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The story of the Pueblo Revival in New Mexico

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The Pueblo Revival style or Santa Fe style is a regional architectural style of the Southwestern United States, which draws its inspiration from Santa Fe de Nuevo México’s traditional Pueblo architecture, the Spanish missions, and Territorial Style. It’s revival in New Mexico was unique and created a stamp on the city. 

While Arizona, New Mexico, and eventually, California, were the epicenter of this architectural movement, a few Pueblo Revival style buildings reached the Pacific Northwest.  An early example was built in 1909 at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (the Utah State Building), but most examples found in Washington State date to the 1920s and 30s.  Those examples however only boast small decorative elements of the style. This broader diffusion has creeped all across North America, even into some parts of Canada. You will see elements of the style in many places you travel to, so keep reading to find out about all the key stylistic elements that make up Pueblo Architecture. 

History of Pueblo People and Architecture 

Pueblo architecture comes from the traditional dwellings of the Puebloans, or Pueblo peoples, a southwestern Native American tribe. In Spanish, pueblo translates to “village,” referring to the Puebloans’ iconic style of building. Puebloans first began building pueblo structures between 750-900 CE, but were inspired by the Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings dating as far back as AD 1150.

Each of the 70 or more Pueblo villages extant before Spanish colonization was politically autonomous, governed by a council composed of the heads of religious societies. Those societies were centred in the kivas, subterranean ceremonial chambers that also functioned as private clubs and lounging rooms for men. Traditionally, Pueblo peoples were farmers, with the types of farming and associated traditions of property ownership varying among the groups. Along the Rio Grande and its tributaries, corn (maize) and cotton were cultivated in irrigated fields in river bottoms. Among the western Puebloans, especially the Hopi, farming was less reliable because there were few permanent water sources. Traditionally, women did most of the farming, but as hunting diminished in importance, men also became responsible for agricultural work. Many of the Rio Grande Puebloans had special hunting societies that hunted deer and antelope in the mountains, and easterly Puebloans such as the Taos and Picuris sometimes sent hunters to the Plains for bison. Among all Pueblo peoples, communal rabbit hunts were held, and women gathered wild plants to eat.

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Pueblo architecture is most commonly constructed from adobe, though stone was used when available. Building structures are flat-roofed, with the roof supported by wooden beams, vigas, and small perpendicular beams, latillas. Vigas typically protrude beyond the building structure. In larger communities, many pueblo homes are stacked in multistory terraces with setbacks. These communities also often include kivas, partially underground circular ceremonial rooms, as well as courtyards or plazas. 

Early Spanish colonists encountered in many of the villages in the region (after they began colonizing the area after the late 16th century). While people living in Pueblo villages share a common form of architecture and communal life, as well as overlapping ancestries, they are also quite diverse—culturally, ethnically, and linguistically. Although interrelated, distinct customs and forms of social organization are found within the various Pueblo villages. Individuals’ participation in various social groups may reflect familial ties, ceremonial responsibilities, access to ritual knowledge, gender affiliations, and differences in migration histories and relationships to place. Throughout their lifetimes, Pueblo community members are affiliated with various social and ritual groups, frequently spanning across multiple villages.

Some contemporary Pueblo villages have been occupied continuously for a period of 1,000 years or longer. Ancestral Pueblo occupation within the larger region extends back even further. We know this through both Puebloan oral tradition and archaeological sites—better referred to as “footprints”—that dot the landscape throughout the region. Examples of such “footprints” include rock art sites and ancestral villages that are no longer actively occupied but embody traces of the ancestors who came before.
 

The Revival in New Mexico

After statehood, in 1912, New Mexico began to grow and change more quickly. Politicians, businessmen, artists and archeologists were involved in making decisions about how New Mexico should grow. Tourism was the key to economic development, and the “Santa Fe Plan” was created to promote and maintain a characteristic regional style based on ancient pueblo architecture. The model for this architecture was the mission churches of Acoma and Isleta, and the sculpted adobe masses of Taos Pueblo. The New Mexico Museum of Art and the La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe, both built by the architectural firm of Rapp and Rapp, first set the example for this type of building. Spanish colonial details such as carved and painted vigas, herringbone patterned latillas, and hand-carved furniture were also incorporated in these buildings. This became known as “Pueblo Spanish Revival” or “Santa Fe Style.”

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There is a reason, however, that the style became so predominant in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and it doesn’t come all down to preference. The adherence to the style wasn’t always the norm: there was a period when architects and city planner pushed to “Americanize” and modernize the city. There was a push to build new structures in Italianate, Romanesque, Neo-Classical, and other European styles. Local leaders hoped this architectural posturing would help convince Congress to let New Mexico into the Union. At the time, the people in the territory were largely indigenous or Hispanic. Many congressional leaders perceived the region as a dusty foreign outpost unlikely to integrate into mainstream American culture. While the city was pushed in this direction, finally New Mexico became a state in 1912. It, however, wasn’t standing out, and was in fact waning in popularity. Planners needed to find a way to bring people back to the area, and they realized that tourism may be the best way to do it. The city created a plan, alongside many preservationists, that became known as the 1912 plan. It recommended the city preserve its traditional adobe architecture. But it went even further. It recommended that new development should also be done in the “Santa Fe” style. They wanted to create a kind of citywide architectural brand based on local traditions.

