They say that before you buy a house in Santa Fe, you should visit it at three different times of day. That way, you can see how the quality of light changes the color of the stucco.
Last summer, I finally made an offer on a house. A little 1,000-square-foot bungalow in the South Capitol district, with only one closet and a concrete shed in the back that could become an art studio or a tiny rental unit to help pay the mortgage. I went back to that house half a dozen times. Climbed on the roof and watched the neighbor smoking a cigarette. Sat beneath the two old apricot trees and collected the crystallized amber that oozed from wounds in their bark. It felt right.
Then we got the inspection report back. The house had no foundation. The wooden floors were held up by two-by-fours stuck in the earth below.
While this isn’t too out of the ordinary for old adobes, and clearly this house had remained standing for nearly eighty years already, it was a strange sort of spiritual metaphor. To buy a house with no foundation meant inviting instability. And at the price they were asking, I’d have no reserves to fix it if something truly went sideways. I decided to pull out of the deal and continue my search.
Santa Fe is a fantasyland. A unique Adobe-Pueblo Gingerbread Village built as much for tourists as for locals. It is easy to forget the world. Coming here feels like visiting the past: the squat mud buildings huddled together, weedy yards crowded with rusting cars and cactuses. A land untouched and mesmerizing. A land that grows houses.
They say that an adobe home is a living entity. From a distance, it is hard to tell if an adobe structure is emerging from the ground or sinking back into it. It comes from the earth and so too shall return if left untended. A deserted adobe gradually melts away with every summer monsoon and winter snowstorm. Moisture is both cherished and accursed in the desert. In one old New Mexican love song, the singer croons, “Your kiss would crumble the mud of a wall.”
Adobe was once an inexpensive way to build—the mud for the bricks might even come from your own backyard. It is an ingenious building technology. Because of the material’s high thermal mass, adobe buildings hold warmth during the winter and stay cool in the summer.
The Indigenous people of this region, the Pueblo Native Americans, have used a form of adobe building for thousands of years. In the Tewa language, Santa Fe is called O’ghe P’oghe, or White Shell, Water Place. Before Spanish conquest, the largest pueblo of the region was located a block north of the current Santa Fe Plaza.
These villages were built in a form that perfectly mirrored the function of the self within the community. Built around a central plaza, the villages were made up of a series of connected buildings, two to five stories tall, with 50 to 500 rooms. Ceremonial kivas were set underground. Food storage rooms were on ground level and entered by ladders from the flat roofs. Living quarters were on the upper levels, and the lower-level roof terraces were used as places to dry food crops, socialize, watch sunrises and sunsets and as walkways encircling the entire pueblo.
When the Spanish arrived in the mid-16th century, they immediately recognized the adobe form, as they had been using it ever since the Moors of Northern Africa had invaded Spain in A.D. 711. The word “adobe”is from the Spanish word “to plaster,” which was derived from the Arabic word for “bricks,” “aṭ-ṭūb.” While the Native Americans employed a type of hand-shaped “puddled adobe” walls, built of layers of coarse mud, the Spanish brought adobe brick molds. These created more-uniform bricks, which could build larger structures. The Spanish also brought corner fireplaces, ground-level doors and outdoor ovens called hornos.
Plastering, or mudding, the walls, both inside and outside, was a yearly endeavor. It was traditionally a job performed by women, and tools would be passed down from mother to daughter. The process was simple in theory: Dig a hole in the hillside, pour in water, mix well. But it required a great deal of skill to apply and smooth the material. A flick of the wrist, smearing the liquid mud against the wall, a delicate pass with the trowel, a spattering of water and smoothing again with a piece of sheepskin. The result was luscious surfaces in natural hues of yellow, pink or white, depending on where the earth was sourced.
I grew up in a house that my mother helped plaster. She is a Jewish woman from Westchester County, New York, and first saw adobe buildings on a trip to Morocco in her early 20s. I have always been impressed with how she throws herself into learning something new—especially tasks deemed difficult. Watching her work on our house as a child made me feel like I could do anything I wanted when I grew up.
