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Its Name is Mud...Or More Precisely, Adobe

Remodeling with adobe can make a house look as good as it did when it was first built

<p>Window coverings made of salt-cedar twigs, called sombraje shutters, shield he study interior from the Sante Fe sun.</p>

Window coverings made of salt-cedar twigs, called sombraje shutters, shield he study interior from the Sante Fe sun.

Photo by Peter Vitale

It was spring. The snows had melted, the earth was still loose, and the acequia, or irrigation ditch, was running high. It was time to start building the new house.

So the man's family helped him dig a pit, into which he poured buckets of water drawn from the adjacent ditch. He turned the earth back into the hole, added straw, and shoveled the resulting mix into rough wooden forms.

Hours later, he removed the forms and balanced each fresh mud brick, or adobe, on end to finish drying in the shade. He then stacked them into walls two feet thick, which he spanned with thick pine vigas (logs) to carry the load of the dirt roof. Finally, he sealed everything with alis, a mixture of wheat flour and diluted milk, and then polished the surface of the walls with rounded river rocks.

This house was built to last, and last it did—some 200 years. "He did a very good job," says Bill Moxey, admiring the unknown man's masonry work. "You have to do a good job for something to endure that long." In 1999 and 2000, Moxey managed the team of builders, tradesmen, and artists who worked to restore the home that was built in the early 19th century on what is now Canyon Road in Santa Fe, New Mexico. "We took it down to the structure," says Moxey of his role as project superintendent. "It was a pretty well-preserved home."

That's not always the case. Though mud bricks are durable, if neglected they quickly fall prey to the elements. Oftentimes a restoration crew will carefully probe an adobe wall and find that rainwater has found a way in and has, over decades, literally washed the bricks away, leaving nothing but an outer shell of plaster holding up the structure.

Happily, the house on Canyon Road had escaped that fate. But its good "bones" weren't the only reason Betsy Rowland and her husband, Marc, bought the property for a second home—the couple lives full-time in Edmond, Oklahoma—when they heard it was about to hit the market, in early 1999.

"It is about the most beautiful place you can imagine," says Betsy. "When you go to the house, you enter a different world."

She's not kidding. The irrigation canal running through the garden—the acequia madre ("mother ditch")—dates to the city's founding, in 1610, by Spanish colonialists and was for centuries the lifeline of agricultural Santa Fe. Later, mules carried firewood in and out of the capitol on the path alongside the house, which the Spaniards dubbed El Camino del Cañon, and which was eventually renamed Canyon Road. By the mid-20th century, the neighborhood's bean, chile, and corn farms had been replaced by the homes and studios of artists—the forerunners of the upscale galleries and chic restaurants that line the street today.

Canyon Road has changed, but the acequia still flows—it is on the registry of the Historic Santa Fe Foundation—and neighborhood residents still volunteer to clear it of weeds and debris each spring, as they have done for almost 400 years.

<p>When the 22-inch-thick roof of compacted dirt was removed with shovels, the vigas (peeled ping logs) that supported it rebounded almost a foot in height.</p>

When the 22-inch-thick roof of compacted dirt was removed with shovels, the vigas (peeled ping logs) that supported it rebounded almost a foot in height.

Photo by Peter Vitale

In keeping with its prime location, the property also offered scads of "Santa Fe charm"—real estate code for the authentic, rustic, slightly out-of-whack architectural features that command top dollar here. The house contained four traditional curved and plastered kiva fireplaces. Some doorways were just a hairstyle over six feet high, others soared past eight. And the garden was a botanical wonderland of lilacs, flowering perennials, and fruit trees, including two huge apple trees—one of which, held together with steel tackle and chains, was believed to be the city's oldest.

The place had a good vibe, and everyone felt it—from the Rowlands to architect Sharon Woods, with whom they contracted to restore the house, to the man who directed the shovels and trowels. "It has a feeling about it," says Moxey, who has worked on 40 to 50 such homes over his career, and calls this one his favorite. "You go in, and it's like you've covered yourself up in a big quilt."

Of course, that blanket was threadbare in more than a few places. Though the home's outdated kitchen, complete with funky woodstove, was charming, the Rowlands ultimately concluded it had to go. The master bath, with its tired-looking fiberglass shower, was also on the tear-out list. But both clients and architect agreed the basic outline of the house would remain intact.

"It was a matter of reintroducing the integrity of the structure and updating it," says Sharon Woods, who has coauthored two well-regarded books on Santa Fe style.

Moxey's team ripped out all the ancient plumbing lines, fixtures, and electrical wires, and installed a perforated drainage pipe along one side of the house—literally inches from Canyon Road—to help send water away from the foundation. And while the crew needed to replace most of the windows and doors, they preserved the varying archway and door heights between rooms.

"There was no building code back then," says Moxey. "Door heights were based on the size of the person you were building the house for."

Woods and Betsy Rowland did rejigger one section of the floor plan. Typical of original adobe homes, the place had no closets or hallways; as one's family grew and additional space was needed, extra rooms were simply stuck on the sides of the existing house, and a doorway punched through to connect them. In search of a space to tuck a new powder room, the architect squared up a trapezoidal dining room and designed the half bath (and a coat closet) into the triangular space left over. Woods also enlarged two window openings at the back of the house—one in the kitchen, one in the extra bedroom—to accommodate French doors, but she didn't mess with the home's exterior footprint or any features visible from the street. Because the home is located in the heart of Santa Fe's historic district, any such tweaks, no matter how minor, would need the blessing of the city's Historic Design Review Board.

