Monday, December 04, 2017

Mud Homes on Dirt Roads

I feel at rest when I am moving – striding through wide-open land; winding my way through rocks and trees; or even weaving through a gallery of statues at a museum.  On the go I enjoy equally the awareness of emptiness, and the feeling of proximity as I proceed through either open or closed spaces.

Back in Wethersfield Connecticut the houses were too far back to be aware of when you walked by.  Here in Santa Fe, New Mexico on the other hand, a stroll in the neighborhood can be like weaving your way through a high-desert sculpture garden. 

“The traditional pattern of residential development consisted of adobe buildings lining narrow streets that were built with little or no setback.  Residences were often built around a central patio, or placita.  In the often harsh desert climate, the placita offered privacy and refuge from the dust and noise of the streets and formed the nucleus of activity.  New rooms or separate structures were built around the placita to keep pace with the growing needs of the extended families.  Because of the pivotal role played by the placita in family and social activities, landscaping and architectural details were reserved for the area.  Thus, facades of the residences along the streets often provided a deceptive impression of what lay inside.  With this style, housing units could be built close to each other without sacrificing privacy.  Remnants of this development pattern can be found in areas settled during the Colonial Period, such as the Canyon Road neighborhood and the area surrounding the Plaza.”  (1999 Santa Fe General Plan)

Our new home in Santa Fe, built in 2001, has that same little setback and that same deceptive impression of what lay inside, and (best of all) has one of those placitas.  As I look out our office window our north side neighbor’s stucco wall is almost within arm’s reach. And the house on the other side provides the southern privacy barrier for our central patio. 

Marsha and I came to New Mexico in May and during our four months of house hunting in we had the opportunity to experience some of the other ways that this residential tradition plays out in New Mexico’s capitol.

Like many cities Santa Fe’s first development began along its main source of water, the eponymous River, and along the acequias (or irrigation ditches) that fed from it.  The pattern of this development was an incremental reaction to the growth of an extended family settlement – not a predesigned plan.  The streets are small and winding, not uniform – the adobe-constructed houses are close to each other and built right up to the road.  These are the classic Santa Fe neighborhoods.  And Marsha and I were able to wander through some of them – such as Acequia Madre – during our Apodaca Hill Airbnb stay on Upper Canyon Road.

“The very phrase Acequia Madre – Mother Ditch – suggests something rough and elemental: a primordial slash in the earth from which life springs.  Yet Acequia Madre is one of the priciest streets in Santa Fe. That’s Santa Fe, where mud homes on dirt roads are prime real estate. A few minutes’ stroll will convince you of the neighborhood’s charm. Softly curved walls, aged Mexican doors with weathered paint, cascades of wisteria and drowsy willows: this road that runs along the eponymous waterway – and parallels famed Canyon Road– is iconic Eastside Santa Fe.  Romantic and time bound.” (


This vernacular adobe motif – along with a smattering of Victorian, Pueblo Revival and Craftsman Bungalow buildings  – appears in what is now called the South Capitol area where Marsha and I spent our first three-and-one-half months when first we moved out here.  Built at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries – and at that time the Jewish section of town according to our Airbnb property manager – this locality consists mostly of narrow streets arranged in a right angle grid pattern.  Yet, just to keep you on your toes, some roadways wind randomly and others abruptly become dirt alleyways with the front portals of small casitas set up against them. 

Again here, as in the traditional pattern, space between structures is minimal and the buildings butt against the streets or narrow sidewalks.  And, as it was in the beginning, residences can be quit small.  Our rental, e.g., was a one bed, one bath, 600 square foot adobe casita, which is part of a compound of four other like-sized sun-dried brick residences.  ($225K for the casita, not the compound, per, if you care – remember, “mud houses on mud roads”.)  A metal nameplate reading “E. Whitman & Co, 1928” on the concrete base of one of the badly-in-need-of-tarring roads seemed to be telling me that in Santa Fe pretty much everything is attached to a certain past moment in time.            

 After World War II returning veterans, and increasing government and other jobs locally necessitated significant amounts of affordable housing – and led to the first real “suburban” look in the City Different, the Casa Solana development where our daughter-in-law and son now live.  Located in a moderately hilly area northwest of downtown, partially on the former site of a Japanese Internment Camp, it was built by now legendary developer Alan Stamm and follows the traditional pueblo style housing, but with prominent garages and larger yards and setbacks than found elsewhere in town.   But there is still that feeling of architectural closeness.

As Marsha and I walked with our son and grand-dog through their neighborhood Thanksgiving afternoon we were noticing that although Casa Solana has more of a suburban look, due to the street layout, and larger lots with usable yards it still had the feel of  “Santa Fe Style”.  Marsha mentioned that, in our former New England Colonial house in Connecticut after Bram grew up and no longer used our yard as a play area for he and his friends the lawn became more of a ongoing project rather than a piece of usable space – land for the sake of having land, maintained to show that you can afford to have and expend your time and money on frivolous things.

In the late 1990s Santa Fe again felt the need to strategically look at future development with a plan that emphasized items such as affordable housing, quality of life, sustainable growth, water conservation, and most importantly character:

“Maintain and respect Santa Fe’s unique personality, sense of place and character…Residents have unequivocally stated that new growth should not erode the qualities that contribute to Santa Fe’s unique character and ambience.”

Unique features such as placitas so that even out here in the largely unspoiled rural high desert housing units could be built close to each other without sacrificing privacy.  Which in turn allowed the designer of our community to preserve fifty percent of the land as “natural open space and parks, separating and defining a unique collection of villages.”

The homes are stucco, not mud.  The roads (and some of the hiking trails) are paved, not dirt.  And there are spaces for kids to play, streets and alleys to weave through, and open fields to explore – not mow. 

You know – Marsha and I kind of like this time-bound Santa Fe tradition thing. 


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