|Carlos Vierra, Painter|
Carlos Vierra has been called Santa Fe's "first resident artist," which is something of a stretch given the fact that Native and Spanish artists as well as the occasional Anglo were resident in Santa Fe for centuries before "California" Carlos Vierra purchased himself a photography studio on the Plaza for $280.00 in 1905 and commenced to paint. Let's put it this way: He was, perhaps, the first commercial artist to take up residence in Santa Fe.
I doubt anyone actually called him "California" Carlos, but he was from California, born in Moss Landing in 1876, reared in Monterey, schooled in art in San Francisco, there could hardly be a more quintessentially "California" artist at the time, even though he went out to New Mexico from New York -- where he had gone to make his fortune as a young illustrator on the rise, contracted tuberculosis and was told to take the cure in a drier climate.
New Mexico was the preferred destination for tuberculars, and Carlos wound up in a rustic cabin on the Pecos where he did not get better, and ultimately he had to retreat up to Santa Fe where he was cared for and cured by the Sisters of Charity in a relative twinkling.
Carlos Vierra's parents were what was called in his day "Portagee" -- his father a Portuguese sailor, his mother a Portuguese beauty -- which was not at all uncommon in California, but it wasn't so typical of New Mexico where the old Spanish families still held sway. Thus he no doubt was considered somewhat of an exotic.
In California in the latter half of the 19th Century, what was left of Spanish and Indian heritage was being torn up root and branch or driven into or left to ruin. By the 1880's, Los Angeles, previously a dusty Mexican adobe town of a few hundred or a thousand souls, like many in the Southwest, had blossomed into an Anglo resort city, filled with Business, railroading, suburban orchards and people from Iowa and Indiana. San Francisco had long since lost its Spanish character, nearly every trace of which was swept away in the Gold Rush of 1849 and thereafter, during which, infamously, "the world rushed in."
However, Monterey, California's Spanish and Mexican capital, uniquely had preserved quite a bit of its antiquity -- the old Presidio was still there, the old Capitol, and some of the old families still lived in their adobe houses so there was still an air of Spanish grandee gentility. The Anglo gloss on the town was slight and to an extent beneficial, as most of it came via the military installations. In some sense it's not all that much different today, for a visit to Monterey is still in many ways a visit to another time and another world. (Actually, I shouldn't say that. I haven't been there for 20 years or so, and things may well have changed. The last time I was there I recall walking along the waterfront from the Aquarium, shadowed by a very playful and extraordinarily cute otter.)
When Carlos was coming up as an artist, first in Monterey and then in San Francisco, there were a number of artistic and cultural movements afoot, one of which was preservation -- especially of the historic California Missions, most of which had fallen to ruin after secularization in the 1830's. California's Spanish heritage, even knowledge of its heritage, was being lost at a furious clip, and with few exceptions (such as in Monterey itself) even the physical evidence of that heritage was melting back into the earth.
When I was a boy in the 1950's and learned about the Missions, they had all been restored, more or less well, more or less accurately, though some were built entire from practically nothing that remained of what used to be. Those that were still used as parish churches had survived fairly well, but many were abandoned to the elements, and some, like La Purisima, had simply disappeared.
Rebuilding, renovating, restoring, and "oldening up" the California Missions was one of the many cultural causes under way when Carlos was learning Art at the Academy. Some of the surviving Missions, as well as quite a few of the old Spanish haciendas, had been acquiring gingerbready ornament since California became a province of the United States of America.
Par exemple, the Workman ranch house in Southern California as it is today, originally constructed in adobe in 1841, expanded and gingerbreaded in the 1870's:
This enraged the historical purists, of course, who demanded -- and after the publication of Ramona bit by bit got -- restoration "as it used to be" of many a Mission, hacienda and outbuilding in California, most of which are maintained to this day "as they once were." More or less.
