Monday, October 31, 2016

OT: Houses Once Again

[Not much interested in the latest wrinkle of the Clintoooooon Email Scandalllllll because I doubt it will have more than a marginal effect on the (s)election at this point, and because none of the email hooey up to now has amounted to all that much. I can equate it with the more or less "nothingness" of the Snowden NSA revelations which were almost all things we either knew or suspected, and which resulted in essentially no change in the agency's domestic and foreign surveillance -- except perhaps its intensification. Hello.]

So let's deal with houses once again. This one isn't so much of a memory exercise, though that may enter into parts of the post, as it is a consideration of contemporary housing trends in this area of New Mexico, that is to say the north-central corridors between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. We live about mid-way between the two metropoli, on the east side of the Central Mountain Chain, far enough away from each to be relatively untainted by either Santa Fe Style or the urban madness of ABQ, but close enough to get to either one when we need to or want to.

Santa Fe is in some ways a victim of its own style, often referred to as "Adobe Disneyland." It is an ostensibly an honest depiction and reinterpretation of an historic Spanish Colonial architectural vocabulary and vernacular.

But it's always been questioned and questionable. The problem can be manifested clearly at the Palace of the Governors on the Plaza in Old Town Santa Fe, a building which ostensibly dates back to the foundation of the Villa Real, c. 1610. That's actually a dubious claim as the oldest parts of the current structure post-dates the Reconquista of 1692-3 prior to which (between 1680 and 1692) the entire facility and the fort which it was part of had been reconfigured into a pueblo by the Indians whose revolt led to the expulsion of the Spanish.

After the bloody reconquest of Santa Fe and the outlying pueblos by the Spanish, the Palace of the Governors and its extensive Presidio was restored more or less as it had been prior to the Pueblo Revolt and the pueblo constructions were dismantled and destroyed. However, the restoration was largely a reconstruction as not a whole lot of the previous buildings were still standing when the Spanish came back. This is much the same situation as was the case at San Miguel Mission church in the Barrio Analco, which was destroyed by the Indians in the Revolt leaving barely a shell of a structure -- and perhaps not even that -- for the Spanish to rebuild after 1692.

Yet San Miguel is considered the Oldest Church in Santa Fe, if not New Mexico.

What is standing now has less to do with what was originally built and remodeled and rebuilt over the years since than it has to do with the imaginary architecture and buildings that have arisen due to the imposition of Santa Fe Style.

The Palace of the Governors was the first example of the Style, c. 1909. What we see today is what resulted from that imposition; nothing -- substantive -- has changed since then, whereas the appearance and function of the Palace was changing constantly throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.

That, to me, is the fundamental flaw of the Style. Once imposed, change is almost impossible.

The Palace of the Governors today appears almost exactly as it did when it was remodeled in the Style in 1909. Next door, across the street, is the New Mexico Museum of Art, built in 1917, in the Style, and it, too, appears almost exactly as it did the day it opened, but that's not how genuine Spanish Colonial/Pueblo architecture was handled back in the day.

Once built, the rebuilding, remodeling, expanding, contracting, re-envisioning and repurposing were constant. Nothing ever stayed the same for long, and the very idea of presenting a permanent appearance and function throughout all time wouldn't have made any sense.

But that's a fundamental factor of Santa Fe Style: once built or remodeled in the Style, the structure must maintain the same appearance for all time to come.

It's jarring and wrong, in my view, to impose such strictures, as it fossilizes what should be dynamic and organic architecture into a design straitjacket.

I use our own home as example of how a domestic building has changed in appearance and function over time, though it has appeared much the same since its last major remodeling fifty some odd years ago.

Our house was begun, built from adobe dug on site, about 1900. We don't know the actual year construction started, but this area was first opened to homesteading and settlement about that time (squatters arrived earlier of course) once the various land-grant claims were quashed by the Supreme Court. It is our impression that the first part of the house to be built was what's now the living room and two bedrooms, but which was originally probably two rooms: a kitchen/work room and a living/sleeping room. There would have been no indoor plumbing. There might have been a windmill pumping water from a well into a raised cistern that probably supplied water to livestock troughs and a pumphouse beside the residence. There would have been an outhouse, as there was no indoor bathroom. We're not sure, but there may not have been an indoor bathroom until the remodeling of the 1950s.

The next part of the house to be built was an addition on the east that was probably built in the 1920s or thereabouts, also from adobe dug on site, that is now two bedrooms, a bath and hallway but which was probably only two rooms, a parlor and a bedroom, originally. The original kitchen/workroom was probably turned into two bedrooms and a hallway at that time. The original living/sleeping room was turned into a kitchen/workroom as it was larger.

Then in the 1950s (a period of dust storms in this area) most of the land this house was headquarters for was sold for building lots, and the house underwent major remodeling. The south-facing front porch/portal was enclosed and became host to an entrance hall, a dining area, a kitchen, and a laundry room. The east wing was remodeled to accommodate a bathroom, hallway and two bedrooms. The central kitchen/workroom became a living room. The exterior was clad in aluminum siding and the shingle pitched roof was covered with corrugated tin.

