For the love of mud
When I met Myrtle Stedman, Santa Fe County’s first woman licensed as a contractor and a foremost authority on adobe construction, she was tiny, elegant, about 80 years old and still climbing onto the roof for repairs. It was 1989, and I interviewed her for the now-defunct journal, Southwest Profile. I still remember her warm greeting at the Tesuque home she and her late husband had built from an old dirt-floored nursery some 50 years earlier.
Myrtle and “Sted” arrived in Santa Fe in the mid-1930s, she the artist daughter of a Texas builder, he an English-born architect 16 years her senior. After introductions to local artist celebrities— from Gustave Baumann toWill Shuster— they began to take note of the charming adobe architecture, the narrow winding streets, tall poplars and cottonwoods and gentle mountains beyond.
They were hooked, and set about building their own adobe home in Tesuque. But to make ends meet, while Myrtle cared for their two young sons, Sted often had to commute to Los Alamos and Santa Fe, leaving Myrtle to study blueprints, buy materials, direct workers, and become “the foreman on the job,” she told me. As Myrtle wrote in her candid memoir, AHouseNot Made With Hands, working with this traditional material— wet earth and straw— offered unexpected challenges. On that first house, as “green horns from Houston, we didn’t let (the bricks) dry as much as we should have.” That winter, the lingering moisture “so frosted over thewindows that we couldn’t see out of them until the sun dried them out. We learned the hard way about a lot of things.”
Out of such lessons, the couple designed, constructed, and restored numerous adobe homes, and their tenants stayed for decades. “People love adobe because there’s a quality about an all-adobe house that you simply cannot get in any other material,” Myrtle said. “There’s a softness of speech and the acoustics are wonderful. It’s like it embraces and hugs you.”
Myrtle used traditional techniques throughout her homes, including “the old style of painting like when the Indians and Spanish first started,” she said. “They painted with natural earth colors and used a sheepskin, which meant getting paint on the ceiling, about an inch of this earth color up on the boards and around each viga. So all those little bitty touches take away the starkness of a new room and give it that soft, rounded, embracing feeling.”
After Sted died in 1950, Myrtle continued to build, write, and do watercolors until her death in 2007 at the age of 99. Named a Santa Fe Living Treasure in 1985, she authored several well-respected books, including Adobe Architecture and Adobe Remodeling & Fireplaces, which are still published by Santa Fe’s Sunstone Press. Her former studio— now remod- eled with a kitchen, bedroom and bath — is currently on the market in Tesuque. While much modernized, the adobe casita still boasts her large beams and corbels plus a kiva fireplace in the corner— just, I imagine, as she would have liked it.
Rebecca Clay is a Realtor with Barker Realty in Santa Fe. She can be reached at 505-629-6043 or rclay@santaferealestate. com.