BY CHRISTINE MATHER
Poor Santa Fe, its style is dead, or so I have been told. We are told that Santa Fe is a myth, as if it is misrepresenting itself in some sneaky way, pretending to be something it is not or passing itself off as old or charming when it is, in fact, a false creation, albeit old and charming. Or—what is worse—Santa Fe is an adobe Disneyland that has been “charmed out.” Or—the worst of the worse—like plaid, Santa Fe’s style is “out,” the architectural equivalent of a fashion faux pas. All of these things about Santa Fe have some bit of truth to them. The myth of Santa Fe has much to do with the miracle of Santa Fe. That it should survive as a touted destination and desirable city rather than having been passed over is no accident of history but the result of a calculated marketing program of astounding success. At its creation, Santa Fe Style was called “new” and “old” simultaneously, since the group that recognized its old existence were pointing out that they were moving on to something new. The “new” that they envisioned was a city with romantic street names and architectural consistency based on venerable building materials, techniques, and designs unique to the region. It was a city core patterned on the original core of the city, an artsy place that would support creativity, a destination for tourists, a place that celebrated diverse cultures—what were they thinking! This hardy band of misguided mythmakers had the belief that all of this might be accomplished through architecture and that intangible thing called “lifestyle.” Did they want a myth? You better bet they did, and if plaid had played a part in it they would have paved the streets with it. At the heart of their scheme was an attempt to save a place they considered to be very much worth saving in some form, and they were keen on having something to say about what that form would be.
So let us acknowledge the mythmakers for what they were—spot-on visionaries. Let’s face it, New Mexico has never been a terrifically viable place, economically—just ask the King of Spain back when. It is to back and beyond; it can be cold, hot, dusty, windy, dry; and it lacks ports and navigable rivers—water in most forms. It has been abandoned in part and as a whole any number of times by all kinds of people and most businesses. So this group of city fathers, at the turn of the twentieth century, along with anthropologist and arty types, decides to forestall another cycle of boom and bust and put their hopes on what they recognized as the unique style of the place they had come to know and love. To this end these wizards set off making furniture in basements, enlisting corbel-carvers hither and yon, poring over catchy Spanish names, painting over brick buildings, having cool contests, putting on pageants and parades, bringing in artists and giving them a warm place to paint and exhibit, reviving just about anything they could think of to revive. This myth machine was in full throttle for decades.
Revivals are at the heart of mythmaking, and while they often lead to some sort of success they are inherently doomed, since they can only pick around the edges of the past. Sort of like zombies, revival movements and the things they inspire lurch around looking almost right but not quite. Part of the problem comes in trying to revive things that never existed in the first place. For example, in the case of New Mexican furniture, reviving an office desk, bookshelf, lobby furniture, or library table can be a true stumper, and the results can have a certain Frankenstein quality. For buildings the challenges are even greater and grander, so that hotels take on the look of Pueblos, museums are like churches, campus buildings get trimmed out territorially, and theaters fly off into fantasyland. As for other things, “colcha”-embroidered curtains and pillows have their own charm; lamps from Pueblo pots and side tables from painted Cochiti drums are kind of creepy; and ashtrays and cigarette lighters in “the style” have blessedly had their day. All of this mishing and mashing of time periods, cultures, techniques, materials, functions, and stylistic details leads to the creation of a separate style—the revival style—that comes with its own confusions, reflecting the “monster” that was created. For example, the city of Santa Fe struggles with design standards given names such as “Pueblo-Spanish” or “Spanish-Indian,” “Old Santa Fe Style” as well as “Recent Santa Fe Style,” and “Territorial.” Other wannabes that insinuate themselves into the mix include Pueblo Revival, Pueblo Deco, mid-century Territorial, Spanish Colonial Revival, Mission Revival, Moorish Revival, Contemporary Southwest, and Southwestern Ranch.
All of this reviving is in the service of preservation—the grandiloquent hope of saving the past. The tricky part of this is that history is not entirely knowable, time cannot be preserved; the past is past, and you really wouldn’t want to go there—at least not permanently. Axiomatically speaking, the more I learn of the past the greater is my sense of its unknowable-ness.
Standing in a dirt-floored adobe building mid-February does allow me to know that going back in time might not be such a great idea—with or without head lice. Nor do I want to re-experience grinding corn all day long, hauling water, childbirth without anesthesia. No, I want the myth, please, not the reality of life on the far northern frontier of New Spain. I love brick floors with radiant heat; a corner fireplace that is meant as a lovely, atmospheric accouterment to warmth; the sweet feel of hot water from the tap of exquisite indoor plumbing; the adorable Novocain at the dentist; the garnished ceiling of vigas ordered up from a lumberyard; the epiphany of the light switch illuminating the tin sconce; the miracle of the “combo plate”; thick, sensuous adobe walls with hard-troweled plaster or cementitious stucco; windows; the security of the word “handyman.” I love sitting on an historic review board for the City Different that spends hours parsing over window styles, streetscape harmony, building heights, stucco colors—fiddle-de-dee and nonexistent things of the true past, the past that included smallpox. I love judging the quality or success of the recreated past in the revival side table; the woven textile with metallic thread; the teeny, tiny silver filigree Santo Niño de Atocha; or watching pets parade, giant puppets burn, or going to markets—Indian, Spanish, folk, ethnographic—whilst eating corn on the cob, Indian fry bread, breakfast burritos, and so forth. I can go to a museum that looks like three Pueblo-Spanish colonial churches mashed together or one that once had animal skins for doors but was a palace, or go to the oldest this and that—all the while knowing that their secrets are safe with me. The past cannot come back. To some degree we get to pick and choose the parts of the past we want to live and save—our myth. For me, Santa Fe has chosen wisely.
Christine Mather has spent years locked up in Santa Fe basements, first as Curator of Spanish Colonial Art at the Museum of International Folk Art, from 1975 to 1984, and later as Curator of Collections at the New Mexico Museum of Art, from 2002 to 2011. Between these subterranean phases, she came up for air to raise two of the best daughters a mother could have, write four “style” books, and help her husband, Davis Mather, stockpile, rearrange, and sometimes sell folk art. Now she is back with her old squeeze, Spanish Colonial art, as a consultant at El Rancho de las Golondrinas. Through it all, she has retained her unremunerated position as the House Curator.