered that making adobe perfect is neither possible nor desirable. "The slight imperfections give a home an inviting quality that a precision-built place can’t match," he explains. Fischer works exclusively in adobe, and in some instances, such as with the Crescent House (left), he excavates the land to situate the structure within it. Santa Fe Adobe Design, 505.820.0790, www.santafeadobedesign.com

Tony Atkin
Before opening an office in Santa Fe, Atkin’s Philadelphia-based firm became known for its work in sustainable architecture. He thinks of his own dwelling in Santa Fe as an extension of what the Pueblos were doing 400 years ago. "It’s the greenest form of architecture there is," he says. "You just decide where you want to live and start digging. There’s no need to transport materials from far away, and everything is natural." Atkin Olshin Schade Architects, 505.982.2133, www.aosarchitects.com

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