Monday, September 25, 2017

Fifty Shades of Clay

Several years ago – during a Christmas visit with our daughter-in-law and son in Santa Fe, NM – Marsha and I met B, the mother of one of their good friends, who had recently moved to Santa Fe from (as she would say) “Noo Yawk” City.

B told us her first reaction to her new southwest home was,  “Everything is so beige!”  And this is from someone who lived all of her life in the concrete canyons of America’s largest metropolis.  So how should it look to a pair of lifelong New Englanders where we, with little difficulty, intentionally surrounded ourselves with green lawns, green trees, green bushes, green golf fairways and, even greener greens.

But beige is actually the way we like it. And beige is the way Santa Fe was meant to be.  (“Santa Fe has a distinctive architectural style all its own. No other city in the country has so many low-slung, earth-colored buildings made of adobe bricks, which consist of a mixture of sun-dried earth and straw.” According to the Santa Fe Tourism website.)

This style was created by the Pueblo Indians living in the Rio Grande Valley, admired and emulated by the Spanish who arrived in the 16th century, and codified in the early 1900s as “The Santa Fe Style” as a means of turning the entire community into an exotic tourist destination.

Nowadays Pueblo-style houses in Santa Fe are constructed on wooden frames and covered with concrete, mortar or stucco – but still feature the requisite rounded corners, irregular parapets and thick, sloping (“battered) walls and, most importantly, the earth-tone exteriors.  Our son and daughter-in-law’s house built in the 1940s, and our newly acquired Santa Fe home built in 2000 are of the wood and stucco model.

The perpetual beige of the architecture, and the surrounding high desert, mesmerized Marsha and me on our first trip to Santa Fe in 1992 – to the extent that in subsequent years when we chose to vacation in spots other than northern New Mexico we seemed to have opted for similarly oatmeal-colored venues such as the Big Bend region of West Texas or the limestone-land, limestone building island of Malta in the Mediterranean.  Even when we spent time in more conventionally urban locales such as Barcelona, Spain we gravitated to the Sagrada Famiglia church - the possibly never-to-be-finished attempt by the architect Antonio Gaudi to transubstantiate the organic shape, and earthly color of the world into a manmade monument to his God. The texture and shape of that edifice has been described as looking similar to melting wax or sculpted sand – or to Marsha and me like the “hoodoo” stones of Tent Rocks (south of our new home town) – the towering organically offbeat shapes that somehow manage to be both unsettling in their harshly atypical structure and at the same time comforting in their soft lines and colorless color.

And of we course would always return to Santa Fe.

But beige, it turns out, isn’t all there is to be.  There is in fact, believe it or not, actual living color here in northern New Mexico.

Marsha and I sold our house in CT and moved to Santa Fe to begin our house-hunt in the first week of May.  It was, as hard as it was for us to realize, the first time we had been here during the spring season.  We rented a beige Airbnb casita in the beige, residential South Capitol section of town.

In order to combat the calories we were ingesting via Trader Joe’s Chips and Salsa and TJ’s tubs of small cookies we walked the streets and alleys of the neighborhood on a daily basis.  We started each morning with a thirty-or-so minute trip (depending upon the route) to purchase the local morning newspaper from the vendor who set himself up in the road at the area’s main commuting intersection.  (Santa Fe is, in our experience, unique in using this method of getting the news out.)

On our first day we turned the corner from our temporary home to see (of course) a beige stucco wall over-draped (to our surprise) with a blanket of small red bush roses and Russian sage – and footnoted by a phalanx of self-sown Hollyhocks of various hues along each side of the sidewalk.  And along each of the various routes the colors of these and other Santa Fe spring flora such as Spanish Broom (a tall shrub with a riot of fragrant yellow pea-like flowers that you can smell well before they can be seen), bright orange and yellow daisy-like plants, yellow columbine, and more and more Hollyhocks and purple sage.

Our own newly purchased abode came equipped with more subtly colored lavender, primrose and multiple as yet unidentified local desert flowers.

And many of the homes feature brightly colored doors – both the gates guarding the beige courtyards and the entrances to the beige casitas are frequently painted in aggressively vivid reds and blues – some left to weather and peel in a nod to “Santa Fe charm.”

It turns out that the omnipresent beige backdrop provides the perfect blank slate onto which each of us can add our own unique set of colors.  And for those of us with a less-flamboyant nature this is probably just the kind of environment that we need.

Pueblo-style housing
decrees earth-tone outer walls –
fifty shades of clay.


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