By Maurice M. Dixon, Jr.
Although rare, every so often a convergence occurs of such magnitude that, at the time, little or no thought is given to its consequence by those involved. Nevertheless the significance of its occurrence has traversed the decades, continuing until the present.
Such a convergence transpired nearly one hundred years ago with the most unlikely of participants: an East Coast philanthropist of immense wealth; a Portuguese-speaking, up-and-coming architect; a gifted young artisan from the llano of northeastern New Mexico; and a multi-talented native of Santa Fe, recently deceased and largely unknown beyond the Spanish-speaking population of New Mexico and Southern Colorado. Had it never happened, New Mexico’s rich cultural history would be the poorer for it.
Forty-two years ago, the Fall 1981 issue of El Palacio was devoted entirely to the New Mexico Laboratory of Anthropology on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the building’s completion. Amid the nine articles describing the origin and activities of the laboratory was an excerpt from the then-forthcoming, John Gaw Meem: Southwestern Architect (University of New Mexico Press, 1983), a biography of Meem’s life and work by University of New Mexico professor of architecture Bainbridge Bunting. The nine-page account related a history of the laboratory complex as envisioned by Standard Oil Company magnate John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a competition for its design that he sponsored, and the winner of that competition, thirty-six-year-old John Gaw Meem.
In the introductory article, The Laboratory’s Early Years: 1927–1947, author Betty Tolouse described the building’s dedication on September 1, 1931: “Handmade furniture, carved interior doors, and a black, specially-compounded and highly polished floor were illuminated with hand fashioned tin chandeliers and wall sconces.”
The Bunting excerpt was illustrated with fourteen photographs by legendary photographer Ansel Adams—taken at the time of the building’s completion—and then-current Laboratory of Anthropology photographer Nancy Hunter Warren. Among the illustrations was a single black-and-white photograph by Hunter Warren of the elegant araña (chandelier) that graces the building’s entry foyer. No caption accompanied the photograph—undoubtedly because there was no available information to impart pertaining to the fixture’s origin or the artisan who crafted it.
Yet, in spite of the admiration the chandelier and the other hand-crafted lighting fixtures have elicited over the years, the question persists: Who was the artist responsible for their creation? Why have they not been seriously documented? Has anyone really ever cared? These are questions that pertain to numerous New Mexican artists and artisans of many genres, past and present; talented individuals who have been neglected, misunderstood, and ignored in the wake of non-native interlopers of national and international celebrity with whom New Mexico is so often identified in the collective consciousness of the art-world cognoscenti.
Although it is the imposing foyer chandelier that invariably attracts the attention of visitors to the building, it is the wall sconces referenced by Tolouse that are the source of unlocking the mystery of the artisan who crafted the preponderance of the laboratory’s decorative lighting fixtures. Each of the eight sconces that grace the walls of the building’s massive east wing is unique; no two are alike, although all pay homage to nineteenth-century New Mexican tinworks that served as prototypes for their inspiration.
One sconce in particular stands out not only for its beauty and distinctive style, but also as the key to the identity of the artisan responsible for the Laboratory’s decorative fixtures, Robert Earl Woodman, and a link to his progenitor and muse, Higinio V. Gonzales.
Born June 9, 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri, Woodman’s early childhood and that of his older brother, Henry Pierre, remain shrouded in mystery. Woodman’s adoptive father, Kenneth F. Woodman, enlisted in the United States Army in 1913 and served in the Canal Zone, Balboa, until discharged in late 1919. Scant information provided by a family member suggests that his recent bride, Florence, and her sons accompanied him to Panama for the duration of his military service. The tropical climate was apparently detrimental to the elder Woodman’s health, whereupon discharge from military service the decision was made to migrate to the Southwest. In 1920, the family initially, but briefly, settled in the small ranching community of Roy in Harding County, New Mexico. There, the Woodman brothers attended high school. Two years later the family relocated to Santa Fe while maintaining a secondary residence in Las Vegas, occasioned by the elder Woodman’s position as business manager for the Las Vegas Normal School (later to become New Mexico Highlands University).
