Furnishing the Santa Fe Style

An Investigation in Two Parts, Part 1: The Unexpected Designer Jesse L. Nusbaum, 1887-1975


Research so often starts with serendipity. My study of the historic furniture made for the New Mexico Museum of Art began quite by accident. Director Mary Kershaw asked me to do an audioguide on the building, originally called the Art Gallery of the Museum of New Mexico. This required major research, as, though I had done a number of audioguides, they were always on projects that I had initiated, and hence knew from the ground up. With this project I had to dig in to learn the museum’s history, going beyond secondary accounts to find original records.

Beginning in the museum itself and its library, I kept running across unusual pieces of furniture, in use in galleries, or tucked away in basement nooks and crannies or storerooms, and I became intrigued. Archival photographs made it easy enough to identify the original furniture made in 1917 for the Women’s Board Room, but only further archival research lead me to its author in the unlikely person of Jesse L. Nusbaum.

Nusbaum, a recognized pioneer of archaeology of the Americas who excavated ruins in the Southwest, Mexico, and Central America and even braved rumored cannibals to explore the Mayan Yucatán, was as well an influential interior designer and furniture maker. This forgotten aspect of the talents of a latter-day renaissance man lives on within the walls of the New Mexico Museum of Art.

As the first archaeologist hired by the National Park Service in 1921, he was superintendent of its first cultural park at Mesa Verde, and, at the behest of John D. Rockefeller, became the founding director of the Laboratory of Anthropology in 1930. A self-taught photographer, he created an extraordinary body of documentation. Prints from his glass plates ranging from observations of daily life on the dirt streets of Santa Fe to records of far-flung sites of antiquity are as familiar to readers of El Palacio as to archaeological researchers.

Manual Arts in Las Vegas

With his freshly-minted degree in pedagogy from Colorado Teachers College, Nusbaum was hired to teach science and manual arts at the State Normal School (now Highlands University) in Las Vegas, New Mexico. His photographs of furniture made by his manual arts class in 1908 show simple constructions of straight, quartersawed wood in the style of the international Arts and Crafts Movement. The Arts and Crafts style is best known today in the furniture of Gustav Stickley, but the new look was incorporated in the mass production lines of the furniture industry centered in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Several companies in the United States marketed manufactures of this type as “mission” style in advertisements and widely distributed sales catalogs. The straight lines and clean look made a bold modernist statement in contrast to the Victorian historic revivals that were still popular in turn-of-the-century America.

To Santa Fe

During school vacations Nusbaum worked on archaeological digs and was recruited for the excavations by Edgar Lee Hewett, the founding director of the Santa Fe School of American Archeaology, later called School of American Research (now School for Advanced Research). When Hewett established the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe, Nusbaum was one of his first hires. Between continued archaeological projects he led the restoration of the museum’s home in the colonial Palace of the Governors and became deeply involved in the effort to rescue the identity of Santa Fe. In the decades after the arrival of the railroad the town experienced an Anglo-Americanization. With the razing of adobe homes for brick business blocks and bungalows, the historic Hispanic town was coming to resemble Anytown USA. Statehood having been won in 1912, Santa Fe’s mayor Arthur Seligman convened a group, led by Hewett, to address a means of reviving the economy and restoring the identity of the capital. They came up with a program for developing a signature style of architecture that they called the New-Old Santa Fe Style. It would combine regional Hispanic and Southwest Native American traditions with the necessities of twentieth-century life.

The first step in the rebranding of Santa Fe had been taken in 1909, when Hewett rescued the Palace of the Governors from delapidation to house the Museum of New Mexico. He turned the renovation over to Nusbaum, capitalizing on the young man’s familiarity with industrial arts and with building techniques, learned from his father, a contractor who owned a brickyard in Greeley, Colorado. Along with Kenneth Chapman and Sylvanus Morley, Nusbaum completed the renovation in 1913 with a creative make-over of the portal, façade, and interior that replaced the brick and classical elements added in the 1870s with Hispanic and Pueblo Indian design references into its present world-famous form.

Nusbaum’s contribution was quite different from the better-known achievements of Mary Colter, designer of interiors for the hotels run by The Fred Harvey Company along railroad lines that extended from Kansas to California. Colter’s romantic interiors ranged in style from California Mission to Spanish Colonial to Native American depending on the location. She mixed Indian artifacts and Spanish and Mexican antiques with contemporary Native American crafts executed in on-site workshops with the purpose of evoking a mythical Old West that would lure and enchant tourists.

The team assembled by Edgar Lee Hewett was also concerned with building tourism as an economic driver, but they focused on Santa Fe, reviving and adapting a cultural identity that was fast disappearing. Nusbaum drew on his archaeological research and photographic documentation to incorporate authentic design elements in architecture and furnishings that would realistically serve modern-day use. The ultimate goal was to assert a regional identity that would foster civic pride in the capital city of the new state of New Mexico.

