The Lamy Lime Works
An event of obscure but notable significance took place on a recent Saturday afternoon near Lamy. It wasn't publicized, and those of us lucky enough to have been there felt a special privilege. We were a small group, some a little on the eccentric side, brought together because of our interest in one rather erudite topic -- the principles, history and mechanics of firing lime. Really we were there to celebrate the accomplishments of our youngest colleague, Abe Shaffer, who for the last two years or so has spent every spare moment excavating and restoring the lime kiln that built many historic structures, including the cathedral, in Santa Fe. The Saturday afternoon gathering marked the culmination of his efforts, to be highlighted by the burning of lime in that kiln for the first time in one hundred and twenty years.
We don't typically think of Santa Fe as a town whose architecture has been strongly influenced by the use of lime, but it is. Even buildings that we associate as archetypically adobe have important lime components. The Palace of the Governors, for example, had an early lime wash over mud plaster, and a later full-fledged lime plaster over that. Across Lincoln Avenue from the Palace is Hewitt House, now an annex to the Museum of New Mexico; it also has a lime plaster underneath the visible cement stucco.
These are fairly rudimentary uses of lime, to be sure. Abe's project illuminates a far more sophisticated utilization of lime. The kiln he restored was the starting place for the mortars that bind the ashlars and quoins of the St. Francis Cathedral, provided the fine, plastic material that is the plaster in the Loretto Chapel, and that was used to form the moldings and archivolts in both buildings. It made its way north and was undoubtedly the source for the mortars and plasters in the shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in San Juan Pueblo. It was used in many of the remaining historic buildings on the East Side of the Plaza and in many more that are long gone.
But that is not the story I want to tell. I want to unabashedly admire one young man's commitment (I should say obsession) with a massive project that he began and saw to completion despite some overwhelming odds. Abe first had to get the permission of the landowner to undertake the project, a redoubtable task for a 19-year-old dropout from an Ivy League school whose credibility was suspect. How he convinced the owner that (1) he had the know-how, and (2) that he would not leave an ungodly mess but would ("I promise!") finish the job, is something I am probably not capable of understanding. Congratulations to the property owner whose faith was blind but for whom the payoff is as high as any patron of the arts could expect. Then Abe had to build a road across very rough terrain, set up a camp at which he spent many a weekend, and begin the laborious process of hauling in everything, including water, needed for the restoration.
Along the way other remarkable things happened, chief among them Abe met Marc Simmons, Santa Fe's most loved and popular historian. Marc had to be convinced that he should waste his time with a teenager with no credential but enthusiasm, but he was convinced and a solid friendship grew. Marc, I believe, fell for the project because of Abe's infectious belief that the kiln had played a monumental role in the architectural history of Santa Fe. And, I am equally convinced, because Abe made the argument that the restoration and use of the kiln, even if it were only to be fired once, would re-ignite interest in the materials used to build many of our important buildings and the technologies that produced them. A new and significant chapter could be written, in the present tense.
Together Marc and Abe researched the archives and every conceivable source of information about who built the kiln, and how it was operated. But the sources were few and the gleanings scant. Then, astonishingly, they found the mother lode at an unlikely research depot called The Cerrillos Turquoise Mining Museum and Petting Zoo. There, for sale, are hundreds of old documents, the best already culled, that upon having been discarded from their original archive were used as insulation beneath the floor of the Brown & Manzanares office next to the Castañeda Hotel in Las Vegas. During a remodel they were discarded again and scavenged from a dump for sale in Cerrillos. Enter Marc and Abe who recognized the bookkeeping pertaining to the operation of the kiln. The details are fascinating (and important if you are obsessed), and round out much of the historical record, including answers to the questions of who the builders were, and how the place was run in the 1880s. These bits I will leave for Marc the historian to discuss. Providence is not a realm that I can elaborate.
As the record was coming to light, so was the kiln. Abe conscripted family and a few friends (no attrition, amazingly) to move many, many tons of fill from the mouth and interior of the conical building. He spent months on scaffolding re-pointing the joints of the stone masonry. He measured, and recorded, and stabilized and replaced. Finally he built a grate to cover the top, using the dimensions of the Golden Mean that he found reflected in the kiln's design. The restored building is impressive; the stone masonry inside and out tight and intact and towering over the arroyo bench by some twenty-five feet.
And so to Abe I cede my degree in architectural conservation from a very fancy school in France in recognition that formal training is not a requisite for accomplishment. He finished the kiln and fired it that weekend. What I most admire (aside from his perseverance) is that he assessed the intellectual value of the process of restoration and used it to give life to the bricks and mortar. Abe did a marvelous job; he followed the finest standards in the industry of historic preservation that are, in my view, impeccable craftsmanship and an abiding respect for the design and work of his forbears. He also added something, anathematic behavior in conservation but utterly justified as far as I am concerned. Abe is interested in stone cutting and ashlar masonry, and leaves this month for England to study with the best in the craft. He must have felt that he needed a bit of experience before going off to become a master mason, so he began to practice here. Embedded in the north wing-wall leading to the mouth of the kiln is a white stone, beautifully carved, bearing the words "Lamy Lime Works."
Well done, Abe.