Humans have inhabited the area that is now known as Santa Fe New Mexico for thousands of years. The First People communities occupied where here long before Spanish explorers ever dreamed of or laid eyes on it in 1598. However, that did not stop the Spaniards from proclaiming the territory as Spanish Crown property. They colonized it with Spaniards, subjugated (or effectively enslaved) the previous occupants, claimed the First People’s eternal souls for the Catholic church, and tortured or executed those who dared to resist their authority.
The city of Santa Fe was established in 1610 as the provincial capital and the center of royal power of Nuevo Mexico, but also of all Spanish holdings north of the Rio Grande River and of the seat of the Catholic church faith.
Nuevo Mexico Changes Hands
Nuevo Mexico has undergone centuries of conflict and a continual series of battles for control. The Native Americans first had control, which was taken by the Spanish. Then in 1680, native villages cooperated together in the Pueblo Revolt to expel the Spanish from the Nuevo Mexico territory. However, their victory only lasted 12 years when the Spanish returned with revenge on their minds.
Santa Fe remained under Spanish rule until the Mexican War of Independence in the early 19th century. When Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, Santa Fe became part of the Mexico territory of Nuevo Mexico.
After the Mexican-American war, the area of New Mexico, which included Santa Fe, became American territory in 1846. It was even part of the Confederacy in 1863. Mexican Revolutionary Movement in 1916 attempted, but failed to gain control of the territory. In 1912, New Mexico, with Santa Fe as its capital, became a US state.
The Lasting Spanish Influence
The Spanish laid out Santa Fe’s roads and buildings in a grid around a central square with Government Palace on one end and the main church (now a cathedral basilica) on the other. Streets and alleys were laid out around this plaza. Today they are lined with shops, restaurants, galleries, and further out from the city center, homes.
These commercial buildings and homes originally followed Indian designs. They used the same type of adobe materials and were often built with forced Indian labor. Some have walls that are three- to four-feet thick and many even used mud-brick fireplaces for heat and outdoor adobe ovens for cooking. The oldest of those still standing are the Palace of Governors (1610) and a house built in 1646. Few current buildings however, are true adobe structures.
Since the early 20th century, the city has imposed a number of rules governing the appearance of buildings. They must use earth-toned colors, flat roofs, timber ceilings and select among a few approved colors for doors and windows. In other words, they must be of the so-called Spanish Pueblo Revival Style. However, they can use longer-lasting stucco coatings rather than more fragile adobe coatings.
Most owners voluntarily adopt to the so-called “Santa Fe style”. The style generally entails the use of natural materials and decoration with traditional motifs and the use of traditional products such as fiber baskets, clay pots, cow skulls and horns, hand-woven Navajo-style rugs, stone or branch fences, and of course, multiple garlands of red peppers hanging outside the front door. Most importantly, they must blend into, rather than stand out from the natural regional landscape.
Santa Fe Old Town
Santa Fe’s plaza is the city’s historic square. The area contains many historic buildings.
The romanesque cathedral provides a dramatic contrast t o the surrounding adobe and Spanish Pueblo Revival Style buildings. While the parish was originally established in 1610, the current church dates from 1869.
The 1610 Palace of the Governors is across the plaza. The adobe-style structure that was the oldest capitol building in the country, successively served as the capitol governing the territory’s and state for 300 years under Spanish, Pueblo, Indian, Mexican, and U.S. rule. The Palace of the Governors has taken on a complementary role and since 1909 has housed the state’s history museum (see below).
Built in 1610, the rather small and non-descript Spanish Mission-style church is the oldest current church structure in continental US. It was partially destroyed during the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. The current building is from 1710, although it has undergone significant structural changes.
Built in 1878, it is loosely modeled after Paris’ Saint-Chapelle. It is especially notable for the so-called Miraculous Staircase, a self-supporting circular staircase to the choir loft.
What better place to delve into the history of Santa Fe and New Mexico than from its oldest building, the Palace of the Governors?
