Santa Fe Style

Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Vitality?

San Francisco Street in downtown Santa Fe leads from the plaza to St. Francis Cathedral.

Credit: Jack Parsons

Santa Fe, N.M.

Score: 62

Category: Destinations in the Balance

Santa Fe likes to call itself "the city different," and for good reason. Its singular mix of cultures, fine collection of historic structures, and striking natural setting mark the New Mexico capital as one of a kind. It is also very old (founded circa 1610) and a huge tourism magnet.

The sights, sounds, and smells of the Southwest greet visitors in full force, as they stroll through the colonial plaza and down narrow streets lined with buildings from Spanish, Native American, and Anglo-American traditions. The Governors Palace, La Fonda Hotel, and Loretto Chapel are a few of many must-see landmarks. Adding to the allure are first-class museums, abundant art and music, and sophisticated dining.

Unlike most old towns, Santa Fe transformed itself expressly for the tourist trade. After New Mexico became a state in 1912, the city promoted a Spanish-Pueblo look for new buildings (and the makeover of old ones). This resulted in the "Santa Fe style"—brown stucco walls, rounded corners, flat roofs, and protruding wood beams—that captivates travelers. The 1957 preservation ordinance is one of the nation's oldest, and historic districts blanket nearly 20 percent of town.

The predominance of the Santa Fe style, however, and the cold shoulder given to modern architecture downtown, provokes criticism that the city has become an adobe theme park. As one survey panelist put it: "Santa Fe today is more 'Santa Fe' than it ever was historically." This issue of authenticity, and the replacement of traditional retail with high-end tourist shops, tempered Santa Fe's Historic Places Rated score—as did bulky new buildings and the city's rapid growth (73,200 people in 2007, up 16 percent from 2000). Still, wrote a second panelist, "it retains its old-time charm," and a third felt that "it's hard to wreck this place."

Adobe style in downtown Santa Fe

Locals seem undaunted by the tourists. "We expect to have them," says Katherine Slick, New Mexico's state preservation officer, "and it's a good thing for our economy. Plus this has been going on for a long, long time." As for the ubiquitous Santa Fe style ("faux-dobe"), she says, "remember, this is a land where stucco is the norm."

Some residents do bemoan the loss of small-town scale and culture. They point to massive new structures—hotels especially and the just-opened convention center—that tower over neighbors and block views of the mountains. "That's what people really object to, this mindless growth," says Kingsley Hammett, publisher of Designer/Builder magazine. "Very little of it has anything to do with people with local roots." Ernest W. Ortega, the state director of monuments, notes that residents "say the plaza area, the core of Santa Fe, what was Santa Fe, is gone." Booming second-home construction fuels more discontent.

Tourism, and Santa Fe, keep on growing. Two large hotels are planned, and a state history museum is under construction. A casino called Buffalo Thunder recently debuted north of town. August saw the opening of the Railyard, a complex near downtown that is filling old and new buildings with shops, art and performance spaces, restaurants, housing, and a farmers' market. Its new architecture is more contemporary (even industrial-looking) than usual, partly because the project is not in a historic district. To Hammett, it's "without a context, without any historic connection at all," while David Rasch, director of the city's preservation agency, says "it lends a vitality that we can't necessarily have in the core." In December, the Railyard's train station will become the terminus of the RailRunner commuter line to Albuquerque, and major airlines propose service to the local airport. Will "the city different" remain different?


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