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Tourists visiting downtown Santa Fe for the first time can be forgiven for thinking they’ve discovered the Southwest’s answer to Williamsburg, Virginia: a perfect Spanish colonial city frozen in time.
The truth is a little more complicated. Many of the City Different’s historic buildings were constructed in sections over time, just the way early settlers built their adobe houses, starting with one room, and then expanding as their families increased and finances allowed.
Those who want to do more than scratch the surface of Santa Fe’s adobe surfaces would do well to spend some time with Paul Weideman, the longtime architecture columnist for The Santa Fe New Mexican’s Pasatiempo magazine.
Weideman’s book, “Architecture Santa Fe: A Guidebook,” was recently published by Running Lizard Press and the author has been appearing around town and in Albuquerque in support of his effort, which was eight years in the making.
Born in Indianapolis, Weideman spent his early teen years in Southern Rhodesia, Africa. He holds bachelor’s degrees in biology and editorial journalism, and has been a journalist since 1984. The past 24 years of his career have been spent in northern New Mexico, where his work at The New Mexican was recognized with a special Service Award by the Santa Fe chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2017.
On a recent warm afternoon, Weideman sat on a bench in Sena Plaza, one of the interior courtyards of 107-137 E. Palace Ave., also known as the Arias de Quiros Site. His 228-page architecture guide is illustrated with color photographs he took using a 1954 Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex camera.
It might be assumed that Sena Plaza and the buildings surrounding it all went up at the same time and look today as they did when they were first constructed. That would be a mistake, Weideman said.
As Weideman’s book notes, Sena House, at 125 E. Palace Ave., was originally a small adobe built on land granted to José D. Sena by General Diego de Vargas in 1697. The house was eventually expanded to 33 rooms. Sena, who served as a U.S. Army major in the Civil War, reserved the north-side buildings for servants, chickens and storage, while his family lived around three sides of the large placita.
The structure surrounding Sena Plaza originally was one story, but in 1927 artist and builder William Penhallow Henderson was hired to supervise the construction of a second story on the north and east sections of Sena House. Although the modern-day Arias de Quiros Site is known for its portales (porches), older photographs indicate they were added in the early 20th century to provide shade and add aesthetic value, according to Weideman’s book.
The emergence of what is today known as Santa Fe Style is the result of historical accidents involving train travel and the arrival of Brazilian architect John Gaw Meem in the City Different to recuperate from tuberculosis at Sunmount Sanitarium.
After the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad bypassed Santa Fe in the 1880s in favor of Lamy because Santa Fe’s elevation posed an obstacle to building railroad tracks, the city fathers began looking for a way to draw tourists to town. Among those civic boosters were Museum of New Mexico director Edgar Lee Hewett and his associates, Weideman wrote in his book. By 1912, when New Mexico achieved statehood, many decorative brick buildings were being covered with stucco to achieve an adobe look similar to that of Native pueblos, Weideman noted, because Hewett thought this distinctive look would attract visitors.
Meem first arrived in Santa Fe in 1920, seeking a cure for his TB, which was treated by Dr. Frank E. Mera at the Sunmount Sanitarium. Seemingly recovered, he took a job at a Denver architectural firm, even though he had no formal training in architecture. (His degree from the Virginia Military Institute was in structural engineering.)
When Meem’s tuberculosis resurfaced in 1924, he landed back in bed at Sunmount. Along with fellow patient Cassius McCormick, he formed a professional partnership that would last for several years and change the landscape of Santa Fe forever. In addition to the buildings that Meem designed in the area, including Fuller Lodge at the Los Alamos Ranch School, he built several homes, as well as the first buildings for Santa Fe Indian School.
Meem’s Spanish Pueblo Revival vision for Santa Fe helped reshape the Plaza when he won a 1931 competition with a plan to transform the space from a commercial center into an “exhibit of early architecture,” Weideman wrote. Meem followed that up with a large addition to La Fonda, Santa Fe’s oldest hotel.
What makes “Architecture Santa Fe: A Guidebook” worth every penny of its $39.95 cover price are the hidden gems within its pages. Most tourists are familiar with the churches near the Plaza, such as the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, the Loretto Chapel and the San Miguel Chapel. But how many visitors make the trek past the art galleries on Canyon Road to the Cristo Rey Church?
Another Meem Spanish Pueblo Revival “masterwork,” as Weideman calls it, the church at 1120 Canyon Road was built in 1940 and doesn’t necessarily invite exploration by the secular-minded. However, hidden within are stunning carved-stone reredos created originally for La Castrense. Built in 1761 on the south side of the Plaza, the soldiers’ chapel was sold in the mid-1800s by Archbishop Lamy to help pay for the cathedral.
Among the carved figures on the retablo in Cristo Rey are Our Lady of Light, St. James the Greater, St. Joseph, St. Ignatius, St. Francis Solano, St. John Nepomuk and our Lady of Valvanera. It’s possible to live in Santa Fe for years without hearing of this treasure.
Despite the considerable and much-deserved attention Weideman gives to Meem in his book, the author is not a Spanish Pueblo Revival purist.
Asked to name some of his favorite buildings in Santa Fe, Weideman immediately came up with SITE Santa Fe, the contemporary art museum in the Railyard. Using a dramatic design by SHoP Architects of New York, local architect Greg Allegretti in 2017 transformed the former beer warehouse by using perforated-aluminum cladding to create triangular “prow features” in the front and rear of the building.
“The construction materials echoed the feeling of the Railyard,” Weideman observed.
Weideman also admires some of the buildings that have incorporated salvaged structural elements that have been designed by international architects in the Baca Railyard.
“I’m a fan of Santa Fe architecture new and old, but I do think the historic district needs to be preserved,” he said.