Art of Space

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Paul Wei­de­man looks at the His­toric Santa Fe Foundation’s adobe restora­tions

Passersby and neigh­bors of the house at 524 Alto St. have seen the progress of some re­mark­able work dur­ing the past six months. What looks like a lit­tle house from the street (only about 18 feet wide), the Gar­cía House is 75 feet deep, and all along those walls, work­ers have painstak­ingly cut away small sec­tions of con­crete stucco. This work re­vealed that the adobe walls un­der­neath had suf­fered wa­ter dam­age, in some places dras­tic. As of­ten hap­pens with th­ese durable ce­men­ti­tious ve­neers, the con­di­tion of the struc­tural walls was hid­den.

The His­toric Santa Fe Foundation, whose mis­sion is to pre­serve and ad­vo­cate for her­itage prop­er­ties, spent two years on restoration work af­ter its 2000 pur­chase of the Gar­cía House, which is listed on the State Reg­is­ter of Cul­tural Prop­er­ties and the Na­tional Reg­is­ter of His­toric Places. It once was part of the neigh­bor­ing Dona­ciano Vigil House, 518 Alto St.; they have a com­mon wall. Its name re­flects the long own­er­ship of both prop­er­ties by the fam­ily of Vi­cente Gar­cía Sr. (1827-1889). The neigh­bor­hood, the bar­rio de Guadalupe, was de­vel­oped in the 1800s to house the parish­ioners of Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church. Its main thor­ough­fare — now Agua Fría Street — was the trade route be­tween Santa Fe and Chi­huahua, Mex­ico, ac­cord­ing to Ar­chi­tec­ture Re­port: 518 Alto Street, Santa Fe, New Mex­ico, pre­pared for the foundation by Cather­ine Colby in 2011. The high ground be­tween the main road and the Santa Fe River was known as los al­tos (“the heights”); hence Alto Street.

In 2013, worry about the state of the Gar­cía House’s walls prompted ex­plo­rations for a re-stucco project, and at that point, the ex­tent of the dam­age was dis­cov­ered. “When we be­gan, we knew we would have to do a lit­tle adobe re­pair,” said Sean Kal­tenbach, owner of New Mex­ico Earth Works, “but we never imag­ined any­thing like this.” He pointed to the area be­low the canale (roof drain) above the front door. There were deep fur­rows and voids ex­tend­ing out­ward and down­ward, where wa­ter had found its way be­hind the stucco and eroded the adobe wall. Dur­ing a visit in Septem­ber, Charles Coff­man, the foundation’s preser­va­tion spe­cial­ist, showed an­other prob­lem. The deeper voids at the front re­vealed two wythes of adobe — like a wall in­side the outer wall — and they’re not tied to­gether. The gap be­tween them is 6 inches to 1 foot, and in one place, the out­side wall is just lean­ing on the in­side wall.

“But the house is solid, right?” I asked. “Th­ese vi­gas are sit­ting on earth walls.”

“Well, if this earth wall leaned any more, I’d say, ‘Hell, no, it’s not solid; it’s dan­ger­ous,’ ” Coff­man said. “But that’s what we’re hop­ing to fix.”

The work crew used shov­els to dig out all the loose earth that used to be adobe bricks. As the dirt and half-de­graded adobes were re­moved, the work­ers cut two-by-fours for wood braces. “As we move through our adobe re­pair, we’re catch­ing the load,” he said. “This is all mass, and as you un­load ar­eas, it has to be sup­ported.”

Door and win­dow fram­ing had to be at least par­tially dis­man­tled for the next step: re­plac­ing voided ar­eas with new adobe bricks and mud mor­tar. Evan Lucero from Kal­tenbach’s crew said the adobes — 3½ inches thick, 10 inches wide, and 14 inches long — were bought from an Al­bu­querque sup­plier. The bricks set in the lower cour­ses were the as­phalt-sta­bi­lized type for greater long-term wa­ter re­sis­tance. Mor­tar for the joints was made on­site from lo­cal clay and sand.

