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The Santa Fe that tourists come to see today bears little resemblance to the city of just a few decades ago. In those days, within a three-block radius of the Plaza, new generations of Santa Feans were born at St. Vincent Hospital at the corner of Palace Avenue and Paseo de Peralta. Santa Fe High School students attended classes in buildings located at Lincoln Avenue and Marcy Avenue and ate lunch in the park on the north side of South Federal Place where the post office now stands. After school they'd flood the Plaza area and buy a soda at Zook's Pharmacy. Housewives would shop for groceries at Batrite's, Piggly Wiggly, and Safeway, fill their prescriptions at Central and Capital pharmacies, buy clothes at J. C. Penney's, Bell's, and Goodman's, shoes at Pfluger's and Kahn's, and notions at Woolworth's and Taichert's. For fashions they went to The Guarantee, La Tienda, and El Pavon. Locals posted letters at the Old Post Office opposite the Cathedral, bought appliances at the Maytag shop, furniture at Montoya's and Livingston's, found a plumber at Cartwright's, and bought lumber and hardware at Big Jo's. Folks stood in line for a steak at the U and I, got chop suey at the New Canton Café, or a burger at the Little Chief Grill. There was a gas station on almost every corner, a tire store on Lincoln Avenue, shops to get your shoes repaired, a choice of three movie theaters on West San Francisco Street, and the Plaza was where you met old friends and paused to chat.
But that's all gone now. The Santa Fe that once served Santa Feans has become a destination serving tourists, loaded with shops few locals have interest in and most can't afford. Strict zoning laws may have kept the downtown a conformist Pueblo-style brown, but exceptions have allowed new buildings to tower above the narrow streets, their mass blocking entire panoramas of distant mountains.
Lost in those changes is the memory of what once was. I used to patronize the Bank of Santa Fe where the massive First Interstate Bank building was built, and I have no recollection of what it looked like. I ate in restaurants that have become boutiques. I filled my tank at gas stations where vendors now sell Central American imports. I bought shoelaces where art galleries now sit. Whole blocks of memory have been wiped from my mind as the city has undergone vast and sweeping changes in recent years. And I know I'm not alone. Even families who have been here for generations can't remember what once stood on a certain corner. So I decided it was time to reconstruct some of that lost memory before much more of Santa Fe is altered forever.
Santa Fe was established as the capital of Spanish El Norte in 1610 and laid out according to the Laws of the Indies, a set of town planning ordinances promulgated by King Philip II of Spain in 1573 that designated the location of church, government, and commercial buildings around a plaza. Along the north side of the Santa Fe Plaza, founder Don Pedro de Peralta located what would become known as the Palace of the Governors, while to the east was built the village church. During the city's first two hundred years there were no merchants that met the common definition of the term, so the other two sides of the Plaza were devoted to the houses of prominent citizens.
Out from the Plaza radiated a tight grid of streets, which within a few blocks gave way to a skein of unpaved paths that followed the natural and man-made water courses and burro trails that wound up the sides of the hills to the east of downtown and west along the banks of the Santa Fe River. Farmers tended small plots of corn and chile and watered orchards of peaches, apples, and apricots. Few buildings other than churches stood more than one story high. All was built of rough adobe brick plastered in mud and roofed with dirt. The occasional caravan of ox carts ground its way north from Mexico along El Camino Real, a viable commercial route for 225 years before the Santa Fe Trail was opened. Periodically soldiers sallied forth to engage marauding bands of Comanches and Apaches. Otherwise, life was a humble ritual of farm labor, religious ceremony, barter, and self-sufficiency.
Once Mexico broke free from Spain in 1821, the New Mexican territory was opened for trade with the eastern United States. Wagon trains loaded with shiny tools and bright calico caused great anticipation as they rumbled over Glorietta Pass and down what's now known as the Old Santa Fe Trail and into the Plaza. Merchants began to erect larger, mercantile buildings along the south side of the Plaza to serve as both retail stores and wholesale warehouses, and long-isolated Santa Feans were introduced to a whole new world.
In 1846, General Stephen Watts Kearny led a troop of cavalry into the city and claimed the entire New Mexican territory for the United States as a spoil of its war with Mexico. The army brought with it new tools and materials that created rapid change within a few short decades in this dusty provincial outpost. The military imported the region's first power saw, which produced dimensioned lumber and led to the development of the Territorial style of architecture marked by square portal posts and Greek revival pediments over doors and windows. Eastern and military influences inspired New England and Midwestern housing designs and details, like pitched roofs, brick walls and roofline coping, picket fences, and multi-paned, factory-made windows.