Apart from new windows and paint, we didn't change the appearance of the exterior nor did we change the function of the interior spaces.

But we might.

In fact the future plans for this house involve some pretty extensive remodeling while preserving as much as we can of the house's original character.

After removing the aluminum siding and repairing the stucco underneath, we would have a new propanel roof installed, probably blue or copper color. With the roof, however, we intend to finish the attic into a bedroom and bath and a large north-facing studio. This will mean re-building part of the rafters and reorienting the gable on the north side of the east addition to face east. But if we're going to do that, we'll go ahead and rebuild the enclosed portal that now serves as entry hall, dining area, kitchen and laundry room. In fact, it was not built very well to begin with, and because there is a kind of cellar under the former porch, part of it is slowly sinking into the void. Consequently, it requires a new foundation and reconstruction.

If we do that, we'd add a new portal/porch on the south wide enough to cut the glare from the summer and winter sun and also allow for outside leisure activities. If we add a porch there, we'd also add one on the west side of the house where hot summer afternoon sun can be a real problem. Temporary shade would become permanent. Interestingly there are large old elm trees on the west, but they only partially block the afternoon sun.

Rebuilding the south side of the house would allow us to extend the entrance hall some four feet or so to the south, and that would make it large enough to accommodate more than one guest at a time. It would also allow us to put in a bay window in the eating area of the kitchen which will make it somewhat less cramped. Right now we can only seat three at a time in the kitchen eating area, and we'd like to accommodate four.

The kitchen itself could use a remake. It's adequate to our needs, and so it does not require either enlarging or significant reconfiguring. We'd like to install better cabinetry -- the current cabinets are particle board -- 50 or 60 years old -- and have not held up well. I've long felt that a 50s style kitchen would be fun, so have been looking for a reasonably priced Wedgewood or O'Keefe and Merit stove from the era, and even potentially a working period refrigerator. We've had dishwashers in some of the places we've lived over the years, but we hardly ever used them. They always seemed to be more trouble than they are worth. But because of our advancing age, we would consider installing one in a newly envisioned kitchen. We don't have one now, and we don't miss it.

Real linoleum on the floor -- as opposed to the current vinyl sheet goods -- would be ideal, and in fact  linoleum was one of my requests during the initial renovation before we moved in. The problem was two fold-- the contractor did not know what I was talking about, and once I carefully walked him through what linoleum was, he discovered it wasn't available in this area of New Mexico -- he could get it, but it would take a while -- it cost a LOT more than sheet vinyl and that might break the budget (it wouldn't, but the budget would top out at just about what we'd agreed to), and he could find no one locally who knew how to install it. Finally, he said he couldn't install it during the winter because the house had no heat yet, and the linoleum would crack in the cold. So we went with sheet vinyl which after ten years is looking pretty ratty.

In order for the tap water here to be usable, it must be treated with an acid -- such as citric acid or vinegar --  in order to cut the very high alkalinity and mineral content. The water comes from an underground aquifer that is the bed of a former lake, and it has very high concentrations of lime and calcium and so on. We have investigated various non-salt ways of treating the water (most folks around here just add a little bit of vinegar whenever they draw the tap water). We've pretty much settled on a citric acid injection system.

We want to combine the two small (8 X 11) bedrooms on the west side of the house into one bedroom (11 X 16). We would also add a small bathroom by cannibalizing part of the laundry room. The laundry room now houses a very large hot water heater, and because of that, we can't get the washer and dryer to fit side by side. If we had a smaller water heater in a different position, side by side washing/drying equipment would be possible, and thus the laundry room could be much more compact.

The current living room would become a dining room which would include a stairway to the second floor and lots of bookshelves. We now have our books in bookcases in every room, so we would like to combine as many as possible in one room, a dining room cum library. Using the current living room as a dining room would mean adding a new living room as a wing off the north side of the house, adding another 320 square feet or so. Because it would be on the north side of the house, it would have east, west and northern exposures.

There is no central heat or air conditioning in this house, so if we can do it efficiently, we would add them. The problem of course is that the adobe walls are very thick (almost 3' on the north side) and finding ways to run ductwork is no easy feat. It simply may not be possible, and if it's not, we have alternatives including split systems, and even sticking with what we use now, window air conditioners and a big free-standing gas heater. We've also looked into installing gas fireplace-heaters in each wing, and a wood-burning fireplace in the new living room.

The bronze-framed dual pane windows installed during the initial renovation look nice, but they're not holding up well, and some have become difficult to open and close. One was shot with a b-b gun years ago and has now cracked clear across. I would want to replace them all at the same time the rest of the remodeling is done.

