Posts Tagged ‘adobe’

Las Cruces and environs

November 23, 2011

Last week at the invitation of alumna Hema Pandya and the good people at New Mexico State University/Doña Ana Community College, I traveled to Las Cruces, New Mexico to give a lecture “Preserving Community” (Subtitle was Sustainability and global issues on existing and Historic Buildings in the United States, China and Peru).

I like Jerri Wells’ poster – I look like Godzilla

Hema Pandya, Dr.Margaret Lovelace, Luis Rios and Matt Byrnes

The lecture was well-attended, even a City Councilman was there. I tied together a variety of disparate experiences and locales by using the IMPROVED definition of sustainability that my colleague Frances Whitehead introduced me to. You remember the old Venn diagram where sustainability is the sweet spot with the orbs of Social, Economic and Environmental sustainability? I learned from Frances that we need a fourth globe: Cultural. And in fact this is how heritage conservation fits into it.

The problem with looking only at Social, Environmental and Cultural is that you solve sustainability only mechanistically, and only in the here and now. (Which means it isn’t really sustainability, which is about maintaining things for the next generation.) It is the same elision that gave us urban renewal, which is to say it is kind of inorganic chemistry for the environment, rather than biology.

Heritage conservation sustains not merely our social (living, working, gathering, playing), economic (producing, consuming, exchanging) and environmental (breathing, eating, etc.) but also those subtle humanisms that we can never eliminate, things like soul and identity and love and attachment. How we know where we are and why we want to continue to be there.

Rio Grande Theatre, Main Street, Las Cruces

But enough of the high theory, let’s get down to the brass tacks, or in the case of Las Cruces, the adobe and vigas. Here stands Hema and my brother Tom next to a marvelous doorway in Mesilla, which is contiguous with Las Cruces but designed around a traditional Mexican church zócalo in the days before the Gadsden Purchase (1854).

check out the beams above the door – hand-hewn it seems

now that is adobe

There is of course, a lot of the fake stuff – frame buildings covered with some sort of cementitious render and false vigas to ape the look. A house style, like they do up in Santa Fe.

But we had a good meeting with officials and preservation leaders in Mesilla, where they have had some challenges, like this adobe bungalow that is slowly losing its historic fabric and residential classification in one of those long, drawn-out, disingenuous projects that slowly but surely erode local character. You can always tell those projects because their own character shifts day by day. First it is an addition to the back of a house (on a corner). Then full-scale bathrooms go in. Then it suddenly takes advantage of possible commercial zoning. Then another wall goes. Eventually the owner will reveal the project’s true intention and the town will have lost the better part of an historic building.

The zócalo in Mesilla is great, what with the twin-steepled brick church and the Thunderbird, the oldest brick structure in New Mexico, and the Billy the Kid Gift Shop, which I remember from a childhood visit here in 1975, and of course La Posta, the former post office and restaurant which is expanding dramatically, giving us these unique views of melding ancient and modern construction techniques:

the contractor said his job was either to make old wood look new or make new wood look old

traditional ceiling form with modern ductwork. The ceiling form reminds me of the ground floor rooms in medieval Irish castles, formed by baskets made of sticks and then packed with a mud wattle.

The challenges in Mesilla and Las Cruces are familiar to many. Partial embrace of community character, preference for new over old, incomplete apprehension of the heritage conservation process, which as my lecture showed, is a community-based evaluation process that seeks to maintain cultural connections found in the environment and in its caretakers. Residents were frustrated that master adobe plasterer Pat Taylor, a local resident, found more business OUTSIDE of town (around the world) than in the town itself.

our meeting in Mesilla

Las Cruces also has the challenge of its Main Street, which features the lovely Rio Grande theater pictured above and below, but suffers from the emptiness and abandonment by both public and private entities following a classic 1970s pedestrian-mall treatment.

There is also an interpretive sculpture of a church that was replaced by a bank. It nicely frames the Organ Mountains from the Rio Grande theater, but it is a little misleading, since the church was about 80 yards away and facing a different direction.

City Councilman Greg Smith is a big promoter of preservation and Main Street, and there is hope, thanks to the arts anchors at the north end of the street, including the Branigan Cultural Center with its great 1935 WPA-style mural and the private Black Box Theater.

