Fred A. Bernstein

A Battle Over Modernism Goes Casa a Casa in Santa Fe

Modernism arouses ire in the city's historic district

Published in The New York Times, July 13, 2006


TWO years ago Stephen Mills and Susan Emmet Reid woke up to find the words "Nazi Barbarism" scrawled across the outside of their just-completed house in Santa Fe. The spray-painter "was not a teenage graffiti artist," Mr. Mills quickly realized, "but someone who styled himself an architecture critic."

Situated on a quiet street about a mile from the center of town, the house has greenish-gray walls that intersect at right angles. Those deviations from the classic Santa Fe style, which features pinkish-brown stucco and rounded edges, were enough to anger some residents.

"A lot of people in town were outraged," said Jane Farrar, an artist who serves on the city's Historic Design Review Board, which came under attack for allowing the house to be built. The couple were shocked by the reaction. "The last thing we wanted to do was make a statement," said Ms. Reid, a yoga instructor.

A year earlier, the review board, a group of volunteers charged with deciding what is built in the city's six-square-mile historic district, approved the design for the house, by Trey Jordan, a Santa Fe archtiect.

But after the building was finished, the city's mayor at the time, Larry Delgado, began hearing from angry constituents. As a result, Ms. Farrar said, she and other members of the board got "a stern talking-to from the mayor, who threatened not to reappoint us."

Since then, the board has become increasingly hard to satisfy, said Mr. Jordan, who has completed about two dozen buildings in Santa Fe since setting up shop in 1994. Most recently, his refusal to make changes in plans for his own house has brought him and the board to an impasse, which the City Council now has to resolve.

To Mr. Jordan, 39, what is at stake is not only the future of his practice, but whether Santa Fe will devolve into what he calls a cartoon version of itself. Mr. Jordan contrasts the city with another desert town, Palm Springs, Calif., where architectural innovation has flourished.

Mr. Mills agreed that architectural rigidity is a bad sign for a city. "What concerns me," he said, "is there seems to be less discussion here about how to integrate architecture of the moment into the past than there is in scores of cities around the world, many of them as old as, or older than, Santa Fe."

But, Ms. Farrar said, Santa Fe's architecture evolved from an American Indian tradition. "It's from the earth, it's rounded, it's organic," she added. Because of that, she said, the city's historic district may not be the place for experimentation. "Contemporary architecture represents a different sensibility," she said. Quality is not the issue. Mr. Jordan, she said, "is good at what he does, and there are many places for it, even in Santa Fe. But not in the historic district."

As for the heightened scrutiny the board has been giving proposed buildings since Mr. Mills and Ms. Reid's house was finished, she said: "Drawings can be deceiving. You may not know that a particular line represents a crisp edge. So we have to be very careful."

Todd Granzow, an artist and furniture designer who moved to Santa Fe in 1979, said it is important to preserve the dominant look. "No apologies for that," he said. "Ever been in a Tuscan hill town? The houses are all the same style. Santa Fe was intended to be all of a piece. The decision was made decades ago, and most residents want to uphold it."

Not long ago, Santa Fe architecture encompassed a variety of styles: there were the famous Pueblo-style buildings, along with Craftsman and Victorian cottages and shedlike structures made of cinderblock. But by the 1950's the adobe look took hold, just as tourism was becoming big business.

It was in the 1950's that John Gaw Meem, the most prominent exponent of what is now called Santa Fe style, helped draft the ordinances for what could be built in the historic district. The ordinances require that outside walls be earth tones.

But even so, Mr. Mills and Ms. Reid's house seems an unlikely candidate for controversy. "You'd think when people talk about the color that it was flaming red," Mr. Mills said. In fact, it is a shade of cottonwood or sage, which they believe blends with the landscape. The house is about a mile from Santa Fe's tourist-filled central plaza. Mr. Mills's neighbors are mostly members of one old Santa Fe family, the Armijos, who have built their houses in a variety of sizes, styles and colors.

"If you look on our street, there are pink adobe, orange adobe, yellow adobe," Ms. Reid said. "Our house is really nothing special." (And their immediate neighbors, they said, were very supportive. Ms. Reid said, "They told us, �This is your property, and you should do what you want.' ")

If anything, the couple thought their house would be a good thing for the city. For years they lived outside of town, on several acres. But, as environmentalists, they disapprove of sprawl. By living closer to the center, they reasoned, they would be less dependent on their car, and they would be building on land near developed property rather than on virgin territory. Eventually, they found a lot they liked. It had been on the market for more than a year, Mr. Mills said, in part because it was narrow, treeless and on a major thoroughfare, and people thought a house there would lack privacy. But the couple had seen some work by Mr. Jordan, "which we loved," Mr. Mills said, and they entrusted him to make the best use of the site.

Mr. Jordan came up with a plan to split the building in two, making it inward-looking. At its heart is a garden, created entirely by Ms. Reid, centered on native grasses like blue grama and flowering shrubs like mountain mahogany and Forestiera neomexicana.

Mr. Mills works at home, editing a magazine for the Natural Resources Defense Council and consulting on its efforts to broaden its membership base. Ms. Reid teaches yoga in a room on the other side of the garden. Their son, Sky, 14, does his homework at the kitchen counter, builds models at the table and reads in a window seat designed by Mr. Jordan.

Mr. Jordan is now hoping to build his own house on an empty lot about two miles from the center of town. When he presented the plan for the 1,500-square-foot building to the board in January, it asked him to change seven of its features, including the direction of its window mullions (he wanted horizontal; they wanted vertical) and the roundness of its corners. He made some of the changes, but not others, and justified his refusal by pointing to historical precedents for his design in the historic district.

When the board again refused to approve the house, Mr. Jordan appealed to the City Council, which was expected to hear his case last night.

The question, Mr. Jordan said, is whether the town will follow its own laws. More broadly, he said, the issue is whether Santa Fe will be stuck "not in the past, but in a fake past." But Ms. Farrar said the rounded Pueblo style is an architectural tradition she has known her entire life. "It's not some Disneyland thing," she said.

To Mr. Mills the paradox is that his house, he believes, is highly contextual. With its stucco walls that emulate adobe, its palette of earth tones, its exposed timbers and its courtyard plan, he said, "it couldn't be in any other city in the world but Santa Fe."