She came to New Mexico on a cross-country road trip. When her car broke down in Santa Fe, she decided to stay. A few years later, she became a real estate agent and eventually sold my dad—an Italian doctor from Brooklyn—a piece of wild country out in Tesuque. They both fell in love with the space and the quiet. And in falling in love with the land, they fell in love with each other.
They built a home of mud bricks, perched on a bright mesa dotted in sagebrush and wildflowers. Their upstairs bedroom was accessible by thick wooden stairs that made a drum-like melody as you ascended them. The room had a curved, hay-flecked mud wall and a spiral of vigas (wooden beams) up above. We would sit on their roof portal and watch the sun set over the Jemez Mountains in displays of luminous magic I still find to be incomparable.
When I first started house hunting, my mother suggested I make a wish list:
- Old fruit trees
- Room for guests
- A place to make art
I fantasized about such a perfect place, imagining a space where my creative spirit could flourish.
Adobe homes have pulled artists for generations, like creative magnets. It is hard to say when the first tourists-artists-adventurers arrived in Santa Fe. Even before New Mexico had become a state, the city seemed to have a reputation as someplace magical, although at least a few of the early visitors were surprised to find the adobe architecture distasteful. The buildings seemed to be in a perpetual state of decay. One traveler likened it to a “prairie-dog town.” Another remarked at how different the reality of the city was from the “beautiful and magnificent” place he had been expecting. Lowly and inferior, he thought.
But the artists saw something different in the adobe ruins. They saw projects and experiences. By the early 20th century, writers and painters began flocking here for the quality of the light, the glorious clear air and the expansive landscapes. Northern New Mexico seemed to have the softness of Italy, the hard ascetic glow of Egypt and the pastoral beauty of rural France.
In the early 1920s, Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, an injured war correspondent from the East Coast, came to New Mexico to recuperate. She eventually bought a ruined three-room adobe house with her friend Gertrude and wrote a series of essays for Harper’s magazine detailing the restoration process called “The Journal of a Mud House.” “That is the whole point of our adventure,” she writes, “to plunge in up to the eyes and learn to swim while we flounder.”
Over the course of the summer, Sergeant recounts, she remains under the “spell of utter charm” despite the many setbacks. The first load of lumber takes five and a half hours to haul there by a worker with pack mules. Before putting on a new flat roof, they must remove the old layers of dirt. In the process they discover the former owner had patched his various leaks with “any defunct domestic implement,” including an ax, a pick, a washboard, a tin basin and a grindstone! There are bees in the vigas that threaten to take down the ceiling. The new kitchen wall collapses and has to be rebuilt. The search for adobes proves challenging: She’d like to just have her laborers make the bricks right there, but they wouldn’t be dry enough for several weeks. The ones in town are too expensive, so she “concludes a bargain” with a neighbor and buys some old bricks from a crumbling building on his property. After the first week of work, with piles of adobes in the yard, Sergeant remarks, “It looks like devastated France!”
Eventually the house comes together. She fills holes and crannies with mud after a snake gets in. There are picturesque hand-hewn wooden gutters. Every door is a different size and at a different angle. Many are crooked and low. She paints the interior with strong colors to meet the southwest light. Blue-green doors and walls, pink window trim, chrome green furniture.
In the following years, more outsiders were drawn to the bohemian and creative enclave, especially independent-minded women from the coasts. Many of these women had a distinct interest in preserving “authentic” and idealized rural Native American and Hispanic folk culture, in part because they drew their own artistic inspiration from it. They advocated for the protection of Pueblo land, brought attention to Indigenous artists and started cultural organizations such as the School for Advanced Research and the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian. They bought little adobe shacks on the east side of town, which in those days was still predominantly a Hispanic and mestizo neighborhood, and renovated them into grand estates where they would throw fancy dress parties.
