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.

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