Tuesday, May 7, 2013

OT: The Gustave Baumann House in Santa Fe

Gustave Baumann House, Santa Fe NM

Well, this is interesting. The Gustave Baumann house in Santa Fe is (or was) listed for sale (I just discovered the listing. I suspect was on the market for a while, but according to some sources, it's not on the market currently.)  For almost as long as I've been looking at New Mexico real estate listings, the homes of many of the painters and artists who made their way to Santa Fe in the early part of the 20th century have been coming on the market, sometimes for fabulous prices. Gustave Baumann was one of the seminal figures in the Santa Fe art colony, primarily working as a print-maker, and his home was a veritable tiny fantasmagoria of his own invention.

Carlos Vierra's home on the Old Pecos Trail was one of the first, if not the first, significant artist home built in Santa Fe. It is one I long admired, a substantial, neo-Pueblo style place on a large lot. When it was built in 1918-1919, it was way out of town, and it's still not exactly in town, though the town has crept out around it like kudzu.

It was listed at the height of the real estate market at something like $2,600,000, which at the time seemed a bit steep, but given the size of the property and the historical significance of the house, it was at least conceivable that someone would pay that. But they didn't. The house sat on the market for two, maybe close to three years, without a sale. The price dropped to $1,900,00, then to $1,600,000. Finally, it did sell, though I don't know what the price was. I'll bet it was in that neighborhood, and it's probably a corporate executive stay these days. We pass by it every time we go to Santa Fe, and it seems quite un-homey these days, but I haven't any real idea what's become of it, and the truth is, except for some outbuildings and part of the upper floor, you can't really see it from the street because of the screening pine trees planted outside the wall around the property. At least it wasn't torn down or turned into a bed and breakfast or a shop like so many have been.

(Speaking of, since I think part of the Shuster compound is now a bed and breakfast): Will Shuster's place also went on the market a while ago, for fabulous money, and I scarfed some of the pictures from the listing for future reference when we continued the renovations of our own house. I liked the details on the stairs and the flattened punched Mobil Oil cans used to decorate the kitchen cabinets in the guest house, but now I can't find the pictures. I think they were on the hard drive of one of the computers that died back in the day. The hard drives of our various dead computers are currently stashed in several rooms of the house, and we need to consolidate them. So many things are still in boxes. We'll get to it. Eventually.

The Gustave Baumann house was built in 1923, and it doesn't follow the standard set by the Carlos Vierra house begun in 1918, not at all, and its distinctiveness may be one reason it is considered such a treasure today. The curving adobe shapes and masses of the Vierra house essentially became the model for the widespread neo-Pueblo Santa Fe Style in house design. It became routine, even mass produced, in Santa Fe and Albuquerque and elsewhere in New Mexico until well into the 1950's. It was only later that the severely straight-lined and cubical massing characterized by the Baumann house became stylish, and interestingly, it is now commonplace in new housing developments. You almost never see the Vierra style in new construction any more -- partly, no doubt. because even the ricos can't afford it.

Though the Baumann house feels much like other Santa Fe artist's residences, it also, perhaps strangely, evokes the standard little suburban semi-Spanish bungalow from the era of its construction. Its sharp lines even convey an Art Deco sensibility, something you see very little of in Santa Fe.

It is a very small house. Two bedrooms, one bath, a large living room (that once had a stage for puppet performances), a small kitchen, an even tinier dining room, and a remarkable skylit octagonal gallery/entrance hall, where Baumann used to display his works for sale.

His studio is in a corner of the property. There is a garage and a shed, space for gardens, and that's essentially it. The property is a "compound" in the sense the word is used in Santa Fe, but it's quite wee compared to most, and the diminutiveness of the whole is part of its charm.

Baumann decorated much of the house with his own artistic fancies, from the distinctive front gate to the gilded "Koshare" emblem poking up from the roof of the gallery skylight. He did much of the wood carving decorating the house, if not all of it, and he designed and built most of the doors and gates. He actually designed the house himself, but he had it rendered by an architect friend of his, and had it built by the architect's brother.

