A slice of lime: El Zaguán
The exterior walls at the 19th-century James L. Johnson House — usually called El Zaguán — needed work for years. Not only was the finish looking sad, but in places water could get in and damage the adobe bricks underneath.
El Zaguán, 545 Canyon Road, is owned by the 54-year-old Historic Santa Fe Foundation. The HSFF board of directors wanted to use natural, traditional finishes in restoring the building (which houses the nonprofit’s offices and several rental apartments), but they can be problematic, as water soaks up from the base and degrades the finish. It was ultimately decided to use lime plaster. An explanatory panel in the zaguán (the covered passageway adjacent to the courtyard entry) explains the project. “It was determined that during the period of interpretation (the era to which we are restoring) from the early 1900s to the early 1930s, the building was plastered in lime. Kate Chapman, who is credited with performing restoration work on El Zaguán in the late 1920s and early ‘30s, was a great proponent of lime.” Chapman and Dorothy N. Stewart devoted a chapter to the virtues of lime plaster in their delightful little 1930 book Adobe Notes or How to Keep the Weather Out With Just Plain Mud.
In January 2014, Charles Coffman and Bobby Wilson, the foundation’s restoration specialists, began working on the wall, approximately 190 feet long, facing on Canyon Road. They laboriously removed what turned out to be four layers of old finish. “The one on the outside [was] a pink epoxy that was ugly and really hard to take off,” Coffman said. They also dug a trench, almost 3 feet deep, along the bottom of the wall and added weatherproofing material to halt the infiltration of water.
Underneath all that old paint, they found a plaster color that is believed to date to the 1920s or earlier. That hue became the goal in a series of test batches they mixed to arrive at the perfect formula of pigment, lime, and sand for the new wall finish. The resulting plaster mix was made by Rob Dean, Inc. The finish job was quickly and expertly done in July by Southwest Plastering Company, with José Olivas as foreman. The company’s owner, Michael Roybal, donated the labor. The handsome finish is one coat of lime plaster about / inch thick.
The wood shutters that used to flank the nine prominent windows along Canyon Road will not be replaced. “We have photos from various periods, the earliest with no shutters. Then they’re on, then they’re off, and on,” the foundation’s director, Pete Warzel, said. “I think having them gone now gives a feel of the old place around 1905 and prior.” — P.W.
El Zaguán, before and after lime plastering