The promoters of the New-Old Santa Fe Style used the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego to advance the program with a New Mexico state building by the architectural firm of Rapp and Rapp. With façades evoking the adobe mission churches of Acoma and Laguna, the building stood out from the “California mission style” of the rest of the fair. Nusbaum claimed that the uncredited architect, Arthur Hendrickson, employed by the Rapp firm, was responsible for the successful pastiche of façades that would serve as the model for the Art Gallery that Hewett aimed to build.1 Nusbaum himself was engaged by the Santa Fe Railroad to build and program an ethnographic exhibit that proved one of the most popular attractions of the fair. Called “The Painted Desert Pueblo,” it was constructed with traditional pueblo techniques using Nusbaum’s documentary photos and the assistance of his friends from San Idelfonso. Among those who stayed to “inhabit” the building were potters Julian and Maria Martinez.

Frank Springer, Hewett’s primary financial backer in creating the envisioned Art Gallery, was so impressed by the Painted Desert Pueblo that he asked Nusbaum to work on architectural features that would transform the design of the New Mexico building in San Diego into the larger and more complex building that is today the New Mexico Museum of Art. Although it was fully a year before his appointment as superintendent of construction, Nusbaum complied, undertaking a series of what he called “reconnaissances” through New Mexico to photograph details of woodwork in old churches and ruins.

The Lectern

A long-overlooked product of Nusbaum’s research into traditional design is the lectern that continues in use on the stage of the St. Francis Auditorium of the New Mexico Museum of Art. At the building’s opening on November 24, 1917, it was reported in El Palacio that “Twelve hundred people who had crowded into the St. Francis auditorium of the new Museum … rose to their feet and applauded as Hon. Frank Springer stepped to the reading desk to deliver the dedication address.” In an interview late in his life Nusbaum revealed the origin of the “reading desk.” 2 He had made it to display the miniatures painted by Springer’s daughter, but her father, at the last minute before the Art Gallery inauguration, requisitioned it to hold the notes for his speech. In this unique design a tray with raised edges is supported by a single spiral Solomonic column. The form is clearly derived from pulpits with spiral bases in northern New Mexico churches photographed by Nusbaum on exactly those “reconnaissances” Springer had requested. Although originally intended for a different purpose, the lectern that serves speakers in the St. Francis Auditorium is one piece of furniture that we can be certain was designed and made by Jesse Nusbaum.

The Art Gallery of the Museum of New Mexico

The architects for the Art Gallery, again Rapp and Rapp, along with Director Hewett, were set on building a fireproof structure with interiors of concrete. Nusbaum, with Springer’s support, held out for woodwork detailed to recall regional traditions. He based the vigas and corbels of the auditorium, the ceiling of the foyer, and the woodwork decoration throughout the building on that of the Pecos mission ruin, where he had recently recorded designs and colors of architectural elements that disintegrated soon after they were uncovered.

Creating The Women’s Board Room

As Santa Fe’s Art Gallery building was intended as a model for re-casting the architecture of the city, the spacious Women’s Board Room, with vigas, a kiva fireplace, and a furniture ensemble designed for social entertaining, provided the illustration of how the new style could be applied in domestic interiors. The room conformed to the notion of a gesamptkunstwerk, or total aesthetic environment. One of its early expressions is the James MacNeill Whistler Peacock Room (1877), now in the Freer Gallery of Washington, but the concept soon characterized the work of architects like Antonio Gaudi and Frank Lloyd Wright.

A large part of the upstairs space in the new Art Gallery was allocated to the museum’s board, comprised of influential ladies hand-picked by Hewett to garner support for him in the broader community. Extant copies of the Rapp architectural plans do not correspond to the room as built, suggesting that the superintendent (Nusbaum) had a great deal of license in the final form.

Years later Nusbaum reminisced, “When we got to this room, I thought it should be something other than just plain concrete slabs…. I worked out a very fine design of an elaborate ceiling, vigas, carving, color, the whole thing.… I even designed and made some furniture.”3 Hewett was absent from Santa Fe when the room was in construction and flew into a rage with Nusbaum on his return. Most of all he objected to the color scheme of burnt orange and two shades of blue painted in the recesses of the carving. The renowned painter Robert Henri was called down from Taos to rectify the color scheme. Declaring he could not improve on Nusbaum’s color selection, he suggested that the ladies further extend it in curtains and cushions, thus placating Hewett and saving Nusbaum’s job. Over the decades, fading and repainting have taken place, but a scientific conservation study could bring the original colors to light so that the original harmony could be restored.

Disputed Authorship

The Women’s Board Room was surely Nusbaum’s definitive stylistic statement, although Kenneth Chapman has often been credited with the furniture. The two were friendly colleagues since their early days when both were recruited for summer work on Hewett’s archeaological digs. In setting up the staff for his new museum, Hewett recruited Chapman in the role of illustrative artist and secretary, requiring him to assume administrative duties that Hewett attempted to micromanage by mail during frequent absences from Santa Fe. Among the “odd jobs” Chapman complained of were “designing and supervising the construction of grills and other features of the [Art Gallery] interior, and the furniture of the Women’s Committee rooms.”4 Hewett expected Chapman, known as the most even-tempered and affable member of the museum staff, to satisfy the concerns of the Women’s Board when it came to their new quarters: “The Plan for the women’s rooms,” wrote Hewett, “is so perfectly in the spirit of all that we are trying to do in Santa Fe that it seems to me beyond criticism, and I feel sure that we can trust our house committee to carry it out in fine taste. No one is better prepared to do this designing than Chapman. When it comes to the actual making of the furniture that will be a question to seriously consider.”

