The City Different: Santa Fe

Fall 2011 CSANews Issue 80  |  Posted date : Sep 02, 2011.Back to list

If you ever go to New Mexico, it will itch you for the rest of your life.
– Georgia O'Keeffe

A combination of altitude, desert and pueblos has produced a magical city that bears little resemblance to nearby Albuquerque or anywhere else for that matter.
Santa Fe is the United States' longest continuously occupied state capital. 

Located high and dry in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, this well-preserved centre of Southwestern art and architecture attracts visitors with its galleries, cuisine and play of light on its adobe buildings. 

Santa Fe is referred to as "the city different," a city that honours its Native American, Hispanic and Anglo heritages and embraces its natural environment unlike any other in the United States. A city whose beautiful, brown adobe architecture blends with the high desert landscape and a city that is, at the same time, one of America's great art and culinary capitals.

When Spanish colonists arrived in 1607, they found the ruins of an American Indian pueblo at the site on which the state's capital city now stands. Some of the colonists were aristocrats who knew how to lay out a proper Spanish city. 

They established the plaza as the heart of the town, the place to which all the trails and, eventually, the roads would lead. And they named the town "La Villa de Santa Fe" – "City of the Holy Faith." In 1610, Santa Fe became the capital of New Mexico.

Today, the magnificent Santa Fe Plaza and surrounding structures are still the heart of this beautiful thriving city, along with interesting buildings and shops, charming hotels, stylish boutiques, distinct restaurants, historical sites and world-class galleries.

There is so much to do and see that it is impossible to do it all in a few days, or even in a few weeks.

Come with us as we take a short walk downtown to see just where the fascination and enchantment began.

What better place to begin our tour than at La Fonda on the Plaza, home to one of our favourite Santa Fe restaurants, La Plazuela. While Santa Fe has been intriguing and charming travellers for more than 400 years, La Fonda on the Plaza has been providing warm and friendly accommodations for generations. This historic landmark hotel sits quite literally at the terminus of the Santa Fe Trail. La Fonda is filled with art and offers authentic Santa Fe hospitality.

Although the current structure is a definitive example of Pueblo Deco style built in the 1920s, the hotel has a very well-documented history as the Exchange Hotel during the last half of the 19th century. Good descriptions even exist for the inn (or "Fonda") which stood on this same corner in 1822, when the first merchant wagons arrived via the Santa Fe Trail from Missouri. Other accounts of visitors at La Fonda go back to the 17th century. Very few hotels have such roots! Indeed, it was also the site of one of Zsa Zsa Gabor's many marriages – this time, to Conrad Hilton in 1942.

Exiting La Fonda on San Francisco Street, we turn left toward the plaza, the heart of the town. 

On the south side (San Francisco Street), a small granite marker commemorates the end of the Santa Fe Trail. The tall obelisk in the centre of the plaza is a Civil War memorial. At one time, the plaza had a ring for bullfights and was also used for planting corn and alfalfa.

The low, long adobe building directly to the north is the Palace of the Governors, the oldest continuously occupied public building in the United States and part of the Museum of New Mexico.

During the 17th century, this was the front of a very large complex which covered a quarter of Santa Fe's occupied area. It included a residence for the governor, large vegetable gardens, an arsenal, a chapel and government offices complete with a jail. This building remained the seat of government through the Spanish period until 1821, the Mexican period until 1846 and the Territorial period until New Mexico became a state in 1912.

Under the shade of its portal (porch), American Indians spread jewellery and other crafts on blankets, care for their children and explain their arts to passersby, as others have done before them for untold years. They speak English to tourists, but converse among themselves in their own ancient language.

The Palace of the Governors was laid out at the same time as the plaza. A fortified building, it served as residence, offices, workshops and storerooms for the representative of the Spanish king; thus, they were called "royal houses."
General Stephen Kearney stayed within these walls when he arrived with troops to claim the territory of New Mexico for the United States. The 54-inch-thick adobe walls…at that time still covered by a sod roof…provided the quiet needed by Territorial Governor Lew Wallace to finish his novel, Ben Hur.

As a museum, the Palace of the Governors houses a permanent collection of artifacts from New Mexico's history. Pre-Columbian artifacts dating from 1500 B.C. to A.D. 1500 help explain the unwritten history of the area.
At the northwest corner of the plaza is the New Mexico Museum of Art. Built in 1917 by the architect of La Fonda, it is in the form of six of the mission churches found on the pueblos of Acoma, San Felipe, Cochiti, Santa Ana, Laguna and Pecos.

The Spanish colonial-style architecture has beautiful details, such as ceilings of split cedar latillas and hand-carved vigas. The museum houses works by artists who visited or lived in Santa Fe before 1940 (and also exhibits contemporary art from all over the United States) as well as the St. Francis Auditorium, which is used for concerts.