Upon graduating from high school Robert joined his brother, Pierre, a second-year architecture student, at the University of Nebraska. There, he majored in chemical engineering. Completing two years of university, Woodman returned to New Mexico to embark on a career as a wood craftsman. The 1926–28 Santa Fe Directory lists twenty-one-year-old Robert, his new wife, Ruby Taylor, and his mother residing in the South Capitol area. Their residence was also listed as the headquarters of Woodman Woodcraft, although the physical place of business was located at the corner of Washington Avenue and East Palace Avenue, one half-block west of Norma V. Sweringen’s recently established decorative arts shop, The Spanish Chest.
From his initial introduction to New Mexico at age thirteen, the perceptive youth was doubtless drawn to the decorative arts of the state’s Hispanic population. In the early decades of the twentieth century there would have been very few Northern New Mexican households that were not furnished with locally crafted chairs, tables, trasteros, and storage chests. Similarly, these homes would have been graced with at least one or more marcos (frames) or nichos (niches) crafted from discarded tinplate provisions containers and housing colorful, commercially printed, devotional images revered by those of the Catholic faith. Possessed of a mathematical mindset, training as an engineer, a passion for precision, and an eye attuned to proportion, grace, and beauty, the young artisan inevitably drew from the varied forms and decorative ornamentation of nineteenth-century examples, reworking their original purpose to the requirements of the twentieth century as home furnishings, lighting fixtures, and myriad other utilitarian functions.
So keenly aware was Woodman of nineteenth-century New Mexican tinworks that the octagonal-shaped wall sconce he crafted for the newly completed Laboratory of Anthropology “lounge” was a full-size copy of one of many tin-and-glass marcos that, unknown to Woodman, were fashioned by the remarkable polymath and talented hojalatero (tinsmith), Higinio V. Gonzales (1842–1921). The explosive exuberance of the sconce is captivating. Surrounding the elongated octagonal mirror are eight rectangular panes of glass sporting floral rosettes of alternating color comb-painted onto the reverse side of the glass. These panels in turn support eight semi-circular arcs, each encompassing a circular disc embossed with distinctive repoussé rosettes encased in a ring of closely-stamped impressions made with a small serrate-tooth punch die. At the juncture of each of the half-moon arcs are soldered stylized birds embellished with both die-stamped embossing and scored linear accents that delineate their chubby bodies and sharp geometric wings.
The overall form, individual design, and ornamental decorative elements so closely reference existing works by Gonzales it is a certainty that Woodman was possessed of an actual piece when he crafted the laboratory sconce. Furthermore, existing patterns for the sconce, found in Woodman’s workshop, as well as his tools—whose embossed imprints match those of the Laboratory sconce—substantiate his authorship.
Examination of the laboratory foyer araña, the eight wall sconces and two massive chandeliers that illuminate the lounge, in addition to a pair of crown-like corona chandeliers in the library, provides evidence that he was indeed the artisan who crafted the splendid works, after comparison of their die-embossed impressions to Woodman’s stock of stamping dies and cutting tools. Curiously, the files of the Laboratory of Anthropology that are housed in the Meem Archives at the Zimmerman library on the University of New Mexico campus contain no working drawings of the lighting fixtures. This is corroborated by a SchoolArts magazine article (May 1934) that featured photographs of the grand foyer chandelier along with two chandeliers, which exhibit Woodman’s decidedly stylistic signature, yet credit “Mr. Sweriger” as the designer and craftsman responsible for each item—presumably a reference to Benjamin Sweringen, husband of The Spanish Chest’s Norma Sweringen.
The unfortunate lack of working drawings has, no doubt, contributed in part to the mystery surrounding the laboratory fixtures’ origin. It is possible that Meem, although known for his meticulous attention to detail, gave the order for their design and fabrication to Benjamin Sweringen—or it was perhaps the building contractor who chose The Spanish Chest as a source for the fixtures, thereby bypassing Meem’s aesthetic input entirely. That the fixtures’ place of origin was indeed The Spanish Chest is documented in an announcement of Sweringen’s death, published in the Santa Fe New Mexican and dated December 20, 1941, where it was stated Mr. Sweringen “opened and operated the Spanish Chest on Palace avenue [sic]. His organization specialized in the manufacture of Spanish furniture and tin work, some of which was used in the Laboratory of Anthropology here and in the Monte Cito [sic] church in California.”
