A Matter of Style

Santa Fe's architectural mandate survives five decades of scrutiny

Santa Fe is almost synonymous with its trademark architectural style: Low-profile buildings with thick, brown-stuccoed walls, rounded edges, flat roofs, small windows and protruding vigas.

If they weren't already aware of this theme before they arrive, it's one of the first things new visitors notice.

One transplant who came to attend college here said his new surroundings reminded him of the Stone Age cartoon buildings of Bedrock, home to the Flintstones in a television show from his youth.

Another writer remarked that Santa Fe buildings looked like boxes that had been buttered and rolled in brown sugar.

However you describe it, a homegrown architectural orthodoxy, based on elements of Pueblo Indian, Spanish Colonial and American frontier building methods and tastes, universally brands the City Different.

While a number of cities have tried to preserve old buildings that give a town character and identity, Santa Fe for the past half-century has tried to enforce what was once simply a shared aesthetic, using a law intended to make new construction harmonize with the old.

The oldest part of the city, divided into five separate, historic zones, is subject to architectural-style controls. In the most tightly regulated downtown and east-side districts, the ordinance requires that new buildings, additions and remodels conform to one of two traditional styles:

u Pueblo Revival, which is a mix of styles inspired by American Indian puddled-mud buildings and Spanish mud-brick churches.

u Territorial, a style taken from the early Anglo modifications of adobe buildings, such as wood trim around window and door openings, more vertically shaped windows and decorative friezes on the parapets.

But even without government regulation, much of the rest of town is influenced by the style, sometimes through private covenants, personal taste or market forces. Even some Cerrillos Road fast-food joints have facades colored to look like they are made of mud.

Construction in any part of Santa Fe must comply with building codes, zoning and terrain-management rules administered by the city Land Use Department and the Planning Commission. But structures in the historic zones face additional hurdles with the Historic Preservation Division staff and the Historic Design Review Board.

Putting Santa Fe's attempts to legislate architectural taste in the hands of an appointed panel has led to spirited debates. Sometimes, the board's twice-monthly discussions of what should and shouldn't be allowed become lively copy for the media.

u In 1982, Calvin Trillin joked in The New Yorker that a dispute between Cerro Gordo Road neighbors over the appropriateness of pitched roofs amounted to "Anglos fighting each other over who's most Spanish."

u In 1984, the board debated what shade of pink could be used on the Pink Adobe Restaurant, rejecting a shade of pink that the owner said was the building's original color, in favor of a more sedate desert rose.

u In 1992, the board ordered artist Dennis Magdich to remove a gate decorated with a painting of a bull at his Camino del Monte Sol house. Magdich changed the picture to a cow skull, appealed to the City Council, lost and eventually sold the house.

u In 1995, TV star Larry Hagman charged he was the victim of discrimination as a "wealthy, newcomer Anglo" after the City Council rejected his appeal of the board's denial of his request for a second story on his east-side house while overturning the board's denial of a second story for Maria Montoya-Rigg, a local woman who said she needed more room for her family. Hagman eventually dropped his lawsuit and left Santa Fe.

Having seven strangers judging your building plans, right down to the color of the stucco and the number, size and placement of windows, can be unsettling -- especially when the story hits the media.

Just ask Stephanie Marston who two years ago sought to tear down a dilapidated shed in the backyard of her Pueblo-style home on Santa Fe Avenue.

Since she wanted to replace it with a Pueblo-style guesthouse to match the rest of the neighborhood, Marston expected a slam-dunk. But the Historic Design Review Board balked when it learned the shed had once housed Della's -- a lunch stand that sold snacks to generations of students at Wood Gormley Elementary and the former Harrington Junior High.

Although most of the board's deliberations concern designs of new structures, it is also charged with protecting historic structures, which can include buildings put up more than 50 years ago that retain elements of their original style. The board can consider historic uses of the structures in its deliberations.

In the case of Della's -- a little green shack on an alleyway that evoked a wave of nostalgia among some longtime residents -- it took nine months for the City Council to overturn the board so Marston could raze the shed. She recently finished tearing down the shed and is still in the midst of building a new structure, but declined comment about her battles with the city.

One of the most common suggestions for doing away with the struggles that arise from the city's historic-styles ordinance is to simply require all new buildings in the most sensitive historic zones to be made of real adobe. The physical limits of the building material would eliminate worries about keeping buildings low-profile and wall-dominated, the argument goes. The idea was considered when the original ordinance was drafted 50 years ago but was dismissed as unrealistic.

Nevertheless, Beverley Spears, an architect familiar with the city's style code, says she has heard the adobe-only idea repeatedly raised ever since she began practicing in Santa Fe.

"If we did that, there would not be this fakery of trying to make everything look like adobe," she said. "There would be more authenticity."

While some travel writers have been fooled, only a smattering of buildings in Santa Fe's downtown core actually are made of adobe. The Historic Preservation Division consults a map of adobe buildings produced by the Sanborn's Insurance Co. in the 1930s. Some of the buildings on the map have been torn down and others have had their adobe parts covered up.

While adobe once might have been considered the poor man's building material, adobe construction now generally costs more than building with wood and other materials, and experienced adobe craftsmen are becoming rarer. But adobe's massiveness can be mimicked with modern materials like cast pumice brick, straw bales or Rastra -- blocks of concrete and recycled Styrofoam. And, with the help of chicken wire or metal lath, brown stucco can be applied to any exterior.

For five decades, critics have complained that the Santa Fe ordinance inhibits creativity. But most architects have learned to satisfy the provisions, even if that means cosmetic fakery.

For instance, the ordinance requires small window panes. But architects soon learned that modern picture windows could be adapted simply by adding adhesive tape to their inside so they appear to be made of smaller panes.

Van Dorn Hooker, who was an architect in Santa Fe when the ordinance was passed in 1957, said he doesn't think it has affected the look of the town as much as its defenders claim. Other Southwestern towns have developed a regional architecture without making it mandatory, he said.

Hooker, who designed many buildings on The University of New Mexico campus and is now retired in Corrales, said his main problem with the Pueblo Revival style, so popular in Santa Fe, is that it is based on the early Pueblo houses and Spanish missions. "Churches and residences work well," he said, "but when you try to (design) a major building, it's very difficult to handle."

Although the ordinance could be responsible for such things as the lack of neon signs in Santa Fe's downtown, some people object to giving too much credit to the ordinance for Santa Fe's style. Edward Delgado, who lives on Delgado Street in the east-side historic district, recently took issue with city politicians' crediting the ordinance for preserving Canyon Road, recognized by the American Planning Association as one of the nation's top 10 streets.

"The historic ordinance didn't save Canyon Road. The people are the ones who saved it," he said. "You can have all the rules in the world, but the style of the street, the way it was developed and everything, (was due to) the people themselves, and they get no credit at all."

Contact Tom Sharpe at 986-3080 or tsharpe@sfnewmexican.com