On the long east­ern wall, New Mex­ico Earth Works had to re­pair big cracks and pour con­crete foot­ings to help sup­port the re­built adobe. On Aug. 14, 2015, most of the wall sported new adobes. I asked Lucero if the work­ers used a level. He said they did, but he added that Alan “Mac” Wat­son didn’t want the walls to be

too level: Af­ter all, this is an adobe house. Wat­son, who has a 40-year ca­reer work­ing with adobe, is vice chair of the foundation and was sought as a re­source on the Gar­cía project. He said this was one of the worst “can­cers” he has seen in an earthen build­ing.

Kal­tenbach ex­plained, “Mois­ture is the big­gest is­sue, and what you see at the Gar­cía House is years and years of wa­ter get­ting to the walls through leaky roofs, canales, para­pets, and cracks in stucco, and along the base of the walls.” He added that the prob­lem is ex­ac­er­bated by changes in nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring salt crys­tals in the earth and the wa­ter.

Be­sides the adobe bricks and mor­tar, two other ma­te­ri­als were used. One is dry-packed mor­tar. “Af­ter the adobes are laid with mud joints and it’s all dried, then we come in and fill in any voids with dry-pack­ing. You just push it in and com­pact it, and it’s just solid and tight.” The other vari­ant Kal­tenbach called “cob mix.” This heavy mud-straw con­coc­tion is em­ployed in larger quan­ti­ties to build up con­cave por­tions of the wall so it’s all more or less in the same plane. At press time, that was just about fin­ished. Next would come chicken wire to an­chor the stucco.

Al­though ce­ment stucco is a vil­lain in this story, the foundation is go­ing to fin­ish the project with a new coat of just that. Ce­ment’s ad­van­tage has al­ways been that main­te­nance is very min­i­mal. On the other hand, a nat­u­ral mud or lime plas­ter must be patched fre­quently and re­done ev­ery sev­eral years. “This project is a fine bal­ance of bud­get and ne­ces­sity,” as Kal­tenbach put it.

“This is a great preser­va­tion story,” said Pete Warzel, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the foundation, “in that any other owner would have opened this up, seen the can­cer, and asked the city for a de­mo­li­tion per­mit.” He de­scribed the Gar­cía House as “a real piece of ver­nac­u­lar ar­chi­tec­ture. This is how poor peo­ple lived. Ev­ery win­dow is dif­fer­ent.”

“We have taken on this ex­cep­tional un­der­tak­ing be­cause we feel that the house is an im­por­tant ex­am­ple of ver­nac­u­lar ar­chi­tec­ture in Santa Fe,” Wat­son said, “and that the project al­lows us to pre­serve and pro­tect this ex­am­ple of an en­dan­gered ar­chi­tec­tural type. We are proud to be part of pre­serv­ing it in sound con­di­tion for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions to en­joy and to learn from.”

One of the learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ences for me was the way th­ese adoberos can make sense of an amor­phous-look­ing puz­zle of earth and void and con­trive sound reme­dies by adding more earth, in very spe­cific ways. As Kal­tenbach de­scribed it, “Adobe is an incredible medium to work with. And com­bin­ing it with my earth plas­ter­ing, I be­lieve it is like art for me.”

The project also af­forded some price­less ex­pe­ri­ence for So­nia Vi­na­jeras-Gal­le­gos, the 2015 sum­mer in­tern in the foundation’s Faith and John Gaw Meem Preser­va­tion Trades pro­gram. The Al­bu­querque na­tive re­cently grad­u­ated from the Univer­sity of New Mex­ico with a master’s de­gree in ar­chi­tec­ture and a cer­tifi­cate in his­toric preser­va­tion and re­gion­al­ism and was able to work with adobe at the Gar­cía House and with lime plas­ter at El Zaguán on Canyon Road.

Work on the Gar­cía House should be com­plete by mid-Novem­ber. The project was made pos­si­ble be­cause the foundation re­cently sold the small Rivera House at the rear of the same Alto Street prop­erty. The price tag will fall some­where be­tween $80,000 and $100,000, Warzel said. “A lot of the new peo­ple who come and buy th­ese old houses don’t have any idea what’s un­der the sur­face,” he added. “They imag­ine it. They see adobes. But if it’s 100, 150 years old, what does it re­ally look like un­der the con­crete?”

Charles Coff­man, the His­toric Santa Fe Foundation’s preser­va­tion spe­cial­ist, ex­am­ines bricks and voids af­ter a sec­tion of con­crete stucco was cut away.

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