Unequivocal evidence of Woodman’s authorship of the Laboratory of Anthropology fixtures is inextricably linked to the “church in California” noted in Sweringen’s death notice. Our Lady of Carmel Catholic Church (built 1936–1938) is located in the community of Montecito, where the fixtures hang today. Documentation of Woodman origin and craftsmanship of these fixtures is provided by a photograph of the tinsmith, youthful, muscular, and demure, standing next to one of the set of massive life-size chandeliers that he fabricated for the church.
The chandelier’s heavily pierced and perforated inverted half dome, which forms the fixture’s base, is essentially identical to the bulbous base of the Laboratory foyer chandelier and the perforated circular drums that highlight the Laboratory lounge’s distinctive chandeliers. The placement and structure of the light bulb receptacles of the lounge chandeliers and those of the Montecito chandelier are identical—but it is not only the similarity of form, identical perforation, and stamping of the terneplate that establish Woodman’s authorship. It is the fixtures’ structural configuration consisting of an elongated, triangular-shaped support at the apex of the fixture as well as the substantial circular band from which the weight of the chandelier is suspended that is identical to the support components of each of the three Laboratory chandeliers.
This easily overlooked detail establishes Woodman as the undisputed artisan responsible for their creation. Sweringen may have designed the lighting fixtures for the Laboratory and the church in Montecito, but it was most certainly Robert Woodman whose artistry transformed the working drawings into tangible objects of beauty.
In conversation with gallery owner Ray Dewey in 1984, the sole surviving Woodman family member stated that it was their uncle, Robert Woodman, who crafted the fixtures for the Laboratory of Anthropology—and that his association with the project was a source of profound unrequited pain that he suffered for the remainder of his life. The dolorous circumstances involved a young woman affiliated with the Laboratory at the time of its construction who attracted the attention of not only Woodman but the project’s principal patron, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. The choice for the woman was simple; Woodman, heartbroken, carried her photograph in his wallet until the day of his death.
When Woodman chose a career as a full-time metalsmith is unknown; however, operating nearby businesses on Palace Avenue, Woodman and Sweringen would have maintained an acquaintance and possibly a working relationship from as early as 1926, with Woodman having been employed by the Sweringens shortly after the demise of Woodman Woodcraft. The 1936–1937 Santa Fe City Directory lists him as an employee of The Spanish Chest, where it was emphasized that he specialized in metalcraft. There, all manner of decorative items that he and the prodigiously productive and multi-talented artisan Bruce Cooper crafted were on display and for sale. Due to the nature of the Sweringens’ business, there were undoubtedly dozens of nineteenth-century New Mexican tinworks for sale from which Woodman and Cooper would have drawn inspiration for crafting contemporary functional items such as lighting fixtures and for which their customers, with romantic images of the past, were eager consumers. Although it is a certainty that Sweringen did not design or craft the Laboratory octagonal wall sconce, he may have provided the original piece of tinwork that was reproduced by Woodman.
Experiencing increasing ill health, Sweringen sold the business to Cooper in the late 1930s. Woodman continued to craft tinplate items for the shop, but by then he had established his own business at his workshop, located at 1557 Canyon Road, where he catered to private individuals, local entrepreneurs, and invariably to John Gaw Meem.
Woodman’s affiliation with The Spanish Chest and his capability to craft intricate and complicated large-scale works inevitably impressed Meem and was likely the catalyst for his long-lasting professional relationship with the Meem architecture firm.
From this period, when the Laboratory of Anthropology and adjacent Director’s House (whose grand sala was graced with a matching pair of Woodman’s unmistakable corona-style chandeliers) was completed, Woodman-crafted works appear in a multitude of Meem-designed structures on the University of New Mexico campus; the Santa Fe municipal building (1936); the Santa Fe County Courthouse (1938); religious, commercial and academic structures in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Colorado (Fountain Valley School, 1930–1941); and elsewhere as well as numerous private residences. One of the grandest of these was Ruth Hannah McCormick Simms’ Los Poblanos Ranch fiesta pavilion, La Quinta, built in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque in 1935.