The Historic Santa Fe Foundation purchased the house in 2008 and set about conserving and restoring it, with plans -- I thought -- to use it as a house museum and meeting place. What happened to those plans, I don't know, but I do know they were trying to accomplish a rather extensive conservation and restoration task during the worst period of the economic free-fall, and they had a difficult time raising money for the project.

But they did produce a number of videos documenting the project, and they are well worth watching -- for those interested in this sort of historic detail...

When I saw the listing for the house, at $1,100,000, I figured they'd given up on it. The price they were asking was breathtaking. Even in Santa Fe, where significant properties will bring that price and more, it seemed steep for the Baumann place. We are still in a real estate market slump after all, and the renovations and restoration of the Baumann house and studio, I understand, have not been completed. In addition, I believe that any purchaser must agree to preserve and protect the house and studio in close to the style and condition it had during Baumann's lifetime, with heavy restrictions on what can and cannot be done to and with the property. This is not the place for a typical owner.

The house is built largely of adobe, and when it was purchased by the Foundation, there were large cracks on many of the walls due to uneven settling of the foundations. Repairing -- and repainting -- the cracks was among the first orders of business in the restoration, and I thought the way they did it was interesting, and extraordinarily complex.

Yes, well. Our house, too, is built mostly of adobe, and when we bought it, it was in sad, and in places, crumbling shape. There were pretty large cracks in the walls, and there were places where the plaster had fallen away from the interior walls completely, exposing the adobe bricks. The stone foundation, we found, was essentially set on top of hard packed surface soil, not dug into the ground (at least so far as we can tell), and so it has settled quite unevenly, meaning that some of the floors slope noticeably, and the walls continue to crack. Our floors are wide pine boards in part of the house and what appear to be narrow maple (or some other hardwood, not oak) boards in another wing. So far as we can tell, there is no subfloor beneath the wide boards; they are directly on the floor joists. The narrow boards, however, appear to be on a subfloor. But gaps between floor and walls can lead to surprising drafts.

I'm sure there are plenty of such quirks at the Baumann place as well. People who are used to more rigorous and modern building standards would probably be put off by such things as air and roof leaks and slopes and cracks and so on that you're liable to find in an old adobe house, let alone the simple lack of electrical outlets and the somewhat primitive plumbing facilities. "How could people live this way?!" runs the refrain. Well, they did. Somehow they managed.

What we deal with more than anything else it seems, are the air leaks in our house. The windows leak cold air -- despite the fact that they are energy-efficient replacements. The weatherstripping on the doors is leaky. And when the wind blows, there are air leaks and drafts around the perimeters of the rooms in the adobe part of the house, as if there is a gap between the floorboards and the walls. Oh. Well, of course there is. It's the nature of the construction.  In the winter, part of my task it to find out where cold air is coming in and block the drafts. It's an ongoing task because when one draft is blocked another appears.

I wouldn't doubt that there are similar issues in the Baumann house, and I'm sure they're just as aggravating if not more so. How can people live this way?

You're always doing maintenance things in an old adobe house, as I'm sure the Baumanns were during their 40 years' living in their little cubical house on Camino de las Animas in Santa Fe. Not only do you do constant little, and occasional big, maintenance things in an adobe house, you learn what you can let go, too, and not worry too much about -- which I'm still getting a handle on. In a way, you have to listen to the place and understand that it is a living part of the earth. Learn not to be so concerned with its appearance and become more concerned with its spirit. The house will tell you what it needs.

In 2009, a historic property report (pdf) was prepared for the Gustave Baumann house which details a lot of the property's historic importance as well as its many artistic features and quirks at the time of its restoration. Together with the videos prepared by the Historic Santa Fe Foundation and the real estate listing, it gives a surprisingly realistic picture of what life was like in Santa Fe during the early and some of the later years of the Santa Fe artists' colony -- before the colony became an industry.

I've been pondering how something initially so simple, even naive, became the economic dynamo that it is today -- and whether that is such a good thing.

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