The comprehensive, well laid out museum traces the state’s history back more than 10,000 years to arrival of indigenous hunters and gatherers through the time that individual communities began to establish full-time homes around subsistence-style dry farm operations and built large pueblo-based communities, especially the large (about 1,800 people at its peak) Taos Pueblo.
The museum tells the bloody story behind the savage Spanish quest for god, territory, and souls. They began inflicting horrendous tolls on the indigenous population beginning in 1540 with Coronado’s first expedition through the territory, leaving a trail of Indian deaths and distrust. Nor was the Catholic clergy much better. They tortured and killed those who resisted total conversion. This helped lead to centuries of conflict and a continual series of battles for control that was sequentially won by: Indians, Spain, Indians, Spain, Mexico, the territorial governments, and the United States.
Despite continuing conflict and war, in 1821 the New Mexican area began to open and its economy expand with the opening of the Santa Fe Trail. The trail brought trappers and trade that expanded the territory’s forestry and mining industries. By the 1860s, the railroad reached Santa Fe bringing a stream of new settlers and artists, the later of whom helped attract tourists.
However, even this growth period was marred by territorial government chaos and violence. After New Mexico gained its independence the U.S. army tried to make the area safe for settlers by removing the Native People. During the brutal “Long Walk”, thousands of Indians were displaced from their traditional lands or died. “Boarding schools” were created in an attempted to extinguish children’s tribal identities.
As tourism grew, luxury lodges and restaurants moved in. Fred Harvey created a revolutionary lodging and restaurant chain. He hired a decorator to provide an upbeat new look to his properties. Then he hired thousands of “Harvey Girls” who were young women that were lured to the west by promises of good jobs and new opportunities.
In 1912, New Mexico became the 47th state, albeit over considerable concern about federal government power within New Mexico and similar federal concern over the implications of admitting a relatively poor, largely Spanish-speaking state. This admittance, however, brought a new state constitution that ratified previous Indian treaties and at least nominally enshrined Indians as equal citizens.
The museum then examined the severe impact the Great Depression had on the state and the benefits of government relief, work, and arts programs. It also discussed the state’s contributions to the country’s two World War efforts with large numbers of enlistments. About 60,000 people enlisted in World War II and the state made unique contributions such as its base for Black Buffalo Soldiers in WWI and Native-American Code Talkers in WWII. And then, of course, there was the mixed legacy of Los Alamos which as explained in our post on Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project, avoided the huge loss of life that would have resulted from a land invasion of Japan. On the other hand, it resulted in hundreds of thousands of Japanese deaths and launched the Cold War. This is in addition to dozens of other benefits and drawbacks of the nuclear age.
Another section in the most historic section of the museum displayed historic clerical and lay images of Catholic saints, a series of Latin American paintings, and most interestingly, exhibits on the discoveries that archeologists made of the land beneath the 1610 Palace of the Governors. The artifacts included remnants from prehistory through periods of Colonial rule, territorial self-rule, and the Spanish return.
Santa Fe as a National Art Hub
Taos New Mexico claims that “Taos is Art”. The town was indeed the state’s first and most important art center and continue to have an active art culture, a few art museums, and dozens of galleries. Today, however it doesn’t hold a candle to Santa Fe when it comes to art. Nor, for that matter, does any comparably-sized U.S. city or indeed, any city five times its size.
Santa Fe has about a dozen art-focused museums ranging from those that focus on individual artists (especially Georgia O’Keefe), to those that focus on specific types of Southwestern and New Mexican art ranging from Indian to Spanish Colonial, to New Mexican traditional art, installation art and most recently, contemporary art. We visited three of its most important museums; the first two of which, incidentally, housed in lovely Spanish Pueblo Revival Style buildings.
The Georgia O’Keefe Museum showcases the life, art, and legacy of the legendary artist whose work uses vibrant colors, bold compositions, and a unique interpretation of natural forms.