I have to think that these movements in California to preserve and in some cases to recreate what used to be -- or at least an image of it -- had a profound influence on Vierra as he set out on his artistic and cultural journey from one of California's most historic cities, Monterey.
And I think it would have an effect on his historicism in New Mexico.
Historicism which resulted in the "Santa Fe Style."
His first project, so far as has has been reported, was the Palace of the Governors, the oldest continuously used public building in the United States.
Construction started for a military and governmental quarters on the north side of the Santa Fe Plaza in 1610, or possibly 1609. It was an extensive enclosure, much larger than the current Palace which extends east to west along Palace Avenue from Washington to Lincoln Avenue, with wings extending less than half a block north from each corner. The extant 'Palace' consists of only part of the Plaza-side range of buildings that once constituted the Presidio of Santa Fe.
This is a color transparency of a military formation outside the Palace (which was at that time used for government offices and the Territorial Governor's official residence) taken in about 1900. Whether it is an actual color photograph or it was hand tinted, I can't say.
|Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, c. 1900|
This is approximately what Vierra could see from the studio he bought on the west side of the Plaza in 1905, and obviously, it's not a particularly "Spanish" looking colonnade. It's almost Victorian, especially with those clever little urns ranged along the top of the gallery railing.
Nor do the telephone and telegraph poles add much to the ambiance of the scene. Vierra must have been very upset that a building that was started in 1609 or 1610 would wind up looking like this nearly 300 years later.
But throughout its history, the Governor's Palace had changed its appearance many times. Like most of the ancient structures in New Mexico, it had evolved over the centuries, never settling on one "look" as its permanent appearance. In a land where constant maintenance and renovation of adobe buildings is required, changes in their appearance are taken for granted. They might maintain the same general appearance over the centuries, but details would be constantly evolving, color schemes would change, perhaps another story would be added or removed, the portal would be rebuilt over and over, changing styles depending on needs and availability of lumber and so on.
In the case of the Governor's Palace in Santa Fe, by the time this picture was taken, 2/3rds of the ancient Presidio of which the Governor's Palace formed a part was already gone. Much of it had fallen into ruin even before the Anglo conquest. What was left maintained the general appearance the building had had for centuries, but inside or out, it was never exactly the same for more than a few years at a time.
Vierra wasn't satisfied. He wanted something permanent, a "once and for all" version of the "historic" Governor's Palace, and this is what he got in 1913:
|Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, (with Burros) c. 1913|
Which -- minus the burros -- is pretty much exactly what's there now. For almost a century now, the exterior appearance of the Governor's Palace in Santa Fe has remained identical to the neo-Pueblo applique seen in the picture above, whereas prior to 1913, the appearance of the Governor's Palace and its use had been constantly evolving.
The idea that a building has a permanent appearance that is set for its whole existence is quite a new one, especially in the context of New Mexico where buildings, especially made of adobe, require constant maintenance and renovation.
As others have pointed out, Vierra's neo-Pueblo portal appliqued onto the Governor's Palace is completely ahistorical. Nothing like it is documented to have ever been part of the Governor's Palace or the Presidio in all the centuries prior to the Vierra Portal. Which it still has.
What is documented abundantly is a series of very simple portals, leading up to the 'fancy' one seen in the first color picture. All of them were more or less similar, and their similarity is reflected in the portals of the buildings all around the Plaza from time immemorial.
|Corner of Lincoln Ave and San Francisco Street, Santa Fe, c. 1860's (Note Ghost at Right)|
Fascinating that the picket fence around the Plaza (an Anglo conceit) encloses corn stalks and possibly other crops. Even now, corn and squash and beans are grown in the city planters all over downtown Santa Fe. The portals on the south side of the Plaza vary somewhat in style, but they are very simple, and they do not in any way resemble what was applied to the Governor's Palace. Even today, the portals on the buildings surrounding the Plaza more closely resemble the ones in the picture above than they do that of the Governor's Palace.