Many of Woodman’s brass, copper, and terneplate creations were informed by Meem, whose designs for lighting fixtures often reflect an appreciation of nineteenth-century New Mexican tinworks as well as the intricate, faceted-glass fixtures of Mexico and Spain. A photograph from the Woodman photography archive, taken by Santa Fe photographer Wyatt Davis, of a pendant star-shaped, multi-point fixture made almost entirely of translucent “frosted” glass, is identical to a Meem drawing made specifically for the new student union building on the University of New Mexico campus.
The working drawing, illustrated in Dr. Ann Taylor’s Southwestern Ornamentation and Design: The Architecture of John Gaw Meem (Sunstone Press, 1989), and the completed fixture owe their inspiration to cultures distinctly removed from isolated New Mexico; however, it is the amalgamation of various stylistic influences and the imaginative collaborations of Meem and Woodman that have contributed to the lasting esthetic that the artist’s metalworks exhibit yet today.
A circa-1938 spiral-ring notebook lists fixtures that Woodman crafted for the Meem-designed Sandia School in Albuquerque (1937), as well as documents an astounding 562 items that he crafted around that time. Among those listed as clients were several of Santa Fe and Albuquerque’s wealthiest inhabitants, all of whom were Meem patrons: Amelia Hollenback; Albert and John F. Simms; Cyrus McCormick, Jr. Also invoiced were Meem for his new home at the base of Sun Mountain on Old Santa Fe Trail (1937) and Woodman’s former employer, “Ben” (Sweringen).
To facilitate purchases, Woodman crafted individual display pieces in order that a client could be assured of an exact duplicate of a chosen item, exemplified by the extensive array of working drawings complete with the time to execute each component methodically calculated. His penchant for clarity and precision was responsible for the large cache of surviving photographs of individual pieces and collections of his artistry, while a major portion of the pieces made for sale have long since vanished. Of the original “sample” pieces that exist, Woodman’s calculated prices are marked (on their back or base) in black grease pencil: A single-bulb sconce; $3.50; a tri-part, menorah-like candelabra seen in the lower right corner of a photograph of Woodman soldering in his workshop, an adaptation of those crafted by Francisco Sandoval (1860–1944), was marked $3.50, the price later being changed to $6.30. Records pertaining to the impressive lighting fixtures crafted for the Meem-designed Zimmerman Library on the UNM campus (1934–1936) document that the budget for the fixtures was set at $650, including materials and labor. Assuming that the contract for their fabrication was given to The Spanish Chest rather than to Woodman directly, he clearly did not reap a fortune from his artistry.
Woodman’s reputation as a superb craftsman was recognized when clients and shop owners such as the Sweringens brought to him pieces of nineteenth-century New Mexican and Mexican hojalatería—many housing devotional prints which were destined to be removed along with the original glass covering and replaced with mirrors, or in the case of three-dimensional nichos—to be converted into electrical lighting fixtures. It’s an action the present-day connoisseur and collector finds unconscionably reprehensible, but that until the 1970s was common practice. Thus it was that he inadvertently contributed to the desecration of dozens of tin works, many of which were crafted by Gonzales; the artisan identified as the Isleta Tinsmith; the Taos Serrate tinsmith; and the prolific and brilliantly talented José Maria Apodaca (1844–1924) whose uniquely styled, pitched-roof nichos, comprised principally of glass, were the inspiration for the copper-and-glass nicho that Woodman crafted to illuminate the exterior of the east wing of the Laboratory of Anthropology, where it remains in situ today.
Identifying a nineteenth-century tinplate marco that was retrofitted by Woodman to contain a mirror is a relatively easy task. The terneplate tubular came used to encase the plate glass mirror along with a substantial back plate also made of terneplate is recognizable to the trained eye as having been executed by Woodman, but it is the flowing, silky-smooth soldering that readily identifies Woodman’s signature as the skilled craftsman who retrofitted the vintage tinwork. Woodman’s capacity for exactitude and his training as an engineer was undoubtedly responsible for his unparalleled ability to solder. The pieces that he created are virtually “bombproof,” the soldering so assured and even and with a density such that it is nearly impossible to dismantle a piece without resulting in its destruction. Woe to the person who attempts to rewire his electrical fixtures (and there are many that require such treatment) without maiming their structural or decorative integrity. And, like his light fixtures, woe betide the contemporary tinsmith who attempts to remove a damaged or broken Woodman-installed mirror!