Just two blocks from the plaza is one of New Mexico's most popular museums: the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, which houses a collection of more than 3,000 works comprising 1,149 O'Keeffe paintings, drawings and sculptures that date from 1901 to 1984, the year in which failing eyesight forced O'Keeffe into retirement. It is the world's largest permanent collection of her artwork.
Georgia O'Keeffe made northern New Mexico her home for nearly four decades.

The museum opened on July 17, 1997 and welcomed more than 600,000 visitors in its first three years.

Welcoming more than 2,225,000 visitors from all over the world and being the most visited art museum in the state of New Mexico, it is the only museum in the world dedicated to an internationally known American woman artist.

Upon entering the stucco building that blends perfectly into downtown Santa Fe, we see a quote from O'Keeffe, who first visited New Mexico in 1917 and moved here in 1949. Part of the quote says, "Colours and shapes make a more definite statement than words."

The rest of the tour of the museum is a journey through the statements.
A room off the galleries offers visitors a video biography of O'Keeffe, who died in Santa Fe in 1986 at age 98. She painted more than 2,000 pieces during her life.

The Institute of American Indian Arts Museum, to the east of the Palace of the Governors, offers the National Collection of Contemporary Indian Art and a spectacular sculpture garden.

Two blocks south of the plaza is the San Miguel Mission Church. One of the oldest churches in America, this buttressed adobe building is a favourite with photographers who can snap away both indoors and out.

A block east of Santa Fe Plaza is St. Francis Cathedral, named for Santa Fe's patron saint, St. Francis of Assisi.

The cathedral was built in French Renaissance style and was the design and dream of Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy. Built between 1869 and 1886, this structure replaced an older adobe church built after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. In the small chapel to the left of the cathedral altar is a very beautiful willow sculpture of the Madonna called La Conquistadora. She is the oldest religious statue in the United States and is an enduring treasure and symbol of the Spanish heritage of Santa Fe. La Conquistadora has a wardrobe of more than 160 garments, some of which were gifts from Indian Pueblos, the Pope and the King of Spain.

Continuing past the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi to the south, and behind La Fonda on the Plaza, is a small one-way street – Water Street. Go west for one block to the intersection of Water and Old Santa Fe Trail. There stands a small chapel also built under the auspices of Archbishop Lamy.
It is a copy of his original parish church in Paris, La Sainte Chapelle. This neo-Gothic chapel was built for the students of the Loretto Academy, which was the first parochial school for girls in Santa Fe.

When the Loretto Chapel was completed in 1878, its quarried stone facade and elegant stained glass stood out from the adobe churches common in this frontier town.

What draws the visitor is the spiral staircase inside that leads to the choir loft. The chapel's small size made access to the loft possible only by ladder.
When none of the local carpenters could build a staircase that wouldn't encroach on the limited floor space, the Sisters prayed to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters.

Soon, a mysterious stranger arrived, looking for work, and built an elegant spiral staircase. Without presenting any bill for payment, he disappeared as suddenly as he had come. The staircase – with two 360-degree turns, no visible means of support and without the benefit of nails – has been called the Miraculous Staircase. The identity of the builder remains unknown.

Continuing south on Old Santa Fe Trail, there is a simple but beautiful adobe church, the San Miguel Mission. It is the oldest church in the United States, built between 1610 and 1626. The church was built for the Indian slaves whom the Spanish had brought with them from Mexico. This part of town is called the Barrio de Analco, a charming area to explore, and is now home to many interesting galleries, restaurants and shops dealing in Indian arts.

Parking that can accommodate vehicles of all sizes is available in city lot 9 at Alameda, west of Paseo de Peralta. The parking lot is only two short blocks from the Santa Fe Plaza.

A visit to Santa Fe is not complete without a trip along Canyon Road. The narrowness of this road is a reminder of its past for, at one time, it was a principal route from the Rio Grande to the Pecos area. The buildings are full of galleries featuring a variety of fine art. The galleries, along with the many others in Santa Fe, have made this city the second-largest art market in the U.S.

Do not attempt to drive a recreational vehicle down Canyon Road, as it is far too narrow.

If you are travelling to Santa Fe from the south via Interstate 25, you can stop at the La Bajada State Visitor Information Center, 17 miles south of town, for maps, directions and brochures. Similar information is available from the Santa Fe Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Worth Pondering…

I think that New Mexico was the greatest experience from the outside world that I ever had. It certainly changed me forever… The moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning sunshine high over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul, and I started to attend… In the magnificent fierce morning of New Mexico one sprang awake, a new part of the soul woke up suddenly, and the world gave way to the new.
– D.H. Lawrence

Whoever designed the streets in Santa Fe must have been drunk, and riding backwards on a mule.
– Will Rogers

I'm looking forward to seeing you again in the next issue. Until then, check out my website for more on snowbirding and the RV lifestyle.

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Meanwhile, "Let's Go RVing!" If not now, when? Live in the moment. No "what ifs" and no regrets. Life is short. Enjoy your winter in the sun.