However, the redo and "oldening up" of the Governor's Palace was such a success that Vierra quickly decided on a more ambitious project: "oldening up" the whole town -- partly by building new structures in the "old" style, partly by retro-renovations of buildings that had been modernized, and partly by layering a jacket of ersatz mud plaster and false vigas onto some of the newer buildings.
His next major project would be the New Mexico Museum of Art in 1917. It is, needless to say, still a sensation.
The New Mexico Museum of Art is built in the neo-Pueblo style on section of Palace Avenue directly across Lincoln Avenue from the Governor's Palace. It's on a section of land that was once part of the Presidio of Santa Fe and had for centuries hosted another range of simple buildings much like the Governor's Palace. But the Museum of Art looks nothing like the Governor's Palace or any other historic building in Santa Fe for that matter.
Rather than adapt the standard one or two story more or less cubical Santa Fe building style to the Museum of Art, Vierra and the architects chose to adapt the style of the mission church at Acoma together with a pastiche of elements from other mission churches around New Mexico (most of which were falling into ruin at the time). The result was this:
|Art Museum and Palace, Looking East, Santa Fe, c. 1917|
As I say, the appearance of the Museum is based on the Acoma mission church (which dates to the 1600's) with elements from other mission churches around New Mexico.
Helpfully, Vierra himself wrote an illustrated article for Art and Archaeology that details much of the influence and the rationale for the appearance of the New Mexico Museum of Art.
His illustrations are particularly useful to get an idea of what he saw when he traveled around New Mexico in the early 1900's.
For example, the mission church at Acoma (San Esteban) looked like this:
|San Esteban, Acoma, c. 1915|
|San Felipe, c. 1904|
The problem at Acoma, of course, is just the difficulty of maintaining any structure at the top of the mesa, given the fact that at the time, the only way up was on foot or burro-back. Even water had to be carried up the mesa side in jars. Taking elaborate care of a huge mission church was not a priority of the Acomans, and in fact, San Esteban at Acoma stayed in near ruinous condition.
By the turn of the twentieth century the condition of the church had reached a critical level. Contemporary photos show that the erosion of the towers and the spalling of the mud plaster from the south wall had caused considerable deterioration. The tower bases were severely eroded by water and wind. With funds from the Committee for the Reconstruction and Preservation of New Mexico Mission Churches, restoration work commenced under the supervision of Lewis Riley and Sam Huddleston acting in conjunction with architect John Gaw Meem in Santa Fe. At that late date the nearest railroad stop was still fifteen miles away at Acomita, which meant that the final part of the journey—and the lifting of building materials to the top of the peñol—had to be accomplished by human and animal strength. First priority was given to the roof, which leaked seriously and threatened the destruction of the nave.Even in 1924, Riley reported, the younger men of the village lived, not in the Sky City, but in the surrounding settlements at Acomita and McCarty's. The rebuilding was undertaken cooperatively, with a "community effort which could hardly be duplicated among our own people." The water was transported in five-gallon casks and steel barrels and was hauled on donkeys the two miles from the nearest spring. (Acoma still does not have a regular source of water.) The women augmented these efforts in the traditional way by bearing water to the precipice in buckets and ollas. The roof work was completed in six weeks using lumber from Arizona and roofing materials from Denver, both brought via rail. "The convento is rapidly falling into ruins, but it preserves as yet most of its former beauty and could be restored with comparatively little expense," Riley wrote. He had also hoped to repair the towers and the exterior plastering, but these had to wait until the works of 1926–1927.The 1926 restoration was a community effort with cooperative decisions determining the allocation of human resources. On September 12, 1926, it was decided that all members of the pueblo would assemble and for three days pack and carry dirt up to the church site. From September 15 onward there would be a crew of fifteen men, to be rotated each week, who would work on the repairs until the winter weather intervened. On September 9 a large herd of burros was discovered by B. A. Reuter, who had succeeded Lewis Riley as superintendent, and these were commandeered to haul earth. Thus, drawing on the ageless tradition of human and animal labor, the church reconstruction began. Source
But at San Felipe, the situation was different, in that the mission church was rebuilt several times in different locations, starting in 1605, the latest rebuilding in 1808 or thereabouts, with constant refurbishing right up to the present. Of course it helps that the church is on the plain below the mesa top now, and maintenance isn't such an arduous task.