Chapman’s artistic forte, however, was careful watercolor renderings of subjects ranging from Springer’s crinoid fossil collection to his later work classifying the design motifs of Pueblo pottery. It seems blatant politics that while Nusbaum was rarely mentioned in contemporary El Palacio accounts, Chapman was regularly credited with “design,” even in write-ups of the the Painted Desert Pueblo. In this case Nusbaum’s photographs prove his authorship, documenting every stage of the design development from his own drawings through his three-dimensional models. Although Nusbaum never referenced design assistance, perhaps Chapman did sketches, adapting Nusbaum’s photographic documentation to the Women’s Board furniture decoration, just as he had done watercolor renderings for Nusbaum’s Painted Desert Pueblo to present for client approval.6 There is no evidence that Chapman had researched regional furniture, did any woodworking, or had experience in furniture design or construction. Nusbaum, on the other hand, went on to design and make furniture for his Santa Fe home as well as for the Mesa Verde Park headquarters and his residence when he became superintendent there in 1921. For the museum projects Nusbaum did have assistance in the person of Sam Hudelson, whom he acknowledged as a valued collaborator on the woodwork of the Art Gallery and who continued making furniture when he succeeded Nusbaum in the position of superintendent.

The Women’s Board Room Furniture

The original seven-piece furniture ensemble, completed and photographed before the official opening, comprised a long table, a tall sideboard, two armchairs, two benches, and a small low chest. All survive structurally intact, but with the expected signs of over a century of hard use. By the time of the opening these pieces were supplemented by a number of simpler side chairs.

The key piece in the development of the furniture design scheme is the small low chest. The form and decoration relate to a group of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century chests probably made by the Valdez family in the Velarde Valley (between Española and Taos). It bears direct comparison to a piece photographed by Nusbaum at Ranchos de Taos and published in El Palacio in January 1916. Without directly copying, Nusbaum adopted the design vocabulary and the traditional techniques of uneven surfaces hand-worked with an adze as well as chip carving. But he has added elements all his own with the application of paint in recesses and the sophisticated decorative use of projecting tenons, their ends cut in zigzags to achieve an effect similar to that of the braces attached to the sides of the Ranchos de Taos chest.

The highly worked small chest established the decorative vocabulary for the tall sideboard, a totally Anglo form without which no respectable American dining room would have been considered complete. Regional character was imposed on the conventional form by repeating the projecting joinery and decorative carving scheme of the ensemble and adding and fastening the doors with iron latches crafted in the local blacksmithing tradition.

The two armchairs are inspired by the traditional “priest’s chair” found in New Mexican churches, with wooden seats having a wide rail and the legs braced with wide stretchers. The step carving of the tops of the back uprights is associated with furniture found at Cochiti and at Zia Pueblo, but here it is also used on the arm rests. Nusbaum exaggerated a rigid four-square structure, eschewing the usual slant of the back.

Further he emphasized the joinery, with all the tenons projecting, a device used only for occasional emphasis in contemporary Anglo “mission” furniture. As it happened examples were close at hand. At the close of the Panama-California Exposition Hewett had purchased furniture “built in heavy Mission style” that had been made for the Salt Lake Railway pavilion, deeming it a bargain and “a great snap for furnishings for our large front rooms in the new building.”7 Period photos of the new Art Gallery entry/library room show several Mission-style tables with projecting tenons.

The two Women’s Board Room benches derive from traditional regional benches, one of which was originally in the room (now in the Museum of International Folk Art). Nusbaum’s benches featured the stepped endings to the uprights and armrests, and the projecting joinery found on the armchairs, but the painted carving differs. The lines of bullet-shaped gouges conform to those on the vigas and window surrounds of the room. These were elements Nusbaum derived from the Pecos ruins rather than the angled chips on the other pieces of the set drawn from Velarde furniture.

The table that was the centerpiece of the room is a masterful invention combining the dimension of an Anglo banquet table with massive Solomonic columns like those Nusbaum observed supporting the pulpits in New Mexican churches. Circles of painted chip carving punctuate the sturdy blocks at each end of the columns, emphatically terminating the long run of the stretchers and apron. The incredible durability of this historic table has been continuously tested since its relocation to the Museum of Art lobby, where it is put to use on a regular basis.

The Women’s Board Room and Santa Fe Style

The Women’s Board Room became the social hub of the capital, presided over by the leading lights of local society who regularly entertained there members of the state legislature as well as every notable who passed through Santa Fe. Nusbaum’s showcase was pivotal in weaning Anglo taste from East Coast fashions and Grand Rapids mass production, in favor of a proud regionalism, as the New-Old Santa Fe style entered the home.

Penelope Hunter-Stiebel is an independent curator living in Santa Fe. She began her curatorial career at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where she worked on the historical collection of decorative arts and developed the field of modern and contemporary design.