Wednesday, November 13, 2013


House in "La Tijera" c. 1937 -- probably similar to our own place before it was remodeled in the 1950's

Every now and then, I post something about the ruins that are found all over New Mexico, dating back to the legendary Anasazi period and right up to today. Buildings and ranches are being abandoned all the time. Some of them will eventually be reclaimed, but most will melt back into the ground, only to be dug up again one day -- perhaps -- to be studied by scholars of the future, puzzled by whatever this or that ruin used to be.

Our house here in New Mexico, of course, was an abandoned ruin when we found it and made it our own. It may well have repeatedly fallen into ruin, been abandoned, and then restored. Houses all along our street and others nearby have been abandoned, some for years, before somebody comes along and puts them back in shape for rental or resale or tears them down and leaves the land bare for the next generation to come along and build something else. Or not. As the case may be.

The Abandoned Cement Plant on Hwy 41

The most massive abandoned structure around here is the cement plant that looms huge and seemingly whole along what once was the rail line (that itself was abandoned half a century ago or more). While the cement plant looks operative, it has actually been abandoned for decades. There are abandoned diners, trading posts, motels and motor courts, gas stations and so on, all along the remnant portion of Route 66 that we travel frequently into Albuquerque.  On the way to Santa Fe, practically the whole town of Stanley is abandoned and melting back into the earth. The former town of Otto is gone; there is a lone Ionosphere Communications Experiment Station -- yes, ICE Station Otto (it may be abandoned, too, but we're not entirely sure) -- to mark where it was. Some of these abandoned places will probably be allowed to weather away to nothing, whereas others are being reclaimed for re-use or as in the case of the Red Top diner in Edgewood (that used to be in Magdalena), some are now being used solely as "attractions," decorative elements for some other enterprise (in the case of Edgewood, the Red Top is now fronting for an RV Park.)

Over at another site I visit periodically, one of the regular posters has been putting up his spectacular photos of abandoned farms and other ruins that dot the Upper Midwest. They seem to be everywhere. Hard and cold countries are abandoned for the relative luxury of the coasts, but then when the coasts are lashed by storms, as has happened on the Gulf and East Coast, parts of them are abandoned as well. The Midwest has its floods and tornadoes, the lower Rockies and the Southwest its droughts, California and the Northwest its earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

As I was pointing out at yet another site with regard to the awful typhoon destruction in the Philippines, there was no safe place for the people to go. Even the shelters were destroyed in the storm.

We know instinctively that the world is constantly changing, and there is really no permanence anywhere to be had. The suddenness and thoroughness of the destruction caused by earthquake, tornado, tsunami, flood and fire, not to mention the destruction caused by bombs and crashing airliners and missiles and so forth, always comes as a shock. The abandonment of habitations and other sites and leaving them to ruin, as in the appalling case of Detroit  (a case preceded by many, many other cities in the Rust Belt) leaves the observer stunned, perhaps, but understanding the process of change and decay, abandonment and dissolution  helps one to accept these gradual losses. The gradual disintegration that occurs due to abandonment is less of a shock, but the ruins are pretty much the same in the end, aren't they?

I got into a discussion about the over-interpretation of the Chaco Canyon ruins with someone who has made a long time study of them. I said that sometimes what seems to be obvious -- for example, Pueblo Bonito may well have been a gathering place, storehouse and distribution center  (ie: more like a shopping mall) rather than strictly speaking a "ceremonial site" as is often said of it. When I pointed out that the above ground ruins we see today are largely reconstructions done in the 1930's and afterwards, not at all what was found by archeologists when they first started digging the site, he became somewhat agitated. The ruins the public sees are interpretations by those who did the reconstructions, not -- for the most part -- the original remains.

On the other hand, at Chaco as at other sites in the Southwest, almost pristine rooms were found practically intact below the debris level.

Whether those rooms still exist or not, I don't know, for the public has no access to them, and the photos I've seen of them when found don't state whether they were preserved.  The nearly intact rooms at Chaco show a very, very different appearance than the recreated ruins above them; the walls and floors are plastered, the ceilings are beautifully laid, and all in all, the rooms seem almost modern. You can find nearly identical workmanship in many homes in Santa Fe today.

There is one room on display at Pueblo Bonito, I recall, that shows what one of the pristine rooms looked like -- but it, too, is a reconstruction. Yet park personnel insist that reconstruction amounts to only 15% of the ruins visible above ground are reconstructions -- as opposed to stabilization.

According to present day Pueblo peoples, the descendants of the Chacoans, the Chaco Canyon was abandoned gradually:

Thus it was at Yupkoyvi, until slowly the clans left for different places. The Hopi mesas were one destination. Other clans went to Halona, today's Zuni. Still others went to Zia, Acoma and Laguna. Some chose to stay a while longer, until they, too, left. Yupkoyvi had served its purpose, and now it was proper to lay it to rest. -- Leigh J. Kuwanwisiwma

Whereas the sudden destruction or abandonment of places leaves sometimes awful ruins, whether in Haiti or the Philippines or New Orleans or elsewhere, they typically are cleared away after an interval and new construction takes their place.

When places are abandoned one by one, gradually, and left to fall into ruin over time, sometimes a very long time, the ruin may never be cleared away; building may or may not resume at the site of the ruins; there may be periods of reconstruction and further periods of decay and abandonment. In these cases, the ruins are almost living things, being periodically reborn. In other cases, once the abandonment is confirmed, that's it; the place is left to molder, decay and fall to pieces, never to be rebuilt nor to be removed. That's when I suppose they become "romantic."

There's been an annoying tendency since the 18th Century Romantic period to make believe that ruins are permanent, indeed, to pretend that nothing important ever changes, that all human-made things abide. It's certainly been the tendency in Santa Fe since the advent of the "New - Old Santa Fe Style" over a hundred years ago now. It was then that the commercial City Beautiful and Preservation movement was in full flower, and it meant that Santa Fe would be transformed into what's been called the "Adobe Disneyland."

The Governor's Palace on the Plaza was the first structure to be treated to the New Old Style in renovations between 1909 and 1913. Its semi-Victorian portal was ripped off and a new-- old style -- portal that, so far as is known, had nothing to do with anything that the building had ever sported throughout its history up to 1913 was substituted. And it's been that way ever since, absolute, permanent, and seemingly forever more. Yet until its 1913 remodeling, the building had been undergoing constant changes since it was begun c.1610, never staying the same for more than a few decades at a time. The plaza front of the Governor's Palace was constantly being renovated and repaired, altered, improved, and changed. Not so since the New-Old Style remodel.

The tendency toward stylisic permanence contrasts with the prevalence of ruins in New Mexico. In Santa Fe, there are no ruins, at least not in the City Different's historic district. There are many reconstructions, and there are plenty of stylistic remodelings to resemble something more or less Spanish-Pueblo "Santa Fe Style." The Museum of Art (1917) and the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (the former post office) (1922) are perhaps the most blatant examples of New Old Santa Fe Style, but there are many other more modest examples to be found and not solely in Santa Fe. Albuquerque's Old Town Plaza area has received a very similar treatment, with similar results, and one can find examples of the style all over the state.


And then to sum up the topic for today, mosey on over to photographer Noel Kerns site and enjoy his "light paintings" of found sites and ruins all over the country. They're fascinating, disturbing, and somehow hopeful.

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