We also toured the lovely Depot-Alameda historic district, starting with the 1910 Maud Witherspoon house, a uniquely high-ceiling variant on the adobe style. In fact, many of the homes in the district evince Eastern styles but use local materials and techniques. Here is a sampling:

This is the historic Women’s Improvement Association building

And we saw the 1935 Courthouse High School, which is being rehabilitated with a strong local heritage element throughout the building and its curriculum.

Finally a hike up to Dripping Stream in the Organ Mountains with Hema and Matt Byrnes. There is a 1910 TB Sanitorium preserved up there.

Thanks to Hema, Matt, Luis Rios, Dr. Lovelace, Irene Oliver Lewis, John Sullivan, Eric Liefield, Greg Smith, Lori Grumet, Clark Meyers, David Rockstraw and all of the others who made me so welcome in Las Cruces.


Marfa, Texas

October 28, 2010

Marfa, Texas is a town with one stop light named after a character in a Dostoevsky novel and a far drive from just about everywhere else in the world. But its isolation hasn’t prevented it from becoming a destination and famous place for longer than I have been on earth. You can begin with the lovely Second Empire Presidio County Courthouse in the center of town, preserved as part of the great courthouse preservation program of the Texas Historical Commission.

The courthouse square seems unfinished, with most of the buildings on one end of it, closer to the intersection two blocks away with the road that matters, the one that connects to Alpine, at 5700 people nearly thrice as large, and El Paso, 3 hours distant. Marfa has some great buildings from the early 20th century, most notably the Hotel Paisano, with plaques aplenty describing its architectural landmark status and shops dedicated to the Marfa’s first great film, James Dean, Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Burton’s GIANT (Dennis Hopper also appeared).

Marfa Bank and part of the 1931 Brite Building

Marfa also hosts an inexplicable meterological phenomena called the Marfa Lights and they have even built a viewing platform outside of town where you can see these floating, colorful lights that appear and disappear like mirages in the early evening.

Marfa got its next burst of fame in the 1970s when the minimalist artist Donald Judd began transforming an old military base into a massive exhibit of his own and other guys (heavy emphasis on the male gender) modern art the Chinati Foundation, which still attracts carloads of artsters and hip types to see what is an impressive place on the edge of town and several buildings in town as well. Judd’s aluminum and concrete boxes and Dan Flavin‘s flourescent light installations are the highlight on the old military base, while John Chamberlain’s crushed car sculptures fill the downtown gallery.

Marfa still attracts artists and the Chinati Foundation has sponsored a great range of new and diverse work. A few years ago, Marfa became home to a public radio station, thanks to the efforts of my brother Tom Michael, who runs KRTS. The establishment of the radio station provides a cultural anchor for this unexpected cultural mecca – I know my brother meets more artists and musicians in Marfa than I do in Chicago

Marfa has more than its share of artists and entrepreneurs, and it needs them because it is out in the desert. Yet the town has a lot – the Marfa Book Company has an astonishing selection of literature and book and there is even a fabulous restaurant Cochineal with a massive wine list (5 different kinds of Grüner Veltliner! – I NEVER find Grüner Veltliner in towns 20 times as big!!) and lots of other interesting shops and venues, like Katherine Shaughnessy’s Wool & Hoop and the Ballroom.

And then there is the adobe, because while Marfa lies in Far West Texas, the Trans-Pecos and Big Bend, it is southwestern and adobe is found a lot.

this is an adobe wall at Judd’s town complex

In this regard, I spoke on Marfa Public Radio about the preservation of the Hunter Gymnasium, which may well be the only Art Deco, WPA-built adobe gymnasium in the United States of America.

I met with Mike Green, the architect completing the Historic Structures Report on the gym, which is remarkably intact with its earthen buttresses and subtle streamlining. It needs work, thanks to rising damp and water infiltration that has been made much worse by the application of elastomeric paint on the interior.

The gym also had a pitched roof installed to replace the original flat one, but it has very solid bones and I would love to see this one-of-a-kind treasure restored.

A National Trust for Historic Preservation motto is “This Place Matters” and Marfa is a place that really matters.