For the next thirty years, trade over the Santa Fe Trail thrived as Missouri drovers brought everything and anything imaginable from Independence and points east, including factory-made brick, tin roof panels, plate glass, nails, store-bought clothes and shoes, and even pianos. German-Jewish sutlers, who came to supply the U.S. Army, stayed to service Santa Fe, the outlying farming villages, and the entire territory. Bishop (later Archbishop) Jean Baptiste Lamy arrived in 1852 with a wealth of grand plans to improve the health, education, and welfare of his new flock. He left a legacy of churches, schools, hospitals, and social institutions, many built in styles then popular in his native France.
In 1880, an eighteen-mile railroad spur connected the capital city to the mainline of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad. New supplies of building materials were now readily available and transformed the large adobe commercial buildings around the Plaza into even larger Victorian ones. These new buildings were built of brick and embellished with popular architectural details, including pressed tin ceilings, cast-iron columns, and factory-made window sashes and doors. But in an irony of history, the coming of the railroad, while cause for much initial celebration and optimism, would ultimately send the capital city into a spiral of economic decline. Overnight the Santa Fe Trail that had been so lucrative became obsolete as the center of Territorial commerce shifted from Santa Fe to the mainline depots of Las Vegas and Albuquerque. The city's civilian population also declined. And to make matters worse, the federal government closed Fort Marcy in the early 1890s, taking with it its significant payroll and purchasing power.
By the early decades of the twentieth century, Santa Fe was in a state of architectural confusion. In an attempt to win Congressional approval for statehood, it had tried to look like Anywhere, USA, and had largely succeeded. Guadalupe Church had changed its appearance from Northern New Mexico mission to tall-steepled, white-picket-fence New England. Politicians met in an imposing marble and granite capitol with a grand columned portico and rotunda beneath a stained glass dome that rivaled the best in the nation. Visitors put up at the elaborate Palace Hotel, decorated with New Orleans-style iron columns, wraparound balconies, and filigree-topped towers. The shopping blocks were railroad Italianate, much new housing was bungalow style, the Catholic schools were French Second Empire, and the St. Francis Cathedral and Loretto Chapel were Gothic and Romanesque Revival.
By the time New Mexico was finally granted statehood in 1912, city fathers had realized they needed to replace the lost commerce of the army and the Trail with a new economic engine and were seeking to establish Santa Fe as the center for tourism in the Southwest. They needed a theme, a cohesive appearance, a style that would attract visitors and distinguish the city from the Spanish Mission Revival style then taking hold in California. They soon found it with the restoration of the Palace of the Governors and the construction of the Fine Arts Museum. Santa Fe, the City Different, would henceforth be known as the city of Spanish Pueblo Revival, some of it rooted in authenticity, much of it fabricated. The new tastemakers used as the basis for their new emergent style the protruding vigas, overhanging canales, and carved corbels they found on the remnants of original Santa Fe adobe homes. Architects looked for inspiration among the mission churches built centuries before. And they drew up an informal design code that all present and future buildings in Santa Fe should display a uniform, earth toned, ersatz adobe look. They ripped off the cast-iron store fronts, tore down the gingerbread trim, took off the Victorian brackets and dentils, discarded the Grecian columns, and covered brick and stone facades with layers of brown cement. By the 1930s, this narrow definition of acceptable style had been broadened to allow buildings that embraced the details of the Territorial period, including sharper corners, brick roof coping, and square portal columns. It also allowed Greek Revival window and door pediments, all painted white.
Forcing existing buildings to conform yielded some alterations that were more successful than others. The remnants of these waves of change are still visible around the downtown, sometimes on the same building. The second Spiegelberg building, for example, on the south side of the Plaza (now known as Simply Santa Fe), still has an entry framed in Victorian cast iron imported from Pittsburgh, covered by a Spanish Pueblo Revival portal, and topped by Territorial-style brick coping.
In the course of this mad rush to "pueblofy" Santa Fe, the city lost a great deal of its architectural history and eclectic charm. By the early 1950s, John Conron's Centerline Building, built in a California stick style, sent shivers of fear through the traditionalists who then prompted the city to adopt the Historic Styles Ordinance to codify the agreed-upon look and to police any violations thereof.
Nevertheless, Santa Fe today is still a charming city. It's still the City Different and to most visitors looks nothing like where they come from. But it has suffered massive changes throughout its existence, and in recent years a once vibrant and living city center has been tamed into an adobe theme park. Here then is a look into the past to help recall some of what has been lost.