The predominant architectural style, called Spanish Pueblo Revival, was delineated as an idea and design aesthetic by the Museum of New Mexico (itself an organization started by white outsiders) in the early 20th century. This so-called Santa Fe style was both a promotional image to attract tourists, coming west on the new railroads, and the romantic backdrop for the burgeoning artist colony scene.
Over the decades that followed, these aesthetic ideals became codified in building laws, and now even our gas stations are clothed in sand-colored stucco. While these rules stifle innovative building designs—when the writer George R.R. Martin recently wanted to build a castle in his backyard, the city declined to issue him a permit—they certainly keep our town unique, and this draws visitors.
Over the past 30 years, adobe has been used less and less to build new homes. What was once an inexpensive building material has now become cost-prohibitive, in part because it is so labor-intensive. The bricks are extremely heavy, at around 40 pounds each. Traditionally, hay was added to the bricks to help stabilize them against the expansion and contraction that comes with changing seasons. Today, a petroleum product is frequently added to make them last longer.
The out-of-towners continue to flock here, despite the fact that with climate change, a deepening drought has made the availability of water an increasing concern. “Pray for Rain” bumper stickers flash on cars around town. We have always had an uneasy relationship with tourists. We need their dollars to survive, and yet by commodifying our way of life to sell to them, we’ve nearly priced ourselves out in doing so. The whole town has essentially been gentrified. It is unclear when that process will stop. Perhaps when nobody born here can afford a house.
My search for an old adobe house has veered into the desperate. I watch as houses start selling for more than their listing price. I start reading the obituaries and reaching out to people experiencing pre-foreclosure to see if I might find something before it hits the market. I become an expert at looking up homeowners and finding out the last time a property was sold. I feel wracked with a sort of vague guilt. Even though I was born here—and feel deeply connected to the land—my parents are Easterners who came to occupy this place. Am I just another gentrifier ruining the authentic character of the city? Making it harder for those whose families go back centuries to survive?
I have a few friends looking to buy too, and we frequently compare notes:
Have you seen this one?
It’s got a weird layout and no insulation.
What about this one?
You’d need an extra $1 million to make it safe, but you could definitely make it into a ridiculous Scarface orgy mansion with that kind of cash.
We looked up the current owner. It’s a guy who does contracting and drywall, and it looks like he just gave up halfway.
The next day, the listing went from active to pending. Someone had taken the plunge.
Houses crowd my dreams, sprawling and weird, and I wake up with real estate slogans on my lips.
Live the Santa Fe lifestyle!
Old Santa Fe charm!
Experience New Mexico’s timeless beauty!
An Exceptional Property, walking distance to the Plaza, offering so many Possibilities, a priceless Opportunity in today’s limited market!
I recently found my dream property. It was almost an acre of land along the river on Upper Canyon Road, with a 700-square-foot adobe “cabin,” curved walls and beamed ceilings, nothing square about it. It looked as though it hadn’t been updated since it was built, in 1930. The price tag: $745,000 ($951 per square foot). For the droves of people arriving here from New York or California, that’s a steal. For a local gal like me, it’s ridiculous. I looked up the seller: a pediatrician in Texas.
I drove by the house anyway. It was late afternoon, and the winter sun was low, casting the stucco in a reddish glow. The land below, by the river, was already darkened by shadows. The house looked as if in the next major flood, it might crumble to the valley floor.
And so the search for an authentic adobe house continues. Steeped in romance and a sense of historical continuity. A product of successive waves of colonialism and conquest over more than four centuries. An illusion of a fantasy promoted by settlers in unceded occupied territory.
I think of this city as an old crone, in turns wise and menacing, and in other moments a young woman, stunningly beautiful and innocent. Reinventing her identity over and over again. Comfortable in her contradictions. She lays her ample charms before us, a feast upon a table, built of earth.
“Made of Earth” originally appeared in Wildsam Santa Fe.