An Earthen Builder's Tour of Cerro Gordo
Earthen architecture comes in many forms, among them the troglodytes' desert dwellings of Morocco and Tunisia (as featured in the original Star Wars movie), the rammed earth Alhambra in Granada, the dressed stone laid up in mud at Zuni Pueblo, the stone/earth combination of San Esteven del Rey at Acoma and the classic adobe Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe. Earthen buildings are ubiquitous and account for well over half the structures utilized by human beings on the planet. Occasional and regular readers of this column should have no doubt about my admiration and appreciation of earth as a structural material; and conversely about my disdain for modified, amended and composite materials claiming "earthen" lineage. This month, I have put together a tour of the Cerro Gordo neighborhood illustrating a range of earthen and "adobe" buildings which may illustrate my bias as well as demonstrate a local diversity of earthen architecture.
We begin just off Palace Avenue with a stunning assemblage of adobe buildings at the southwest corner of Cerro Gordo and Gonzales Road. This compound, called "Las Milpas," has over the course of my lifetime gone from a rural agrarian estate to a derelict near-ruin, to the restored/reconstructed compound you see today. It is a pleasure to drive past this property and to admire the commitment of the owners to a historic holding. For all of its aesthetic attributes, which are many, the mud-plastered adobe walls do illustrate one of my pet peeves: the use of a chemical amendment (snake oil if you will) intended to increase the maintenance cycle of the mud.
Though I do not know for sure, I suspect that the walls at Las Milpas were treated with a modified poly-siloxane to repel water, combined with an ethyl or aluminum silicate to harden the outer layer of mud. The response of the walls to these amendments is varied; longevity has no doubt been somewhat enhanced, but the predictable failures inherent to chemical additives are distracting. The hardened surface of the mud is somewhat akin to a Portland cement in that moisture gets behind it and causes delamination. Though it does not erode, at least not rapidly, it does tend to come off in thick "flakes." The flakes will eventually become sheets. Repairs in such cases are somewhat hampered because the amended mud poses an adhesion problem for new material. I would choose a different approach here, using mud with larger aggregate, especially at the crown, bound with a miniscule amount of lime. But, all things considered, I am in awe of this property and hope fervently that maintenance issues do not lead to the "ultimate solution" of Portland cement or, horror of horrors, elastomerics.
Speaking of which, the next stop is on the north side of the road, just a block up the way: 1131 Cerro Gordo. This house is just off the bus. Built in the last year, it is what has come to be known as Santa Fe style, though those who coined the term are twitching under the sage or packing for an extended stay in the anonymity of the adobe-free Midwest. Readers of this column have heard this soap-box rant before: How can one possibly classify as "adobe" a building comprised of blocks saturated with asphalt emulsion, laid up in Portland cement mortar, sprayed with polyurethane, coated with a fiberglass substrate and finished up with an elastomeric render? Oh, well. Onwards and upwards.
At more-or-less 1151, also on the north side, is a classic. This is a small devotional chapel built of local stone laid up in mud mortar. This building has stood for the length of my memory and just a few years ago suffered considerable damage when the tops of the walls failed. It is a bit distressing that the native stone masonry was repaired using stabilized adobe, but here is vernacular architecture at its zenith; no planners, no one with a degree from the Rhode Island School of Design, no engineers, just local folks using local materials and local knowledge doing their thing. I tend to overlook the mix of materials here given the long, unchanged ownership and unaltered use of the building. This is an example of a structure that defies the best efforts of historic design review boards, the Secretary of the Interior's Standards and every other compliance mechanism that would attempt to tame it. The decisions made about maintenance and repair are clearly based on dedication by private parties to a building that is important to them, and the hell with the rest.
The stone in this little building, by the way, is limestone and characteristic of that found and extensively quarried in years past just off Cerro Gordo northwards on Gonzales. The housing development called La Cantera (which means "The Quarry") is built in the remains of a large quarry that I remember well from my early childhood. Limestone and clays were extracted from here and taken to the old penitentiary on Cordova Road where the Montoya and Lujan buildings are now. There the materials were converted to bricks, some with a very highly glazed blue-black finish; thick tiles that you see as curbing along, for example, Palace Avenue at Cathedral park; and the infamous "pen (for penitentiary) tile." This latter became the modern material of choice as Santa Fe grew between the wars and in the immediate post-war era. They are cold and brittle and a restoration contractor's nightmare.
