In a league of its own
Santa Fe, N.M., a Southwestern town of 68,000 in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, has, for quite some time, prided itself on being different. And, if local officials have their way, the city will continue to be just that. This year, the city is honoring the primary guard of Santa Fe’s unique character for 50 years: its historic preservation ordinance.
In the early 20th century, Santa Fe’s architecture — a fusion of Spanish and Native American influence, in which buildings are constructed of adobe, or mud brick, with flat roofs of timber wood covered with dirt — nearly ended New Mexico’s chance for statehood because the federal government refused to allow any territories with buildings constructed of mud to become a state. So, in an effort to look more like the ubiquitous columned structures on the East Coast, many adobe buildings were demolished and replaced with Greek Revival-style ones. Structures in the “Santa Fe style” nearly vanished. “As soon as we got statehood [in 1912], people looked around and said, ‘Wait a minute. This is not Santa Fe,’” says David Rasch, head of Santa Fe’s Historic Preservation Section, part of the city’s Planning and Land Use Department. “So, [local officials] came up with this idea that we need to celebrate what we really are and promote it to residents and tourists alike.”
The city’s general plan was developed in 1912 and prevented issuing permits for buildings that did not reflect Santa Fe’s unique architectural heritage. Then, on Oct. 30, 1957, the city established the Historic Styles Ordinance to codify elements of the 1912 plan and preserve existing adobe buildings. “The character of Santa Fe [has been] a drawing card for visitors [and] tourists from all over the world for a long time. Its character was beginning to lose its charm,” says Irene von Horvath, a former architect who helped draft the 1957 ordinance. “People were coming in and demolishing old buildings [and] putting in things that were not compatible with Santa Fe. So, we were trying not exactly to put a stop to it, but [to] slow it down at least.”
Now, 20 percent of Santa Fe, the country’s oldest capitol city, is protected by a historic district designation that regulates the construction of new buildings and requires owners to maintain the materials of historic buildings. Although the structures are susceptible to erosion, many that existed during the founding of the city are still present. The ordinance, said to be the second oldest in the country, requires newly constructed buildings, particularly those downtown, to conform to the Santa Fe style.
The Historic Preservation Section continuously fights for the ideals presented in the ordinance, battling with developers and architects who want to construct buildings that look more modern and include more 21st century elements. The city currently is addressing infill and sustainability issues, which promote densely populated areas and buildings that are several stories high. That presents a major challenge to a community in which residential buildings are often no more than a single story and are located on large lots.
Rasch says that historic preservation aims to retain the integrity of an area, and when proposals arise to construct buildings in areas of historical significance, that integrity becomes threatened. “If you go to Europe, you can’t throw a stone without hitting a historic building. They’re everywhere,” he says. “Here, we have a precious little gem — not many historic buildings. If you put in too many contemporary buildings, you lose [that] character and integrity.”
While some developers seek to change the city’s style, others willingly adopt it. “The funny thing is, even way out at the southwest side of town, which is all new, they’re still choosing to build in the Santa Fe style. And, they’re not even required to,” Rasch says. “People are noticing that this is our asset, this unique architecture.”