The first New Mexican architect to invest in and develop the Pueblo Spanish Revival style was John Gaw Meem. Meem was trained as an engineer and came to Santa Fe to receive treatment for tuberculosis. While recovering, he met interesting intellectuals and artists including Carlos Vierra, who photographed and painted all the mission churches in the state. Both Vierra and Meem became key players in an organization dedicated to preserving New Mexico’s mission churches and, in the process, became strong proponents of Santa Fe style architecture.

Historically, preservation attempts mostly occur around single buildings, but in this case, the scope was much broader. Santa Fe instead decided to focus on the vernacular architecture of the region. The aesthetics of Santa Fe would be carefully crafted and preserved. Rather than pretending to be a conventional American city, the idea was to radically embrace local differences, partly in a bid to attract visitors. The plan did begin to work. Designers like John Gaw Meem became leaders of this hybrid style, often using modern materials like steel and concrete to mimic the traditional adobe look. The style became cemented as the city’s signature look, and then in the 1950’s, modernism began to threaten that. Again, preservationists came to the forefront and pushed the city to pass an ordinance that would further refine and enforce the stylistic rules. So, in 1957, there were rules put in place that dictated that any changes to a building in the district had to be approved by a design board.

In the 1970s, an oil boom in Texas sent waves of new-minted tycoons to Santa Fe, where they began buying up homes in the city’s historic districts. Then, in the 1980s, international travelers started to visit as well. The city of around 50,000 residents started getting over a million visitors a year. And some of them also started buying up old historic homes, driving gentrification. The pueblo style grew out of an indigenous culture, that had developed into a working class home style. Now, it had become patented as a cultural niche to attract tourists, and thereby became desirable and exclusively accessible to upper class people. The rules continued, as they placed restrictions on the height of buildings and encouraged even strip malls and IHOP’s to adopt the adobe style. Brown stucco was everywhere.

Of course, for long-time residents of the region, ever-higher costs of living became challenging. The style itself may not have been directly to blame, but impacts on affordable housing (including higher land prices) grew out of its popularity. In addition, at this point, some of the more traditional solutions to housing problems like increased density, which is usually in the form of building upwards, were restricted by the preservationists rules. Many people working in industries supported by local tourism have been priced out of town. Meanwhile, many expensive homes in town go largely unused, sitting as seasonal residences for cosmopolitan travelers.

So, in response, the city’s Historic Preservation Division has been working on a study to quantify the changes that have happened in the city’s historic districts over the past few decades. They’ve found that between 1980 and 2018, even as the population of Santa Fe grew, its historic districts emptied out. The reality is that this commodification of the style and history of the place resulted in an inability of any of those actual people to live there. The people living and visiting are now predominantly white and older. The preservationists attempted to freeze the city in time, and visually and architecturally, they did have some success. Everything about the city’s economic and social conditions, however, have shifted. 

 

Main Features of Pueblo Architecture

1. Brown Stucco 

Pueblo-style homes are sometimes made of traditional adobe (sun-dried mud), but can also be built with concrete, stucco or mortar. Their traditional method, known as puddled adobe, is a technique in which clumps of adobe are built up by hand. This creates thick walls that keep out heat during the day and insulate at night. Spanish settlers helped speed up this process by supplying wooden brick molds. The word adobe, in fact, is Spanish for mudbrick. Nonetheless, the structures retained their traditional gently rounded corners rather than the 90- degree corners of typical brick buildings.

2. Central Courtyard 

As traditional Indian Pueblos were organized around a common space, pueblo homes often incorporate a sheltered courtyard or patio. The outdoor spaces that are characteristic of Pueblo Revival architecture take advantage of Santa Fe’s yearly average of 300 sunny days. You can find roof decks, patios, outdoor courtyards, and arcades. All provide additional living space for residential constructions. Porches and patios, either open, covered or fully enclosed are a common component of Pueblo Revival buildings. They’re often supported by Spanish-style wood posts made from the same wood as the roof’s vigas. Theses outdoor rooms can include fireplaces and water features to make the space more pleasing. The city of Santa Fe is, as we established, a stronghold of Pueblo Revival architecture. It is part of the city’s unique regional identity that combines components from its past and has carried it to the present: meaning that courtyards have become larger, with added pools and more extravagant features. 

3. Terra Cotta Tiles 

The Terra Cotta tiles of the Pueblo revival style are an addition of the Spanish Colonial influence on the use of the traditional architecture. Truly traditional Pueblo style, and the authentic revival, would not typically include terra cotta tiling on the roof. However, there are many buildings today that are in the Pueblo style, and include small section of terra cotta tiles, sometime even just on the overhangs of windows. The roofs, in these cases, remain flat on the top. Buildings with more slanted roofs and coverings of terra cotta tile may be classified more as Mission Style or Spanish revival. The original Western ranch house and Spanish mission influences are evident in frequent round-arch openings in windows, doors, and arcaded porches (the inevitable portales). Asymmetrical massing supplies an extra measure of Arts & Crafts charm.