<p>The kitchen's stainless steel range and exhaust hood are flanked by custome cherry cabinets. Black slate covers the countertops, backsplash, and floor.</p>

The kitchen's stainless steel range and exhaust hood are flanked by custome cherry cabinets. Black slate covers the countertops, backsplash, and floor.

Photo by Peter Vitale

In the end, the board declared a sagging coyote fence, made of lashed saplings, to be "historically contributing" (crews restored it), ditto an unusually long canale, or protruding roof drain that was slated for removal (the architect kept it in place). Also, the homeowners agreed to install a gate where the historic acequia left the property, granting volunteers easy access for its annual upkeep.

Moxey's crew set to work, stripping centuries of plaster from the adobe walls. The crew peeled off an asphalt roof to reveal 22 inches of compacted dirt, which was removed the same way it went on—via shovel. With the tons of earth gone, recalls Betsy Rowland, "the vigas rebounded almost a foot." Fortunately, all of the original peeled logs—each was once the trunk of a pine tree growing in the nearby Sangre de Cristo mountains—could be reused.

Where Woods had specified new circuits, electricians chiseled channels for cable in the rock-hard mud bricks (the deep gouges were later plastered over). Plumbers snaked flexible polyethylene supply piping to fixtures, and roughed in new waste pipes out to the sewer under Canyon Road. The four fireplaces were restored and brought up to code.

The crew also took care to preserve the decades-old wisteria that draped across the front of the house. "We took this whole thing," Moxey recalls, waving his hand at the delicately gnarled vines, "and tied it to a lattice of two-by-fours. Every day before we started work, we'd carefully pull it down and lay it on the ground."

Woods and Betsy Rowland called for black slate countertops in the kitchen, plus cherry cabinetry and professional-grade appliances. Travertine tile went into the bathroom. New Mexico artist Christopher Thomson forged new door hardware and lighting sconces throughout the home, complementing the pinkish cast of the diamond-coat interior plaster covering the walls.

Though work was finished by the spring of 2000, it took a bittersweet event in early 2005 to give the Canyon Road house its crowning touch. After over 100 years gracing the courtyard, the elder of the property's two giant apple trees toppled in a windstorm, crashing to earth within inches of the home that it had shaded for decades.

"It just barely nicked the house," says Moxey, pointing out a fresh patch of stucco along the top of the roof parapet. "It just lay down right here on the patio. It couldn't have set itself down better."

Sensing opportunity in the loss, the Rowlands turned the fallen trunk over to Peter Ortega, a local carver of traditional New Mexican santos, or saints. Weeks later, the artist returned with a six-foot-high statue of Saint Francis, the city's patron saint—and an icon of good luck found in gardens throughout the city. From his new perch in the courtyard, Francis now protects the house, those who live there today, and—for another 200 years, give or take—those who will live there for generations to come.

<p><strong>Tweaking a Traditional Adobe</strong><br>Like most original adobes, this one grew by adding on rooms as needed and has no central hallway. The architect incorporated a new half-bath by squaring up a trapezoidal dining room; skylights were added to brighten the spaces at the center of the home.</p>

Tweaking a Traditional Adobe
Like most original adobes, this one grew by adding on rooms as needed and has no central hallway. The architect incorporated a new half-bath by squaring up a trapezoidal dining room; skylights were added to brighten the spaces at the center of the home.

Illustration by Ian Worpole

Where to Find It:

Architect/builder:Sharon Woods

Woods Architect-Builder Inc.

Santa Fe, NM

505-988-2413

woodsbuilders.com

Superintendent:

Bill Moxey

Woods Architect-Builder Inc.

(Story continued below ad.)

Cabinets, gates, and interior doors:

Armijo Design & Construction

Santa Fe, NM

505-424-4976

armijodesigndoors.com

Plaster:

GMB Construction

Santa Fe, NM

505-471-8162

Interior and exterior stonework:

A & E Stonework

Santa Fe, NM

505-577-4959

Exterior doors and windows:

Pella Windows and Doors

Santa Fe, NM

505-474-4112

pella.com

Framing:

TPW Construction

Rio Rancho, NM

505-991-2808

Roofing:

TC & I Construction

Santa Fe, NM

505-471-9230

tcandifoamroofing.com

Exterior and interior lighting, dining chairs, fireplace tools, screens and log holders, and candlesticks:

Christopher Thomson Studio

Ilfeld, NM

800-726-0145

ctiron.com

Range hood:

Vent-A-Hood

Richardson, TX

800-331-2492

ventahood.com

Dishwasher:

ASKO

Richardson, TX

800-898-1879

askousa.com

Range:

Viking Range Corp.

Greenwood, MS

888-845-4641

vikingrange.com

Refrigerator:

Sub-Zero Freezer Co.

Madison, WI

800-222-7820

subzero.com

Powder-room table and medicine cabinet:

Antique Warehouse

Santa Fe, NM

505-984-1159

antiquewarehouse-santefe.com

Sombraje shutters (interior):

Ernest Thompson & Co.

Albuquerque, NM

800-568-2344

sombraje.com and ernestthompson.com