Sunday, October 11, 2015

OT: Houses

Looks like quite an interesting place:

Las Milpas -- "The [Corn]Fields". I've passed by it any number of times without realizing it was there. It's set back quite a ways from the street, and I'm not at all sure you can even see it when passing by. For sale. $12.5 million. A sure thing. This is not the most expensive property I've ever seen listed in Santa Fe, but it's close to it. Some of the swells have that kind of money to be sure, but whether any of them would be willing to part with their lucre for an "authentic-historic" adobe (supposedly the only one on the Eastside) is an open question.

The listing says the house was built in 1886, well into the Territorial period, so I have a difficult time believing it was built the way it appears now -- a rather early colonial casa (c. 1700) that's been added to but only slightly modified over the years by people with plenty of money. Yes, this is a big place, and even in the 1880s a place like this would have cost a good deal to build and even more to maintain.

No, I suspect it was built as a fairly ordinary Victorian house -- modified for adobe construction and local weather conditions -- and then later (probably in the1920s) it was remodeled into the formative Spanish-Pueblo "Santa Fe Style" that nowadays makes Santa Fe into what's been called "Adobe Disneyland."

So I did a little  research and discovered that actually, Las Milpas was in fact remodeled in the 1920s and the current compound is a relatively recent renovation, remodel and expansion done by one of Santa Fe's show business elite in authentic early colonial style. Well, well, well. It's more like a setting for a movie that's now passing for a museum.

There are several house museums in the region (Casa San Ysidro, Las Golondrinas) that preserve something of the Spanish colonial era lifestyle for the edification of contemporary schoolchildren, scholars and visitors. I used to be fascinated with these sorts of places in California (where there are quite a few of them) and I enjoy the ones I've found in New Mexico.

We live in something of an Old House ourselves.

As I've mentioned previously, our house is a pioneer adobe, started about 1900 when this area was (finally) opened for settlement by the courts (including the Supreme Court) which extinguished competing land grant claims. Its style is not that of Santa Fe. It's pretty standard late Victorian, and the only way you'd know this is an adobe house is by the thick walls and deep window recesses. The adobe and stucco were covered with aluminum siding in the 1950s when the house was last remodeled. So friends who've come to visit sometimes have a hard time picturing its adobe-ness and antiquity.

Most people don't want to live in places like this because they're really pretty rough and can be hard to heat, cool and maintain. They're drafty, not well insulated (despite the legendary insulation properties of adobe), the floors creak, they're dusty and a home for spiders and other fauna, and in our case, there is no finished floor over most of the house. The subfloor (ancient and refinished) is the finished floor, and it's been that way from the get go.

Our pipes freeze regularly in the winter because of the lack of insulation on the one hand and our tendency to forget to run a stream of water through the pipes during particularly cold weather. Thankfully, the previous owner replaced the galvanized iron pipes with plastic that doesn't burst when the pipes freeze. Good move.

During particularly cold and windy weather, drafts come up through the floor and it can get very chilly at floor level. On the other hand, the heaters can generally defeat the drafts if they're on long enough -- which means that our utility bills can be pretty high, certainly much higher than they were in California. But then the tradeoff is that our basic housing expense is half or less of what it was in California.

We haven't tried to retro-remodel the place into something like it might have appeared when it was first constructed, though we have a lot of old stuff inside the house. I've thought about doing a major remodel retro-remodel, though.

If we did, our place would probably look something like this:

But when I checked on costs to do this kind of remodel some time ago, I found it was well beyond our budget. More than likely, it still is. The cost to do it is probably two or three times the value of the house in any case.

Some people have wondered why we live in this house when there ought to be others which would suit our needs -- possibly better than this house does  -- and not cost so much to maintain, heat and cool?

I was attracted to this house from the moment I saw its picture in the listing ten years ago, and when I visited and learned some of its history, I said, "This is the one." From the time I was little, I wanted to live in an adobe house. The idea of living in a house built from the earth itself appealed to me. The fact was that people had been making and living in such houses for thousands of years, and it seemed to me to be a thoroughly natural way to use available resources for shelter.

Indians in New Mexico had long used a form of adobe to build their pueblo communities, but they didn't -- generally -- use adobe bricks. Instead they built with hand-shaped "turtles" -- roundish masses surrounded with adobe mud. They also used puddled adobe and forms of construction which resembled pottery making.

When the Spanish came, brick making was introduced. It was revolutionary in the sense that it was much faster than the Indian way of building with adobe, but it didn't really change the nature of the structures that were built. Spanish colonial structures were generally separated rather than coalesced as was the case with many of the Indian pueblos that functioned as apartment buildings, but the nature of the structures built by the Spanish and those built by the Indians -- multiple rooms for housing and storage typically built around a plaza or courtyard -- were almost identical.

The main difference was the number of people (and animals) housed in any given compound and the finish and decoration of the resulting structures.

Las Milpas is intended to resemble a Spanish colonial compound that would have been built over a couple of centuries (say 1700-1900) by generations of a particular Spanish family. While it claims to be "authentic," it's actually an "authentic re-creation." It's not original, in other words.

However, as a re-creation, it's quite appealing. When I first saw the photos of the place, I was captivated. If only our place looked like that! Well, no. On second thought, no.

I think Las Milpas would be a very difficult place to live in.

It seems to ramble somewhat randomly -- which is (and isn't) "authentic." It doesn't appear to have modern heating (which might be a problem in the cold-cold Santa Fe winters.) I don't see a kitchen among the pictures at all (although there must be one, no? One is mentioned in the story. but maybe the cooking is fired by wood, and water is carried in jars from the acequia out back?) and only one bathroom is pictured. For some reason, I feel something of a shiver when I see it. Brr.

In other words, it seems like the effort to make it authentically historic has made it difficult or impossible to include modern conveniences. That's OK up to a point, but there comes a point where the discomfort level rises so much that almost nothing else matters...

No, let's not be quite so deliberately uncomfortable.

And yet Las Milpas has a very strong appeal -- to me. I think I would really like to imagine myself living there at some point in the long-ago. It reminds me in some ways of Mabel Dodge Luhan's Los Gallos house in Taos. That house was expanded from a core of four rooms to quite a large place in the 1920s, and it has a great deal of appeal to visitors and caretakers alike. It is "authentic" in the sense that it was built by Indian labor according to Indian designs (Tony Luhan was the builder-creator). But there are modern conveniences, and so the discomfort level is lessened.

If we ever do retro-remodel our own house, I suspect the result will be a sort of hybrid between high -- or low -- Victorian and Arts and Crafts. Box beams instead of vigas, for example, touches of stained glass, wood floors instead of ceramic tile, and probably fireplaces with mantles instead of the kiva style so popular in the Santa Fe tradition.

But that may be years away if it ever comes...

(I've been working on another post about houses I've lived in over the years that have been influential in the way I see things... one day I may find time to complete it and post it!)


  1. I don't see a kitchen among the pictures at all (although there must be one, no? One is mentioned in the story. but maybe the cooking is fired by wood, and water is carried in jars from the acequia out back?)…

    People who would own a place like this, that costs more than 12 million ameros, don’t cook, or eat, for that matter. They would subsist on the rarefied air that fills the precious rooms and hallways.

    …and only one bathroom is pictured…

    and therefore, they don’t shit, either.

  2. HA! All too true!
    I'm on a borrowed computer (thank you Ms Ché!) for the time being. A new charger for mine is on the way from China, but until it arrives....