The 1100 block of Cerro Gordo is as real as it gets on the east side. Lots of these homes are still owned by the families that built them a few generations back. Many, happily, have not been sold and gentrified. Look at (but don't touch or buy!) the homes on the south side of the road and up and down Lorenzo Lane; small, generally, and still retaining the flavor of an agrarian past when the flood plain of the Santa Fe River was irrigated in family plots. These buildings are mostly adobe, have grown modestly and been modified over time and are, like the little chapel, built by the seat of someone's pants.
Another house I have always admired is at 109 Armijo, on the north side of Cerro Gordo and facing it. I love the full-length portal and stepped terraces that separate it considerably from the road. Cerro Gordo and upper Canyon Road (on the other side of the river) can, in my view, be a bit claustrophobic. This house, however, took a closed prospect and opened it by leaving bare the area to the road thus augmenting the long view to the south. A former occupant of this property (about 30 years ago) was a close friend. When he bought the place he planted corn in the fields in front. What a sight! Now, I note, the house has been separated from the field and is for sale. Alas, the little home will no doubt be lost to its view.
1402. What's to say? This place is spectacular by any standard and the work done recently, say in the last decade, has been tasteful and reflective of the original workmanship. Again, local ledge stone laid up in mud mortar -- earthen architecture at its best. Note how well the mud mortar has stood up without maintenance for decades. Amazing what a little overhang will do. During the early 1960's I had another friend who lived in the annex on the east side of the stone house. It had been a chicken pen and he converted it to an apartment in exchange for rent. It was fondly called the Pigeon Coop, after the owner at the time.
Next is 1446, a really unfortunate architectural palimpsest. This was a fine looking adobe home until last year when it met Polythene Pam. Though I have my problems with cementitious stucco for technical reasons, I have always thought it a reasonable aesthetic alternative to mud. Not so elastomerics which steadfastly refuse to show any depth, patina or interesting weathering. They don't even change color temporarily when it rains or snows on them. Buildings, to be successful to the eye, must weather; and they should do it with a little poignancy and respectable homeliness. Houses are shelters, after all; they keep us warm and dry by taking the brunt of nature's onslaughts. Let them show it! Sad to say, when this stuff does fail in the weather (I can provide a very long list of examples) it does so leprously with welts and lesions. Let's move on; the real thing is next.
It is said of a mud wall that it will last forever if it is given a good pair of boots and a cap. The unplastered adobe wall at 1448 is exemplary. In this case the cap is of Portland cement -- not a choice I would have made, but pretty successful nonetheless. It is worth noting on a technical basis that the worst erosion on this wall, aside from the uncapped portion to the east, is the coving just under the cement. This is because the impermeable cap prevents the movement of moisture out of the adobe. Capillarity takes the moisture under the cap where it is concentrated. Then, as the drying cycle begins, the water moves outward carrying with it the clay, which is the binder and comes in very fine particles. Without the binder, the aggregate, which is the durable element, falls away.
The grouping of homes at 1660 to 1664 has it all; stone, adobe, irrigation ditches, ancient trees. And a mix of owners. There are a number of little compounds like this along Cerro Gordo, and they exemplify the old, extended family, agrarian settlement pattern that was intact in this area from the 18th century until just 40 years ago.
There is another little gem at 1699, and this one will end the drive-by tour. On the south side of the road is a little stone structure that from above could be a chapel, but appears really to be a barn converted to a garage or storage building. As out buildings go, this one is a charmer. (Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and a realtor friend tells me this thing looks like a snake pit.) Nevertheless I, who do not have to deal with potential buyers or herpephobes, love the simple layout and construction and the massive stone buttress that lends an assist to a failing corner (and the other under construction). Structures like this tend to get lost, and as they go so do the reference points that tell the neighborhood story.
Despite the lessons offered by the architecture, it is perhaps the industrial installments on Cerro Gordo that enchant me the most. There used to be windmill on E. DeVargas Street, right down town, but my father and I were hired to take it down decades ago. Similarly the windmills are all gone from Agua Fria Village and elsewhere in Santa Fe. If for no other reason, take a drive up Cerro Gordo to look at the windmills -- charming relicts of sights once seen in Santa Fe.