Cornerstones in 30th year
It’s not unusual to see people working on scaffolding at San Miguel Chapel at the corner of Old Santa Fe Trail and E. DeVargas Street. It’s just normal upkeep on an adobe building that dates back three or four centuries. But because of a legacy of caretakers, the church is not just a survivor but it’s in great shape. Chief among those keeping San Miguel fit in recent decades is Cornerstones Community Partnerships. “We’ve been working there for about three weeks on routine mud-plastering,” Jake Barrow said on June 10. “The church is owned by St. Michael’s High School and we think we should do a volunteer project there every year.”
Barrow is the director of Cornerstones, an organization now 30 years old that helps communities in the American Southwest repair and maintain their significant adobe buildings.
“Cornerstones began in the late 1980s because churches were falling down,” Barrow said. “It took off like wildfire, because people really wanted it. These adobe traditions were alive in New Mexico for 400 years, right into the 20th century, and they’re so significant to our cultural heritage.”
Today, many communities still need help and Barrow admitted, “It’s a never-ending challenge, and ever since the 2009 financial collapse, it’s been difficult to get our footing back. We’ve been holding our own, taking turns swimming and treading water and swimming, butwe haven’t been able to offer the kind of assistance we really like to.”
Since the beginning of 2016 Cornerstones has engaged in six projects using 127 volunteers for a total of 1,833 volunteer hours. And the organization has trained 66 individuals for 1,866 hands-on hours.
Cornerstones is all about hands-on. Materials and technical know-how are everything. For adobe plastering at San Miguel Chapel, for example, donated clay comes from a ranch in the Pojoaque area. “We go chip out the clay with volunteers. It’s like rock— you have to take it outwith a pick — and it’s the best, wonderful color and pure clay. We only use that for plastering, not for making adobes. We want the best at San Miguel. We’re crushing that stone to powder and we run it with water in a Walker pugmill and it completely hydrates it. It’s a wonderful material and we mix it in the proportion 2 clay to 5 concrete sand.
“I know you can add horse manure or cactus juice, but we haven’t done much of that. Something I do want to try— before the Spanish came and introduced sun-dried adobe bricks, the Native Americans were building with puddled earth. That’s a really good technique because you’re only handling that material once. You’re not moving the adobes around again and again.” Barrow and adobe expert Pat Taylor have been wanting to get a puddled-adobe project going “so we can see about reviving that tradition.”
The Cornerstones story begins in 1986, when New Mexico Community Foundation chairwoman Susan Herter hired Nancy Arnon to lead an effort to save endangered mission churches in Northern New Mexico. Sam Baca was hired to manage the community program of the program they called Churches, Symbols of Community, and Ed Crocker was the first technical director. In 1987, Archbishop Robert F. Sanchez reestablished the Commission for the Preservation of Historic New Mexico Churches and these two organizations collaborated, partnering with communities. In 1991, Taylor began the organization’s heritage youth-training initiative with a substantial project at a Doña Ana church.
In 1994, articles of incorporation were filed for Cornerstones Community Partnerships as an independent organization, and the mission was expanded to include secular community buildings.
To date, Cornerstones has helped at 376 sites, including 14 in Santa Fe. “When we help,” Barrow clarified, “it’s everything from a technical site visit to a full-blown onsite program that lasts years. The precept has always been: What exactly do you need, and how canwe help you?”
Do people ever call Cornerstones and simply ask, “Can you fix our church?” “They do,” Barrow said. “We recently got an inquiry from Villanueva. My response was, Get a committee going of interested people. Get something going there. When you get your energy going and you have a dream and you have some ideas aboutwhat you want to do, let’s talk. We’ll try to see what we can dowith partnering.”
Cornerstones is currently waiting for word on a significant grant from the Catholic Foundation, but the agency also pursues grants for particular projects. “We did a lot at the Santo Domingo Trading Post. We had hundreds of volunteers working down there and we raised around $100,000 in grants from five or six different organizations. For example, the National Trust for Historic Preservation gave $10,000 for repairs. The Chamiza Foundation gave $7,000 for Ricardo Caté to work on mural restorations. The National Park Service’s Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program gave two grants totaling over $30,000 to do an assessment at the outset and for restoration of the painted façade and an oral-history project at the pueblo.”
An increasing problem is that historic adobe buildings always need work, but many of the communities’ concerned residents and many of those with skill in earthen architecture are older and many of the young people have sought careers elsewhere. Times have changed.
Communities “have not been calling us as they used to do,” according to a recent Cornerstones appeal letter. “What we discovered is that once a community had completed its major restoration, they no longer thought about us as a continuing resource. Over the years the mud plasters have weathered [and] these aging communities are generally unable to gather the energy and resources to maintain routine mudding.”
“Cornerstones initially helped restore churches by removing cement stucco, fixing roofing and drainage, repairing adobe walls, and applying traditional mud plaster,” Barrow told Home. “To accomplish this, we had the support of the board of directors, founders, friends, donors, grantors, and volunteers. These treasures survive today as a result. We need to protect this investment by becoming available once again to these communities and helping
to organize mudding days and enjoying a community home-made Norteño lunch. We are calling this effort the Enjarradores Challenge.” The reference is a gender-neutral variation on what was once the domain of skilled women plasterers, the enjarradoras.
“The new idea includes raising money to hire a small team of high-school-age people as a core group in the community to do the heavy lifting, the scaffolding, the mixing of materials, and then bring in volunteers. And we’ll have one leader who’s an accomplished adobero, for example Don Sena from Santa Fe. We’re doing this at three locations this summer: La Sala in Galisteo, San Rafael Church in La Cueva, and San Miguel here in Santa Fe.”
The organization is now working with $15,000 from donations and is seeking $35,000 to ensure a successful season. The two-year goal is to raise $250,000. The 2016 project list includes the following items:
• Working with volunteers to make adobe bricks and an horno at the Palace of the Governors in August.
• Assisting with adobe preservation in Dixon’s La Sala Filantropica project.
• Assisting with the establishment of an adobe-making yard at Santo Domingo Pueblo.
• Assisting with assessments at Alamogordo’s Immaculate Conception Church.
• Holding mud-plastering workshops on mission churches in Mora County in September.
• Participating in the Archbishop’s Commission for the Preservation of Historic New Mexico Churches.
• Holding heritage workshops and traditional skills training at La Bajada and the McDonald Ranch museumat White Sands Missile Range, as well as at the Arizona and California facilities Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site, Joshua Tree National Park, and Mojave National Preserve.
Cornerstones at work on the San Miguel Chapel in 2011
Volunteers making adobe bricks at the Galisteo La Sala project
Community of Agua Fria mud-plastering the village’s adobe entrance monument walls, which were built by students in the Building Trades and Technology Department at Santa Fe Community College
Cornerstones volunteers breaking up clay rock for mud-plastering job
Assessment of La Bajada stone retaining walls