Barbara Ann Thorpe, proprietor of Bishop’s Lodge on the northern outskirts of Santa Fe, was a regular customer, commissioning items ranging from assorted lighting fixtures to guest bath “backsplashes” and elaborate items such as postcard display holders for the lodge’s lobby. In the late 1930s she commissioned Woodman to craft a series of frames housing devotional prints destined to be hung on the side walls of the diminutive chapel situated above the main lodge that was built in the mid-nineteenth century by Archbishop J. B. Lamy. The horizontally oriented frames were crafted in the form of windows framed by drawn-aside drapery executed with deeply-scored curvilinear flourishes and a minimum of repoussé stamping. On 3-by-3-inch index cards, Woodman made specific reference to the Lamy Chapel and the frames as “curtain effect,” three of which appear in a circa 1940–41 photograph of the chapel by Ernest Knee and published in his book, Santa Fe. There they remained for more than seven decades.
Woodman’s productivity was halted in the spring of 1942 by his participation in the Second World War effort. Upon moving to Santa Monica, California, he worked in a civilian capacity fabricating metal components for military aircraft, but was eventually inducted into the United States Army Air Corps in December 1943. Following basic training in Kansas, he was deployed to South Carolina where his metal fabricating abilities were again called upon until he was discharged in late summer 1945.
Upon his return to civilian life, he once again established his metalworking business with unimaginable vigor. A surviving invoice book dated 1946 and dedicated exclusively to sales to the antique dealer Eleanor Bedell lists 559 items he fabricated that year, ranging from switchplates ($1 each for copper) to “Taos” chandeliers ($60 each), all to be offered for sale at her Palace Avenue shop. Other invoice books document that he also provided a consistent inventory of assorted decorative items for Tony Taylor’s popular The Old Mexico Shop: ash trays, cigarette boxes, letter holders and other items for the desk, assorted small- to medium-size picture frames, and an astonishing variety of switchplate covers made of brass and copper, as well as the ubiquitous and ever-popular terneplate.
Cryptic and occasionally vitriolic comments written in the margins of billing invoices suggest that Woodman was not altogether pleased with Taylor’s purchase and resale of metal items that he was importing from Mexico; Woodman vented that his work was being undercut in quality and price. However, several surviving tinwork items as well as those that appear in photographs substantiate that Woodman was not immune to the stylistic influences of his Mexican colleagues, notably among these the incorporation of colored marbles into lamp shades and lighting fixtures. The charming but slightly odd “’50s modern” drum-style chandeliers that he fashioned, and that until recently illuminated the public areas of La Posada on Palace Avenue in Santa Fe, were excellent examples of this genre.
Woodman’s artistry was recognized in 1952 when he was given an exhibition at an East San Francisco Street venue, Under the Portal, sponsored by the First National Bank of Santa Fe. There, all manner of his work was on exhibit and it may have been the impetus to craft an advertisement piece which is as fresh today as the day it exited his studio. A quote in the Santa Fe New Mexican, announcing Woodman’s artistry, stated: “For beauty and design, this metal work certainly rivals work in silver. Displayed are candelabras, frames, centerpieces and candle sticks of unusual beauty, as well as many novelties such as mail boxes, Kleenex boxes, wall lights, etc. You will be interested in seeing this display by one of the few master craftsmen still working in tin.” Regrettably, no photos of the exhibition exist.
The 1950s were fruitful for Woodman as he continued to repair or convert vintage tinwork for local antique dealers and accept commissions from contractors, architects, and private customers—most importantly from his patron, John Gaw Meem. Three distinctive star-shaped, reverse-painted-glass, flush-mounted light fixtures that he crafted for the Felipe B. Delgado house on West Palace Avenue—purchased by Meem as an act of preservation and donated to The Historic Santa Fe foundation—remain today attached to the underside of the overhanging balcony.
