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Trying to ‘fill in the gaps’ about age of Plaza-era buildings

SANTA FE, N.M. — Buildings in the 100 block of Santa Fe’s East Palace Avenue, once an entryway for Los Alamos’ secret Manhattan Project and now a hub for gift shops and restaurants, have a history that dates back hundreds of years.

Just how far back is the subject of a recent investigation focusing on the wood used in construction of the buildings.

John Ruminer, a former Los Alamos National Laboratory engineer and local historian who has been researching the structures just off The Plaza, enlisted the help of Tom Windes and Tom Swetnam, retired tree ring experts – officially called dendrochronologists.

The group of volunteers will present findings from work over the past year and a half at a Historic Santa Fe Foundation members event on Aug. 10.

Researchers using tree-ring science recently dated this beam over the entrance to the courtyard at The Rainbow Man back to the late 1600s. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The scientists took wooden core samples from the vigas – the wooden beams often found in adobe structures – from a couple of the Plaza area’s best known businesses.

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The pieces were extracted from Rainbow Man shop at 107 E. Palace Ave. – a business that itself dates from 1945 – along with its adjacent courtyard, and from popular restaurant The Shed, 113 E. Palace Ave.

Once the samples were retrieved, the investigators looked at the outermost tree rings to determine the age of the wood, and therefore when it was harvested and used to build. They conducted the dating research at Swetnam’s home lab in Jemez Springs.

Zac Cox, grandson of The Rainbow Man’s owners, stands in the Santa Fe shop. Researchers took wood samples from the shop’s vigas to determine how old the building could be. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

To the experts’ surprise, they found a wooden beam at the entrance of the courtyard that dates back to about 1693 – about the time of the Spanish reconquest of the Santa Fe area that took place a dozen years after the 1680 Pueblo Revolt had forced the Spanish to relocate to El Paso.

“That’s the oldest beam from the Spanish era ever dated in Santa Fe,” said Ruminer. He said the wood may have not been used originally in the specific spot where the core sample was taken, over the Rainbow Man courtyard entranceway, and could have been reused from somewhere nearby.

But a majority of the pencil-sized wood samples from vigas in the two buildings dated back to the 1850s.

Swetnam, a retiree from the University of Arizona’s Laboratory of Tree Ring Research, said the group was surprised by the later dates for most of the wood because buildings are known to have been at the East Palace location at least since the 1700s.

He said the findings were likely due to owners re-roofing the structures, meaning the buildings could still have been built about 300 years ago.

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Swetnam said mid-19th century was when Santa Fe “economically started to boom,” explaining why the buildings would have undergone updating during that period.

Some of the vigas in The Shed did date back to the 1780s, which Ruminer said was likely from building owners re-using older wood. Wood inside the walls might also show earlier dates and establish earlier construction work, but the researchers didn’t invade those spaces.

Manhattan Project site

About 100 years ago or earlier, the stretch of buildings on the 100 block of East Palace Avenue were private residences. The location had converted to commercial buildings and office spaces by the time the organization now called Los Alamos National Laboratory became its almost exclusive users during World War II, Ruminer said.

The office space for the Manhattan Project, the secret effort to develop an atom bomb, was where Dorothy McKibbin and some of her assistants would secretly direct workers through Santa Fe to Los Alamos. She held court there as director of the project’s Santa Fe office from 1943-63.

“People would go in the courtyard, then not come out,” said Zac Cox, referring to McKibbin sneaking workers out the back of the Rainbow Man building for transport to Los Alamos.

Cox, whose grandparents Bob and Marianne Kapoun bought the Rainbow Man in 1982 and made it into a family business, said back then the courtyard that is now used for selling folk art was like “everybody’s backyard” because of how it connects to several buildings.

The former door to the courtyard has been donated to the Los Alamos Historical Society, Cox said.

A plug shows where a sample was take from a beam in The Rainbow Man gallery. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

He pointed out how, within the Rainbow Man, some holes where wood was taken out of the building’s roof for the recent study are still visible. Some are still numbered from when Ruminer, Windes and Swetnam labeled the vigas to establish where the wood they were testing was taken from.

He referred to the work that the group did in his family’s building late last year as a “big undertaking.” Ruminer had to go up on the roof to collect materials, as well as map and take cores from every room of the shop. The furthest back room, which overlooks the courtyard, is where McKibbin’s office is said to have been located.

Going forward, Ruminer said he hopes to publish the tree ring findings and he is also planning ceramic dating research using brick samples from the Rainbow Man’s chimney. Study of the bricks will be done at New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, N.M., he said, likely later in the summer.

The Historic Santa Fe Foundation and the building’s owner, First National 1870 bank, helped fund the wood dating.

Foundation executive director Pete Warzel said the group was interested in Ruminer’s research idea because it provides an educational function, adding to the foundation’s better-known mission of preservation.

“It’s about trying to better understand the history of these wonderful structures,” said Swetnam of the findings.

“It’s always nice to know about the history … and to try and fill in the gaps.”


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