I have vivid memories of my late grandfather wearing a long-sleeved denim shirt, adorned with a beige bucket-style hat, and armed with a flat trowel used for restoring pieces of adobe that made up the family home. He would cautiously stand on makeshift scaffolding materials and slather on mud plaster for additional protection against the archenemies of adobe — wind and rain.
The word adobe is of Spanish/Arabic origin and means “mud brick.” It is made up of natural elements of the earth including water, sand, clay, straw, and grass. The mixture is formed into bricks, typically using wood forms to tightly compact them, and are then leveled off by hand. Finally, the amalgamation naturally dries via the heat of the sun, making the Southwest a perfect venue to utilize this process. Although this building material is now incredibly prevalent in the Southwest, it was very common in primitive architecture as well, dating as far back as the eighth century B.C.E.
ICONIC ADOBE BUILDINGS
Adobe in New Mexico and surrounding areas serves as the face of many iconic buildings while maintaining beautiful authentic structures. El Santuario (Spanish for “sanctuary”) de Chimayo is a small shrine and National Historic Landmark in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, meaning “Blood of Christ,” in Chimayo, New Mexico. It was established in 1813 and has served as a place of worship for many generations. The church itself, two front towers with belfries, an adjoining enclosed garden, and arched gate are all made of genuine adobe.
Also located within the Sangre de Cristo Mountain range is the Taos Pueblo. The multi-storied adobe buildings have been inhabited by Native Americans for more than 1,000 years and the pueblo remains active today. The approximately 150 current fulltime residents welcome visitors except when closed for community events and ceremonies. The Kit Carson House was built in 1825 and is located in central Taos. Carson was a fur trapper and served as a guide on numerous United States Army excursions.
His single-story home is of Spanish Colonial architecture and has been restored, where necessary, to match the original style as closely as possible. A museum was later constructed around the home that is complete with a gift shop, bookstore, and a 20-minute informational video. There is also a guided tour of the home itself, which includes observing many personal family artifacts. Traveling about 30 miles south of Taos, off Route 76, you will find the Las Trampas Historic District, which is home to the National Historic Landmark of the San José de Gracia Church. Villagers first settled in Las Trampas in 1751, and it was constructed with defensive adobe walls around a centralized plaza.
As the number of villagers grew over the course of a decade and with the nearest church being about 10 miles away, the settlers opted to build their own. Townspeople used Spanish-style architecture including thick adobe walls. Wooden beams, or vigas, were used to support the roof and could be seen in the main interior. Today, the church retains much of its original features including the wooden floors and adobe walls.
One of the oldest structures in the continental United States is the San Miguel Chapel in Santa Fe. The original adobe walls and altar were built by Spanish-allied Indians from Tlaxcala, Mexico, under the direction of Franciscan friars between 1620 and 1628. Although it has gone through several structural changes over the years, it is now fully adobe once again and is maintained by volunteers and monetary contributions from the community.
The historic town of Old Mesilla and its centralized plaza offer a fortress of thick adobe walls that once protected residents from attacks. It is now home to art galleries, restaurants, museums, gift shops, and taverns. Some of the must-stops near the plaza I would recommend are La Posta, the Double Eagle, The Chocolate Lady, Palacio Bar, El Patio, Del Sol, and the Billy the Kid gift shop.
Furthermore, taking a quick drive or stroll around the quaint little town will unveil many more adobe structures including homes of residents that have been Mesilleros for generations. The original church of San Felipe de Neri in Albuquerque was started in 1706 and was rebuilt after suffering structural damage from an especially rainy summer in 1792. The church was then built in the shape of a cross with adobe walls that are 5 feet thick. Except for a few changes to the ceiling, floor, and south entrance, the church remains as it was in 1793.
Fort Union National Monument is located in Watrous, New Mexico, which is about 30 minutes from Las Vegas, New Mexico When originally built, it served mainly as a military defense post and supply depot. The monument staff continues to use a variety of techniques to preserve the largest collection of 19th century adobe structures in the country, including an annual application of adobe plaster to protect the roofless buildings.
Situated on the Acoma Pueblo is the San Estévan del Rey Mission Church. It was built between 1629 and 1641 and is considered a hybrid of Spanish Colonial and Puebloan architecture. The roof is made up of about 6 inches of adobe and is supported by ponderosa pine vigas. The main adobe walls soar up to heights of 35 feet and measure at about 7 feet of thickness at the base. It is considered to be one of the first missions built in New Mexico and is a National Historic Landmark.
PROS AND CONS OF ADOBE
Adobe has become a prevalent building material and boasts many advantages. Judd Singer, president and owner/builder of Villa Custom Homes, Inc. in Las Cruces has been in the business of building unique and beautiful homes for more than two decades. “I am an earth builder and adobe is one form of earth building,” Judd said. “Presently, it appeals to the more environmentally concerned. It’s more energy efficient than a wood frame, naturally insect resistant, fire resistant, bulletproof, and you’d need a tracked vehicle to topple it or break the walls down.” I will take his word for it on the last part!
Though building with it does not possess many disadvantages, I can tell you from personal experience (grandma’s house) that it can be a little tough on cellular service, but nothing that a Wi-Fi booster can’t fix. Hanging items on adobe walls will require some special tools and knowledge as well. Judd also informs, “It takes approximately 60 days longer to build, and there are becoming fewer and fewer people who know the formula for earth building.”
That being said, if you are a builder looking to broaden your professional portfolio or a nonprofessional simply intrigued by the craft, there are institutions that offer courses specifically about adobe construction such as Santa Fe Community College and Adobe in Action.
Story and photography by Desiree Bustamantes
Originally published in Neighbors magazine.