The museum starts with a representative sampling of O’Keefe’s work from her early training in watercolors. Then came her college days where she created oil-based, generally Pointillist work. While still in her 20s, her ground-breaking abstract landscapes won her first solo show. She received an early fellowship in Lake George New York.
O’Keefe married Alfred Stieglitz, the gallery owner who staged her first solo show. They spent springs and winters in New York and summers and falls at the Stieglitz family estate on the other side of Lake George. At the urging of Taos art magnet Mabel Dodge Luhan, O’Keefe was introduced to New Mexico and bought the first of her two New Mexico homes and eventually moved there permanently.
The museum describes and provides examples of O’Keefe’s works in all media: pastel, which she took up late in her career; and sculptures, with model and maquettes of one of the only three bronze sculptures she is known to have created. It has the last oil painting she produced independently before macular degeneration forced her to execute her subsequent designs through an assistant. It also has one frame from which she cut the canvas, presumably since she was not pleased with the result.
Of all of the exhibits, we most enjoyed learning about the origins and the evolution of her abstract works through her career. We ended up being less interested many of the works she produced in New Mexico which were more figurative than they were realistic.
The museum began with a gallery devoted to the tragically short career of New Mexico-born Donald Beauregard, particularly around his early 20th-century years in Paris where he honing his generally Impressionistic style. Other galleries included one that provided a rather cursory overview of one or two pieces each of multiple forms of glass art, from blown to cast, factory produced, fused and even glass beads. Other exhibits included something of a retrospective of Mexican Street photographer Manuel Carrillo and a handful of 20th century works from the museum’s permanent collection. Finally, it had a series of Donald Beauregard-designed art that was executed by another artist.
How can we describe Meow Wolf? It is unlike anything we had previously seen. But it works.
A collective of local Santa Fe artists who work in different media combined their efforts to create futuristic cityscapes and neon forests from trash. Once they discovered they could make money from these installations, they began charging admission.
The 2023 exhibition called the House of Eternal Return, consists of 70 artist-designed rooms spread over two floors in a former bowling alley. After you enter through a forest of neon-painted trees alongside the exterior of a rather spooky two-story Victorian home, all bets are off.
Doors and passages go off in all directions. One way takes you through a simulated ice cave, another into a spaceship and yet another into courtyard with a huge tree with a sofa in its trunk and a winding staircase to the second floor. There is no prescribed or correct /incorrect way to go. But whichever direction you walk, you enter a totally different multi-sensory universe.
Wandering aimlessly around is all part of the fun. Go into the house where you can open a refrigerator door, crawl through a fireplace, or enter a closet into an unexpected new dimension. You may find yourself in a dungeon, a room filled with non-threatening monsters or a psychedelic video game arcade. You can either tour aimlessly or “aimfully” in search of clues to a mystery involving a boy who puts on his grandfather’s sensory deprivation helmet and finds himself torn between two alternate universes engaged in a cosmic war. Clues may be found in an unfinished letter on a typewriter, on a video on the grandfather’s computer, or possibly stuffed in a drawer in one of the rooms of the furnished room or by judging from clothes hanging in closets in the house.
Whichever way you choose to go, be prepared to be unprepared; not to speak of disoriented. And be prepared for an imaginative reality of a groups of unbound artists with unlimited imaginations and in future instantiations, probably virtually unlimited funds.
Meow Wolf has proved to be so successful and so profitable that it has begun to evolve into a national, and likely international venture capital-funded program. Larger and more elaborate permutations are being built in Denver and Las Vegas, with plans to expanded into 15 more cities over the next five years.
Given the money being poured into these efforts, the new ventures are likely to entail ever more elaborate, stimulating immersive and interactive installations: dreamscapes that guests can take into any direction they wish. Many of these next-gen Meow Wolfs will likely offer options for augmented or mixed reality headsets or glasses. We shall see.
