Rethinking Santa Fe Style

In Santa Fe, everything from the ancient Palace of the Governors to today's Walgreens is clad in adobe and designed in the Pueblo Revival or Spanish-colonial tradition. Picturesque and charming, this look is not, however, necessarily all that authentic: it dates from the early 20th century, at least as it applies to architecture and urban planning.

Around 1920, less than a decade after New Mexico attained statehood, the city's leaders decided that they could enhance Santa Fe's image, and promote tourism, by instituting urban planning guidelines calling for all new construction in the adobe style. At that time, the Plaza and the blocks around it contained a mix of Italianate, Queen Anne, and other Victorian styles, mixed with Spanish-colonial, and Pueblo Revival buildings.

Some lament that Santa Fe is too uniform, and that the degree to which the city enforces the Santa Fe style verges on the ridiculous. If Santa Fe is going to allow strip malls and tract developments, albeit, thankfully, several miles from the historic district, shouldn't the developers be permitted to design them as they please?

Others argue that Santa Fe, along with much of northern New Mexico's Rio Grande Valley, must rigorously preserve its style, even if it wasn't codified until the 20th century. Aesthetically and architecturally, this part of the country enjoys a singular appearance. The region's buildings may look similar, but they look nothing at all like buildings elsewhere. Besides, an urban design theme developed in the 1920s, based on regional building traditions of the prior few centuries, can legitimately be called historic at this point.

Although city planners began encouraging a unified style from the 1920s onward, officially, Santa Fe adopted its Historic Zoning Ordinance in 1957. Today, the city's Historic Design Review Board checks that all new development fits within these particular guidelines, and that developers conduct a historical study of the surrounding area before embarking on any new construction.

Regardless of how far back you trace Santa Fe style, the look of the city and the Rio Grande Valley's other communities preserves a distinct amalgam of indigenous, Spanish, and Western architectural traditions. We owe the concept of earthen walls and flat roofs to the region's many centuries of Pueblo Indians, although it was the Spaniards who perfected building with adobe bricks. An increase in trade with U.S. states in the 19th century brought a greater variety of materials to the region, leading to an increasing use of timber and metal in building construction. This led to the development of an architectural style unique to the Southwest called Territorial, which combines American Victorian, frontier, Spanish-colonial, and—to a lesser degree—Pueblo Indian design elements.

For a more thorough examination of Santa Fe's design aesthetic and how it has evolved, take a look at Chris Wilson's book, The Myth of Santa Fe: Creating a Modern Regional Tradition.

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