Art of Space
Paul Weideman explores the history of La Posada
In a way, La Posada de Santa Fe — one of the city’s most luxurious hotels — has pulled off a rather bizarre camouflage act. A rear corner of the 1882 house is visible from La Posada’s patio restaurant, but from the front, you have to step back on Palace Avenue to see the old Staab House popping up from the 20th-century building additions.
The home of Abraham and Julia Staab was built as a lavishly European alternative to the dominant adobe-look paradigm. Designed in the French Second Empire style, it had brick walls with quoins (masonry blocks set along the corners of walls), ornate window hoods, a green mansard roof (a two-slope roof, the lower slope close to vertical) with dormers, and a widow’s walk balustraded with ornate cast-iron cresting. It is not known if the mansard roof was shingled in slate, as was generally the custom. A 1924 fire destroyed it, along with the entire third story. The heavy, bracketed cornice that had formed the base of the mansard roof then became the eave of the new roof.
The architectural composition was rigorously symmetrical. On the house’s front face, below the mansard-roofed third floor, was a centered porch with a roof balustrade and a tall double window above it. Flanking these were stacked double windows in projecting, quoin-bordered bays.
The historic front entrance is well inside the building now: The door into the original house, with its front porch, yard, and wrought-iron fence, was well back from the street. Today, much of La Posada’s facade comes right to the sidewalk — an indication of the value of this real estate.
The story of the house begins in 1854, when fifteenyear-old Abraham Staab immigrated to America and traveled on the Santa Fe Trail to the town that would become his home. After working for a year for the merchant Solomon Spiegelberg, Staab and Zadoc, his older brother, opened a dry goods business. It would grow into the largest wholesale trading and merchandising enterprise in the Southwest, according to Old Santa Fe: The Story of New Mexico’s Ancient Capital , by Ralph Emerson Twitchell.
The store offered just about everything that anyone could want. An 1873 advertisement placed by Z. Staab & Co. in The Daily New Mexican lists “domestic and fancy dry goods,” clothing, groceries, hardware, liquor, tobacco and cigars, “queensware,” farming implements, mining supplies, patent medicines, and “Yankee notions.” The business ultimately expanded to occupy four large storefronts on the Santa Fe Plaza.
In 1865, Abraham went back to Germany and met and married Julia Schuster. Back in Santa Fe, they lived in a small adobe house in Burro Alley. Julia’s probable dismay at being transported to such a
humble residential circumstance “with her silver soup tureens, her fish knives, and her cake services” is described by her great-great-granddaughter, the journalist Hannah Nordhaus, in her book American Ghost: The True Story of a Family’s Haunted Past . These mud houses “were dark inside, their interior walls whitewashed with a chalky dust that rubbed off on anyone who leaned against them, the beds rolled up during the day to provide seating for visitors.”
One of the Staabs’ friends was Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy, who, beginning in 1869, was involved in a grand building project: the Cathedral of St. Francis of Assisi. From sometime in 1878 until early 1880, Lamy and Abraham Staab headed the effort to get a railroad spur laid when the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway stationed at Lamy on the way to Albuquerque, bypassing Santa Fe.
In 1881, Staab purchased a six-acre lot about a thousand feet east of the cathedral site. Through their building projects, the two men “strove, side by side, to impose a European sense of order on their adopted city,” according to Nordhaus. With the help of some Kansas City masons, lent by Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad cronies, and with design advice from architect S.B. Wheeler, Staab erected his rich domicile. Brick, marble, and mahogany were transported by steamer, wagon train, and railroad.
Staab appears not to have sympathized with the native New Mexico aesthetic of blending house and land. More like the opposite: This was a structure “that taunted the land around it.” And, in fact, the 1882 house was built within a brief period during which the French Second Empire style was very much in vogue in Santa Fe. Important buildings taking inspiration from this Victorian-style variant included St. Michael’s College (1878), Loretto Academy (1880), the St. Vincent Sanatorium (1880), and the Palace Hotel (1881).
All four of those had mansard roofs, and all are gone — except for the lower two floors of the college building. Like the Staab house, its top story was destroyed by fire; what’s left is today’s Lamy Building. Santa Fe does have two other houses with mansard roofs from the period, although neither was done in the Second Empire style: the Hayt-Wientge Mansion on Paseo de la Cuma (1882) and the Philip Hesch House on Read Street (late 1880s).
The fire that altered the Staab residence wasn’t the only destructive force that day in 1924. Water used to extinguish the flames also ruined “Oriental carpets, lace and damask curtains, tapestry-covered divans, [and] Venetian glass chandeliers.” The subsequent owners of the house erased its brick character. First, L.E. Elliot painted the red brick a cream color, then R.H. Nason plastered them with stucco — apparently thickly enough to hide all evidence of the quoins. The Nasons were the owners who turned it into a hotel and added adobe casitas, complete with latillas-onvigas ceilings.
In 1998, La Posada was acquired by RockResorts. It is now owned by The Luxury Collection Hotels & Resorts — a brand within Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, Inc., which is headquartered in Stamford, Connecticut. Guests can stay in Julia’s room or in one of the other three rooms in the old house. The rest of La Posada’s 157 guest rooms are in 25 other buildings on the property.
According to a 2008 history written for the hotel by Barbara Harrelson, Staab House has no historic designation in the city because of the manner of its restoration after the fire. But it remains charming inside. From the lobby, it’s a few marble steps up to the Rose Room, with its marble fireplace and “doubled” crown moldings: The wood moldings along the tops of the walls are echoed in parallel runs of ceilingmounted woodwork. Here and in the library, there are gorgeous parquet and marquetry floors. Other elegant touches include a splendid staircase with mahogany handrails and balusters and decorative bronze hinges on some of the doors.
An apricot tree outside is another treasured artifact from the 19th century. Bishop Lamy, who was reportedly a dear friend of Julia Staab’s, helped her plant it.
Top, Staab House, shortly before the third story burned in 1924, from American Ghost , by Hannah Nordhaus, courtesy HarperCollins; bottom, after the fire, courtesy La Posada Resort and Spa
The elaborate newel at the base of Staab House’s marble and mahogany staircase; top left, Staab House sprouts up among La Posada’s 20thcentury additions; bottom, from left, a detail of Staab House’s library floor; an ornamental door hinge