This was also a period when, acknowledging (or capitulating to) changing tastes, Woodman introduced new and innovative designs into his repertoire that reflected the aesthetic of the era. In lieu of the shimmering reverse-painted glass panels that had been previously painted by his mother, he began to incorporate wallpaper, wrapping paper, and colored foil, giving his works an updated (if somewhat glitzy) appearance. The popularity of glazing glass surfaces with colored crystal solutions also made its appearance as a replacement for the comb-painted patterns that previously graced his lighting fixtures and mirror frame components.
The advent of “modern times” eventually found its way into his pricing structure, as he raised his hourly working fee from $2.50 in 1942 to $5.50 in 1973! It was at that time that Woodman, always reserved and unassuming, began to withdraw from society altogether, refusing commissions and turning away private clients eager to purchase one or more of his superbly crafted creations. Yet, despite his refusal to sell products, he continued to craft masterworks in confined areas of his home and under its broad south-facing portal, stacking the pieces one on top of the other in the house and in his two unkempt and deteriorating workshops.
Having neglected general maintenance on the workshops in his declining years, rain and snowmelt leaked through the roofs, seeping onto his work benches and into the many wooden drawers containing his meticulously kept file cards. Dozens of sheets of rare, vintage terneplate were stained, rusted, and rendered unusable. Rolls of antique wallpaper, detailed working drawings and architectural blueprints of lighting fixtures, many of which originated in the Meem firm, were water-stained and mouse-eaten. Much of the content of the workshops was beyond salvaging.
Following Woodman’s death in the spring of 1983, a large portion of the moisture-damaged material and an unknown number of tools, mechanical devices, and miscellaneous material were consigned to the rubbish pile. It was only by serendipitous happenstance that a significant portion of his oeuvre—the collection of photographs and remaining contents of his workshop—were rescued from oblivion when I, as a sales associate on duty at the front desk of Dewey-Kofron Gallery, located on the Santa Fe Plaza, was shown an assortment of tinworks by Woodman’s heir. Soon thereafter, the corpus of Woodman’s workshop was consigned and offered for sale in my recently inaugurated Gallery of Decorative Art located in the garden level of Dewey-Kofron Gallery.
Collectors and patrons who had formerly been turned away from Woodman’s doorstep flocked to purchase longed-for items that he had refused to sell. The alarming rapidity with which the inventory sold brought about the realization that Woodman’s work should be recognized before it disappeared forever.
In the autumn of 1984, an exhibition of his remaining work was mounted in the main exhibition space of Dewey-Kofron Gallery. The public response surpassed expectations. It was this exhibition, which coincided with a chance conversation with metal artisan and educator Lane Coulter, that initiated the impetus for extensive research that resulted in the publication of our collaborative volume, New Mexican Tinwork 1840–1940 (University of New Mexico Press, 1990).
The book’s popularity ignited my further study of individual nineteenth-century New Mexican hojalateros, subsequently resulting in the 2015 publication of The Artistic Odyssey of Higinio V. Gonzales: A Tinsmith and Poet in Territorial New Mexico (University of Oklahoma Press), a biography and explication of the life and multiple creative endeavors of el nuevomexicano extraordinario whose imaginary and beautifully crafted tinworks inspired many of Woodman’s masterworks, and whose octagonal-shaped marco served as the prototype for the sconce that illuminates the east wall of the Laboratory of Anthropology’s great room: the lounge.
Thus the convergence that began in 1929 came full circle. Rockefeller patronage, Meem vision, Woodman talent, Gonzales inspiration, and the chance occurrence of a box of metal switch plate covers being brought to a Santa Fe plaza gallery on a warm August afternoon spurred the first codification of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century New Mexican hojalatería. The story came full circle to encompass the recognition of Higinio V. Gonzales as the progenitor of so much of the beauty that we enjoy today in the timeless works of John Gaw Meem, Robert Woodman, and their contemporary successors.
The passage of time will surely erase all memory of Robert E. Woodman, but it is my express hope that this brief account of his life and artistry will in some small way honor the man whose five decades of creative contribution to New Mexico’s architectural legacy has been for too long unacknowledged.
Maurice M. Dixon, Jr. (BFA, MFA) is a painter, tinsmith, antiquarian, collector, and researcher. He is currently a consultant on a forthcoming Rick Dillingham exhibition at the New Mexico Museum of Art, and is also at work on an account of Dillingham’s life and artistry.