We would fence in part of the property on the west side of the new living room creating an enclosed patio-garden which we could make as lush as we like with roses and many other kinds of flowers. Outside that area, further west and north, we'd have raised beds in which to grow whatever we can. Because of the altitude (6,300 ft), dryness and long winters, not everything grows here, but our friends at IAIA have come up with an excellent covered raised bed formula that extends the growing season, and offers an easy method of cultivation for many crops that don't grow here very well at all out in the open.

The rest of the landscaping would be pretty much solely xeriscaping and fostering volunteer native plants like wild lilac.

We'd move our storage outbuilding from beside the house to the northeast corner of the property where it could serve eventually as a "tiny house" for guests, though that would probably be far in the future if it ever happened at all.

Finally, the separate garage would either get rebuilt or replaced -- right now I'm favoring replacement, but that could change. There are other outbuildings, one of which is approximately as old as the house itself which we would like to preserve as a kind of artifact, but it's starting to lean a bit, and I'm afraid it might collapse one day, so we're not sure whether to reconstruct it or merely prop it up.

This is of course a major remodel, but we would hope that the result is compatible with the various expansions and remodels the house has gone through over its long history. This is a genuine Territorial New Mexico house, originally built during the Territorial period and repeatedly remodeled, expanded, and renovated ever since. There's no reason to stop that process now or necessarily at any time in the future. These changes are organic to the kind of place it is.

The fossilization  that occurs to many New Mexico buildings that are built in "Santa Fe Style" or that undergo a "Santa Fe Style" renovation or remodel is to me a sad result of a Disneyland-ish architectural ethic that became standard -- required in the historic district -- over a century ago in Santa Fe and has spread to other areas of the state. It's sad in that nothing is allowed to (significantly) change once the style is set. But that's not how living, organic architecture or communities are or should be.

Whether we do an extensive remodel of our house one day or not, we can be sure that this house will not stay the same over an extended period. It might even be demolished one day and another house take its place. But that's what happens and is perfectly normal in a vibrant living community, rather than one that's preserved in an often inappropriate aspic.

[This post started off with the idea of dealing with contemporary housing trends in New Mexico, but then it veered into other considerations. The spur to writing it was consideration of a friend's house in El Dorado (a rural-ish suburb of Santa Fe) that she's trying to sell. It has many of the hallmarks of contemporary Santa Fe Style, but ultimately it doesn't really work as any style at all. It's a mish mash, and that is common among newer houses built in the Style or a facsimile of it. Because the Style has become so attenuated, alternatives have been growing in popularity, particularly in Albuquerque. High end contemporary domestic architecture, particularly in Albuquerque, has achieved national and international recognition, and many of its elements are available to those on a limited budget in the many live-work, loft and multi-family buildings that have been built in ABQ in recent years.

Housing in standard developments, however, tends to emulate Santa Fe Style -- badly -- or to follow style trends current in suburban developments in California -- such as the ever popular "Tuscan" style, or "Craftsman" or various iterations of the all time favorite "Ranch." In other words, there is nothing particularly "New Mexican" about most of the houses built in recent years, and those that pretend to emulate Santa Fe Style fail and generally fail badly.

I actually like Santa Fe Style domestic architecture when it's done well. The problem is that doing it well is criminally expensive these days, to the point where only the very wealthiest clients can afford it. Given its inherent limitations, many of those who can afford it would rather purchase an extant and well-done house than build a new one in the Style. Consequently, new houses in Santa Fe Style done well are becoming rare, while there continues to be a hot market in older and rather grand homes that were built in the Style decades ago, starting literally with Carlos Vierra's home ('the Ruins' it was called) on the Old Santa Fe Pecos Trail built in 1918 (I've written about it before.)  Other artists' homes -- Frank Applegate (1) (2), Witter Bynner, Gustave Baumann, Gerald Cassidy among others -- are all in variations of the Style as it was understood by artists and architects in the early 20th Century, and they are all interesting and compelling interpretations of historic designs in what was then contemporary garb. Any one of them would make a comfortable home today but not a "stylish" one in the sense of current contemporary must-haves. But the ones that have been on the market have run into the millions of dollars to purchase. A brand new house in the Style would cost as much or more.

So. It isn't often done any more at the high end, and many more modest interpretations are failures.

On the other hand, standard suburban housing, no matter the style, is often uninteresting and ultimately uncomfortable with its insistence on "open concept" living, granite, stainless, pendant and recessed lighting, laminate or carpeted floors, and so on. In other words, the standard contemporary housing vocabulary results in something that's almost a prison of contemporary "must haves" that ultimately have nothing to do with comfort, convenience or the real needs of families.

People like us -- people who don't have a lot of money but who wish to live comfortably in a historic home -- do well to find and rehab an old adobe (they're out there), perhaps not stylishly, but livably. And do as we do, consider other renovations and expansions over time. This kind of home becomes a living, organic residence, in tune with the needs of its residents, not particularly fretful over "authenticity" -- since that's built in -- and subject to change and alteration as needs arise.

That's what I have to say about the subject for now...

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