The Impermanance of Place – Plaza Del Cerro

The Shadowed Wall
What lives were once protected
behind these shadowed walls?
What joys were shared and hopes declared
and private pains endured?
What voices spoke to say a prayer or
comfort childhood fears?
What buttons sewed?
What wondrous weavings wove?
What feasts enjoyed? What cheerful toasts proposed?
What missing friends or long-lost parents mourned?
Like brushstrokes on canvas, these past lives
paint shadowed lines on old forgotten walls.

The house where I was born still exists….barely escaping a wrecking ball for a new interstate highway. The house my grandmother grew old in and where I lived from the age of two to the ripe old age of five still stands. The next house, where I lived until early twenties is still there. The house where my father was born and grew up is still going strong. Indeed, the stone  house built by my seventh great grandfather, in the 1690s, is still there and lives on as a house museum. Reading this, one would think that home places last forever but I think my story is more the exception than the rule. Some of the old places are gone and we are sometimes better for it. The TB infested tenements that were home to my Irish immigrant ancestors are gone. My German-Pomeranian immigrants first lived in a small house in an orchard — now a 1950s tract-house subdivision and school. Nothing lasts forever. Change is the only constant. There’s always something new just out of sight.

I recently had the opportunity to visit some small communities in northern New Mexico. These places have been there for hundreds of years. The Spanish first arrived around 1595 but the Pueblo Indians go back 800 or 1,000 years or more. The ancestors of the Pueblo Indians were a relatively sedentary people rather than nomadic but they still roamed around the four-corners area for many generations living in stone (or later adobe) towns for a couple hundred years before moving on to better farming lands. The old places were emptied and left behind.  Many of these are now tourist stops but they were living and breathing communities at one time.  These places were occupied and loved and fought over and changed hands just like almost anyplace in the world.

The Arriving Spaniards were familiar with adobe. The very word is Moorish, introduced into Spain during the Muslim caliphates of  al-Andalus.  Adobe was possibly the most common building material throughout the drier regions of the world. That is the problem…it doesn’t hold up well when it gets wet and needs frequent maintenance. I have a couple adobe bricks in my yard that are slowly returning to the soil…it’s taken about twenty years of exposure and they are mostly just rounded clumps. They will be gone before long.

Mudding an Adobe Wall – San Francisco de Asis, Ranchos de Taos

Without regular maintenance, an adobe building will disintegrate over time. The traditional maintenance method involves applying a coating of mud over the exterior of the building to seal and protect the adobe bricks. When that coating cracks or washes off, you do it again. And then your kids do it and later your grandchildren…as long as the structure is occupied. Applying a new coat of mud to a large church or public building is quite a job and, hopefully, the community volunteers to do the work.  In modern times, people with good intentions began applying cement and stucco instead of mud thinking it was more durable. Modern stucco seals in the moisture and causes the adobe bricks to fail….just the opposite of what was intended. A traditional mud coating breathes and allows moisture to escape.

The Plaza del Cerro in the village of Chimayo offers, in one place, an interesting catalogue of the declining life cycle of adobe buildings. The plaza was constructed in 1749 to defend against attacks by nomadic plains Indians…who just discovered the horse. Outlying settlers moved into the village and built a defensive cluster of attached adobe residences around a large central plaza. Access to the plaza was through narrow openings between some of the houses.  There was a reliable water source from an acequia and the central plaza was divided into small garden plots or livestock pens.  In times of danger it was reasonably self contained.  That was life in northern New Spain in 1749.

In 2015 the place is the last surviving example of a fortified village plaza in New Mexico and it is seriously endangered….not from Indians but from neglect and indecision. The structures remain in private hands as does the various original garden plots, now overgrown, in the plaza.  In it’s current condition a visitor would need to be told what they are looking at because it isn’t obvious. The place is losing touch with its historical context and its integrity as a cohesive village plaza.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere are some very well maintained structures and one side of the plaza is in reasonably good shape. Someone is taking care of it. Pitched roofs and dormers and some of the details were later additions but one can see the concept of adjoining residences forming a defensive wall. Across the plaza there are a few other maintained structures including a bed and breakfast and a local museum.


Most of the other perimeter structures are vacant and not in good shape. The plaza interior grounds are overgrown and choked by weeds. Here and there you can see where there was a fruit tree planted but now largely neglected. The acequia that once brought water into the plaza was dug by local pueblo Indians prior to the arrival of the Spanish settlers.

The progression of deterioration and collapse is depicted in the following pictures of different buildings around the plaza perimeter.













Eventually the building becomes a pile of debris. Vigas or anything worth salvaging is carted away and there is nothing left but cobbled rubble and dirt.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne interesting building on the plaza perimeter is the Oratorio de San Buenaventura, a family chapel built in the early 1800s and maintained by the local Ortega family. This small chapel exhibits features of the earliest church structures in New Mexico including a packed dirt floor (with burials) and a split cedar ceiling resting over vigas.  There has been some activity and limited technical support for restoration efforts for the Oratorio but the rest of the plaza is in trouble. Multiple private owners and failure to arrive at a consensus for a preservation plan keeps a general restoration or stabilization effort from forming. Outside partnerships for technical assistance and restoration and some financial support are needed.

Oratorio ceiling — Cedar over vigas

The Plaza del Cerro is certainly one of the most endangered historical and architectural sites in New Mexico. It has been there for over 250 years but will not be there much longer without some serious intervention. Several hundred thousand visitors stream into Chimayo each year to visit the Santuario de Chimayo with a large number of pilgrims arriving during Holy Week each year. They pass within a few hundred yards of the Plaza del Cerro without even knowing that it is there.

Santuario de Chimayo

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