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Spanish Colonial
Then and Now

by Alissa Hall“Form follows function,” said the architect Louis Sullivan, and of the many historical building styles still in existence, Spanish colonial architecture continues to effectively demonstrate this maxim. To understand Spanish colonial architecture in New Mexico, one must consider the primary reason why most Spaniards originally came to this dry and desolate region… to convert Native Americans and other local residents to Catholicism. Missionary colonization of New Mexico began during the early 17th century, over a hundred years earlier than other areas in the Southwest. As the Spanish entered our region, they erected buildings to work and live within, resulting in a unique style of architecture that has never lost its appeal.

European supplies and labor, such as quarries and stone masons, were eschewed by these early brothers of Christ when constructing their dwellings here. Construction materials consisted of indigenous supplies, primarily wood, stone (often flagstone) and mud. Utilizing a labor force of mostly Pueblo Native Americans, local techniques such as mud stacking became incorporated into the buildings’ designs. However, the Spanish influenced our regional architecture as well with the introduction of stucco, a Moorish invention which they brought with them from Europe. The Spaniards also introduced their own techniques for tile making by combining existing low-fired, Native American pottery techniques with their own tradition of highly-fired tiles to be used for roofing. Still, tiled roofs were rarely seen in New Mexico during early colonization efforts due to the expense and labor involved in the creation of the tile.

The buildings erected by these Franciscan friars, often self-taught in the ways of architecture and construction, were primarily churches and conventos (friaries) and were almost always one story buildings. Lacking the vaulted roofs seen in Mexican churches, New Mexican churches of this era were of a simpler design. Flat rooftops were more common, made by stacked adobe bricks, supported by vigas (roof beams) and interlaid with latillas, thin poles of stripped aspen, pine or juniper which could be laid at 90 degree angles to form patterns for the room’s interior. Sometimes the vigas would be left sticking out of the building itself, due to the labor involved in cutting the vigas to size with the walls; this convenience later became a highly recognized architectural convention of the Spanish colonial style of New Mexico.

Many of the same building materials and construction techniques that were used in religious architecture carried over to residential architecture where, once again, form followed function. New Mexican homes and communities erected during the Spanish colonial times often concentrated their buildings’ designs on the necessity of self defense against the possibility of Native American raids – with the exception of the 1680 Rebellion, this danger did not come from Pueblo Indians but more often from nomadic Plains Indians and Navajos. The plaza-centered town was well known to the Spanish settlers; however, in New Mexico the term plaza connoted the idea of a fortified place rather than a central square. Constructing houses around a central open area, primarily used for the safe keeping of livestock, a community could become its own defense barrier; this style of construction was seen in Taos, Ranchos de Taos, Trampas and Dixon. Another protective device in addition to the walled compound was the defense tower, called a torreon; only a few original torreons are still in existence, primarily in the Taos region, as well as in the Embudo Valley.

The necessity to defend one’s home against enemies also dictated how other elements of the home were constructed. Authentic Spanish colonial dwellings often lacked windows; when windows were present they were usually barred with vertical poles and closed with wooden shutters. Exceptions to this construction principle existed; a few examples of translucent mica being used over window openings are in existence but are extremely rare. Doorways in these homes were different as well, as they were smaller than the average door frame of today. One explanation for this, aside from the smaller stature of people of that time, is a person who must bend over to enter is in an unfavorable position for self-defense during a forced entry. Spanish-built walls were also characteristically thicker than the Indians’ – in homes they could vary between 18 inches to two feet, and up to seven feet thick in churches.

The interior of the Spanish colonial home was modest in comparison to today’s standards. Most rooms averaged 13 to 15 feet in width, the standard for what the typical-sized wooden roof beams could support. Large rooms, or salas, were therefore highly prized and when constructed could be as much as forty feet in length. When available, white gypsum could be made into a plaster for the building’s interior walls and cloth curtains were used to partition off rooms from one another, as hand-shaped lumber and metal for door hinges were scarce. Cotton muslin was used to catch the falling dirt from ceilings; stretched tight, the manta de techo was painted with flour (to give it a white color resembling plaster) and with water (to shrink the cotton so it would hold tightly) before being tacked on under the vigas.

Wooden floors became more frequent after 1860, although hard packed, earthen floors were still the norm for most New Mexican residents; animal blood was sometimes added to make the earth hard and water resistant. In more important homes, rugs and woven carpeting might also be found. Corner fireplaces, elliptically shaped and elevated on a low hearth, were common but the unlined chimney flues were a fire hazard, often leading to charred vigas. However, because the walls and roof were mainly constructed with mud, flue fires did not spread easily and therefore presented very little hazard to the homeowners.

Like so many things belonging to bygone eras, the homes and construction techniques of the Spanish colonial period provide a sense of nostalgia to modern homebuyers. And, in direct contrast to the style’s origins, form no longer follows function when examining the Spanish colonial architectural style as it is seen today; contemporary interpretations are extremely popular with home builders, but are based loosely on the reality of the past. Some of the most common characteristics of a modern “Spanish colonial design” are a low pitched tile roof atop a one story building, with thick walls, narrow doors and small windows as well as a large central courtyard. Covered porches, called portales, can also figure into modern designs frequently. Vigas and latillas are often seen in the home’s interiors, even when structurally unnecessary; sometimes false vigas are added to the building’s exterior to recreate the look of the extended vigas of the past.

Regardless of architectural function, the form of the Spanish colonial style remains a hallmark of the historical homes and buildings of our region. Modern adaptations of the Spanish colonial style no longer include the necessity of defending one’s home and contemporary building supplies have changed radically from the mud and trees of the past; still, the look and feel of the Spanish colonial design has never lost its appeal.

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