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Notes on the Geography of The Western United States: Santa Fe

This is Santa Fe with a squint, Santa Fe almost entirely as though it weren't a city of commercial strips and traffic and apartment buildings. It's mostly Santa Fe as the place where the Santa Fe or Pueblo style emerged early in the 20th century and then very nearly took over the most expensive part of town, which attracted a global audience that thought it was looking at something old.

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The Western United States: Santa Fe picture 1

Santa Fe, elevation 7,000 feet, lies at the western base of the Santa Fe Mountains, a southerly extension of the Sangre de Cristos. Set aside in the Santa Fe National Forest, these mountains are now ski country, but the snows melt and drain to the Rio Grande or the tiny Santa Fe River, at whose outlet from the mountains Mexican colonists arrived in 1610.

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Here, more or less, is what they saw: the Santa Fe River, just a hundred yards from the town plaza. Two upstream dams now capture the scant snowmelt, which becomes the town's increasingly scant water supply.

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Originally, the major use was for irrigation. A little water still flows to gardens through the acequia madre. That "mother ditch" feeds this gated branch.

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We're on the approximately north side of the plaza and looking at the portal of the palacio real (1610), or royal palace, now known as the Palace of the Governors. You may want it to be the 17th century original, but it was finished in 1909 and was the work jointly of Jesse Nusbaum, who later was superintendent of Mesa Verde National Park, and of Sylvanus Morley, who later helped reconstruct the Maya ruins at Chichen Itza.

Under the auspices of the Archaeological Institute of America, which took over the palace when the federal government considered it a hopeless ruin, Nusbaum and Morley peeled away a bric-a-brac balustrade and metal roof that had been added in 1877. They threw out what they considered to be the insufficiently massive, square-sawn posts that held up the portal. They replaced them with these columnar trunks, inspired by a column that Nusbaum found buried in an adobe wall. The result was an idealized version of the palace, far grander than anything known to the governors. It's earnestly authentic, but it's a fantasy right down to the adobe walls, which are actually brick and painted stucco.

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This is the Santa Fe Museum of Fine Arts, built in 1917 at the southwest corner of the plaza and just a block from the Palace of the Governors. Along with the palace, this is ground zero for the architectural style incorporated in thousands of Santa Fe's buildings today. The line of descent begins at the Acoma pueblo and runs through (1) a 1909 replica of the pueblo that was commissioned by the Colorado Supply Company for its warehouse in Morley, Colorado, (2) the reconstructed Palace, (3) the New Mexico Building at the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego, and (4) this museum. With the exception of the Palace of the Governors, all were designed by Isaac Rapp. He could and did work in other styles: he designed, for example, the Alhambra-ish Scottish Rite Temple, another Santa Fe landmark.

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An interior detail of the same museum. The form has been copied so many times that a  building like this could house almost anything in Santa Fe today. Why copied so much? Largely because of local regulations, including the 1957 Historic Zoning Ordinance, which demarcated a historical district within which all construction had to be in either the Pueblo Spanish or another called the territorial.

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Thus arose Santa Fe-style gas stations and grocery stores. Here's a Woolworth's driven from the plaza by skyrocketing rents.

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Camino Ranchitos. Think you're way out of town? Wrong: you're less than a mile from the town plaza, which lies more or less straight ahead. So does the Santa Fe River and, this side of it, the Acequia Madre.

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Looks remote, but the neighborhood consists of half-million-dollar adobes, all discretely hidden by the scrub pine. You're already within easy-walking of a latte and The New York Times

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A lot of the houses here are hidden from view, but here's a modest one that isn't. The roof probably leaks. The repair is expensive but worth every penny if you want to believe that you're touching your primitive self.

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Nearby, a window in one of the "Cinco Pintores" houses. The name comes from five young men who about 1920 came to Santa Fe to paint. They also built a row of small adobes along the Camino del Monte Sol.

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A nearby door.

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Entering these houses means stepping over the acequia madre.

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A colorful Doorway along De Vargas Street, just south of the town plaza. The color is inauthentic, but then the Santa Fe style is itself inauthentic, recalling a Spanish past that never existed.

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Here's the St. Francis Cathedral, built 1869-86 in a French Romanesque style. Why French Romanesque? First of all, because the Santa Fe or pueblo style hadn't been invented. Second, because the man in charge was the first archbishop of Santa Fe, and oddly enough he was French. Jean Baptiste Lamy's relations with the local clergy were poor. Money was tight. Lamy got the style he wanted, but the spires were never completed.

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Money was so tight that Lamy borrowed some from a local Jewish banker. When Lamy could not repay the loan, the banker forgave it on the condition that this Hebrew inscription ("Jehovah") be inscribed on the keystone at the entrance. There it remains, odd but a lot more humane than a pound of flesh.

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The cathedral in its discouraging context.

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The plaza itself, seen from the center and looking almost due east. (The streets are gridded, but because they follow the river they're not quite oriented to the compass points.) The building is the Catron Block, 1888. Santa Fe style hadn't yet emerged, and Boss Catron, a lawyer deep into land deals, ordered up an Italianate block from the same Italian masons who had just built Lamy's church. With its later portico, it became an icon of the Territorial Style.

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Along Canyon Road, this is El Zaguan (the "hallway"), expanded in the 19th century from the two or three rooms it had when built in 1768. The walls were adobe, but not in the Pueblo or Santa Fe style. The garden is just about the only patch of public space along Canyon Road, which is otherwise gallery central.

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Another pre-Pueblo Style house, this is Sena Plaza, a block from the plaza. Major Sena and his wife had 11 children, plus servants.  Starting in 1831, his house grew to 33 ground-level rooms, arranged as a square around a courtyard.

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Time has converted the courtyard into a forest.

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A second story was added in 1920.

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The whole place is now shops and restaurants.

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Wealth doesn't always look the part. Here's Gormley Lane, stretching north to Canyon Road. The Santa Fe River is straight ahead, flowing right to left, or east to west. The original town grid more or less lines up with the river and starts a bit downstream from this point. Still think you're in the boonies?  You're only a couple of minute's walk from restaurants serving Peppery Elk Tenderloin.

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Canyon Road: pricier than it looks.

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The mouth of one of the lanes joining Canyon Road.

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Occupants come and go. Here, a block from the plaza and almost next door to the old Woolworth's, is a popular restaurant in business since 1978. Before that, the same building housed Pogo's Eatery; before that, this was Golden Temple Conscious Cookery; before that, it was the Mayflower Cafe. Still earlier, it housed the KC Waffle House, complete with booths. Ka-ching, ka-ching.

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Tourists come from around the world, but rarely with a getup like this. Who could it be? Why, it's a U.S. senator running for Vice-President. Sharpshooters, dressed in black, are up top on all those buildings around the plaza, while these motorcycle policemen wait to provide an escort back to Albuquerque. There were sensitive souls who left the plaza because the security made them nervous, but the real Americans in the crowd thought it was supercool, like a movie.


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