I've written before about he prevalence of ruins in New Mexico, and one of the reasons there are so many of them is the difficulty of maintaining some of the old buildings. At Acoma, for example, maintaining an enormous church (San Esteban is huge) on a mesa top where few people were living at the time was a task not worth bothering with. Letting the church go to ruin while other matters took priority made perfect sense.
And so it is in many other instances then and now. Vierra was interested in preserving and extending the style of buildings in the traditional manner while reducing or eliminating the necessity of continuous maintenance and renovation. Thus the New Mexico Museum of Art was built of modern materials, with all the modern conveniences, in the style of the old days. It was a remarkable building then, as it is today.
Shortly, it would be followed by others in a similar style, such as the El Onate Theatre, La Fonda's re-conception as a neo-Pueblo fantasy, and many more:
US Post Office, Cathedral Place, Santa Fe, New Mexico, c. 1925
For his part, Vierra commenced work on his own house, somewhat out of town on the Old Pecos Trail in 1918. I noticed that at the height of the real estate boom, it was listed for sale by Sotheby's for very much money, not an unheard of amount in Santa Fe, but still substantial. Of all the many "mud mansions" in Santa Fe, I found it the most charming.
While I called John Gaw Meem the "godfather" of Santa Fe Style architecture in a previous post, it was actually Carlos Vierra who was the leading advocate and proponent and who served as Meem's teacher when he came out to New Mexico in the 1920's.
Vierra was not an architect himself, he was a painter and a photographer who was an informed amateur archeologist. He was not the first to rediscover the traditional architectural forms of New Mexico but he was their most vocal, tireless and successful advocate in Santa Fe for years, and it's largely through his efforts and those he was able to convince that so much of Santa Fe today adheres to the Santa Fe Style (well, of course, and the ordinances that require it.)
Vierra was a founder -- some say, the founder -- of the Santa Fe Art Colony whose work would begin the process of establishing Santa Fe and eventually New Mexico as a leading art market in the United States and the world. Other artists in that founding group include Sheldon Parsons, Gerald Cassidy, and Warren E. Rollins. Many others would come to New Mexico over the years to join the vibrant local arts scene, some of them from California like Vierra.
Where I differ with Vierra and other preservationists is in the insistence that historic buildings cease evolution or -- as in the case of the Governor's Palace, "revert" to an appearance they never had in history. Buildings that are used will by necessity evolve and change and adapt to the times. Buildings that are not used or are used only for display and pageants -- like the Governor's Palace since its conversion into a museum and backdrop for the Plaza and its numerous events -- can, I suppose, be preserved unchanged, like a painting, a sculpture, or other work of art.
Whether it is wise to maintain traditional architectural forms when building in modern materials for modern needs, I'll leave up to the reader. I know I can go outside my door in California, and looking to the right is a fair imitation of a historic Monterey hacienda but built in the 1920's -- it's lovely -- and to the left, is another though more traditionally Spanish or Mexican than California in style. And directly across the street is a brick Georgian house built -- I would guess -- in the early 1930's. They each seem to serve today's living requirements just fine, as I think we'd find most traditional architectural styles will, whereas some of the more cutting edge modern styles don't and can't in that they're not meant for use so much as for show.
Many people adore the Santa Fe Style of art and life, so much so it has become a matter of gentle ridicule:
The Style itself becomes a matter of history, as I see fewer and fewer of its victims these days.
Nevertheless, I blame it all on California boy Carlos Vierra, the historicist movement of the early 20th Century, and the still astonishing visions of the Land of Enchantment.