4. Wooden Beams and Doors

Heavy doors, ceiling beams and porch posts are a striking counterpart to the smooth walls typical of pueblo architecture. The timbers used are called vigas and they’re usually exposed at the ends. Traditional Pueblo architectural design did not include doors, and in traditional buildings, each level was accessible by exterior and interior rooftop ladders. Pueblo Revival includes things like electricity, large wooden doors, and usually separated building structures. Decorative carved corbels made from wood or clay, simple tiles around a front door or fireplace, and arched doorways are the extent of the flourishes found on more elaborate structures.\

Pueblo Revival buildings often feature “vigas,” or thick, exposed wood roof beams that extend past the roofline. In traditional Pueblo buildings, these beams support “latillas,” or laths, and the two together support the adobe roof. In Pueblo Revival buildings, the vigas are often only decorative. Vigas might be further decorated and supported by corbels underneath. First used on medieval cathedrals, corbels are a Spanish missionary addition to Pueblo-style architecture. Unlike elaborate medieval corbels, however, Mission Style corbels take simple, squarish forms.

5. Rounded corners 

Because of the materials used, a key feature of Pueblo Revival is irregular, natural-looking finishes. Adobe was the historical construction material of choice. Made of sand, clay, straw, and water, adobe structures suited the dry climate of New Mexico. The thick walls store heat during hot days, then radiate the warmth back into the building during cool nights. The modern Pueblo Revival style often uses brick and concrete covered with stucco to mimic the adobe method. Walls and roofs edges are rounded to add to the adobe-like look. Windows in the oldest buildings were wood-sash casements. Steel casements were popular from the 1920s to the 1950s, while modern, updated windows more likely have aluminum or vinyl sash. New double-hung or horizontal-slider windows often replace casements altogether. Three-part picture windows aren’t uncommon in 1940s and ’50s houses. Most windows in the Pueblo Revival have rounded edges, with no trim, and a simple un-panelled glass pane. 

6. Flat roofs with Parapets 

Parapets are low walls that extend above the roofline; drainage canals called canales sometimes extend through them. Although you will see some red tile or terra cotta roofs, most roof construction in the Pueblo Revival style are flat. This was seen especially in the influence of Indian Pueblo architecture. Vigas, thick wooden beams that carry the weight of the roof to load-bearing exterior walls, can be seen protruding from under the roofline. To prevent damage, these flat roofs must be designed properly to drain rainwater. The flat roofs are also a feature that really distinguish Pueblo Revival from Spanish Revival and Mission Style, which do have many similarities. So, if you’re ever in the southwest of the United States, or anywhere else in the United States for that matter, and looking at brown stucco buildings, you will be able to distinguish them between Pueblo and Spanish style.

7. Native plant Gardens and Adobe Fences

Unabashed and skillful xeriscaping produces yards that, though often brown or gray, are surprisingly appealing as they abandon water-guzzling greenswards in favor of native plants and gravel. Front gardens are frequently softened and made private by adobe walls or screens made of unfinished wooden poles of varying heights and circumferences lashed tightly together. Nearly house-height adobe walls may be entered through heavy paneled and carved wooden gates or doors. Metal fences are rare, and so minimally decorated (perhaps with just a trace of rust) that they blend unobtrusively, like courteous houseguests, into the brown-and-gray background.

 

Not all post-19th century buildings with Pueblo-style elements are true Pueblo Revival. The Pueblo Revival movement also gave rise to Pueblo Deco, which combines Pueblo features with the eclectic ornamentation of Art Deco. Early Pueblo Deco design was influenced by architect Mary Colter’s work, which incorporated Native American elements. The term was popularized by author Carla Breeze, whose 1984 Pueblo Deco: The Art Deco Architecture of the Southwest (written with Marcus Whiffen) and 1990 Pueblo Deco books described the fusion of southwestern motifs with the popular Deco style. Notable examples of buildings incorporating Pueblo Deco elements include the KiMo Theater in Albuquerque, New Mexico and the Arizona Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix, Arizona. Pueblo Revival style is associated with Art Deco’s borrowing of non-Western stylistic elements, principally from Egyptian, Asian and in this case indigenous sources. The style emphasizes applied ornament, often in metalwork, together with extensive tilework and wall murals.

The story of the Pueblo Revival in New Mexico is certainly fraught. While preserving traditional building styles and heritage of a city seem like good things, it does seem clear that they can go too far. While it may be argued that the gentrification would have happened no matter what, the use of the style to attract tourists and create that market did involved pushing the traditional style as a niche commodity for people to come see. There is something insidious about this pushing out the actual people who lived in these places, and whose culture the buildings actually came from. Luxury villas using the vernacular architecture features have popped up, taking the style out of its material basis and making it nothing but empty aesthetic. The inventiveness of the Pueblo people, creating buildings that were climate controlled through the use of mud and aeration is what made those buildings so special. However, now it seems like the right thing to do is create social housing that does take into consideration the current day needs of people in the city. I remain hopeful that the city planners and governance will do so.