The Land of a Thousand Art Galleries
In addition to the museums and formal art installations, the city has more several hundred galleries and innumerable individual craftspeople who sell their wares in galleries, boutiques or from blankets in front of the Palace of the Governors. The galleries span the gamut from those that sell works for less than $100 to tourists to several that sell works for tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars to wealthy collectors. We spent much of one day supplementing our museum visits by exploring several of these galleries–more to admire than to buy.
Although we ran into some interesting galleries during our walks through the city, two area in particular have large numbers of galleries: along West Palace Street in the town center and along a roughly half-mile stretch of Canyon Road. The later, according to the gallery map, is lined with close than 100 galleries, 30 boutiques and 8 restaurants. Virtually every media, other than audio and video, is represented, often ranging in price from several hundred dollars to $20,000. A few, especially on West Palace, exceeded six figures.
All in all, exploring the galleries provides a pleasant, leisurely day. Although we found dozens of pieces that we liked, we didn’t find anything that we needed to buy–or even if we did, could justify the price. Such is the life of budget gallery hopper. This and a pleasant Canyon Road Thai lunch made for a fun day.
Santa Fe Restaurants
We enjoyed the food, atmosphere, and professional service at dinner here. Joyce had pan-seared Scottish salmon with Yukon old potato gnocchi, green peas, wild mushrooms and thyme beurre blanc. Tom was drawn to the fiery (not really) sweet chili and honey grilled Mexican white prawns on jasmine-almond rice cakes with red onion, yuzu-basil aioli and frisee. Our 2019 Archery Summit Chardonnay was a nice addition to the meal.
Our meal began with an amuse bouche of winter squash soup followed by two very different but very good meals. Crisp branzino with kefir lime coconut broth, forbidden rice, pickled shimeji mushrooms and shoji; and quail with preserved lemon masa, pepper salsa and aji amarillo coulis. We followed our main dishes with a pecan tarte with bourbon brown sugar ice cream and a ginger compote that did not at least for us, work with the dessert. While we were pleased with our server all along, she really shown when we ordered a bottle of Grand Cru Morgon Beaujolais. We expressed our disappointment upon tasting the wine, but did not believe it merited returning the bottle, even after she suggested she did After we had a few sips of wine, she returned saying that her manager had the same impression of the wine and told her to urge us to replace it. We did so with a reliable 2021 Belle Glos Clark & Telephone Pinot Noir.
We intended to have a small, heathy dinner of steamed mussels and clams with saffron broth, roasted pepper, and grilled bread; and seared diver scallops with truffle, gnocchi, corn, and truffle butter sauce plus a side order of sautéed wild mushrooms, While the mussels and scallops themselves were good, we were less impressed with the preparation. And we were surprised to see that the mushrooms were cultivated cremini, rather than wild. Then after seeing a tower of onion rings come by, we made a fateful decision that transformed an otherwise healthy meal into a calorie and cholesterol-laded celebration of some of the best onion rings we have ever had. And for wine, everything, it seems tastes better with a 2019 Tablas Creek Esprit de Tablas Blanc white Rhone-style blend.
We had a nice lunch at this perpetually busy breakfast and lunch spot that claims to be Santa Fe’s oldest restaurant. We began with a basket full of chips with cups of salsa nortena, guacamole and chili con queso, a white cheddar cheese sauce with green chilis and onions. This was followed by a Greek salad consisting of mixed greens, spinach, tomatoes cucumbers, kalamata olives, greek vinaigrette, pita and too many other ingredients to mention.
We had another nice lunch at yet again a casual, generally Mexican breakfast and lunch spot. A tasty southwestern salad came with mixed greens, grilled chicken, tomatoes, cheese, avocado and tortilla strips with cilantro-lime dressing in a crisp taco bowl. While the salad was indeed good, our culinary attention was diverted by a less healthful dish, a plate of nacho grande (with chicken beans, cheese, jalapenos, sour cream and guacamole) that proved to be some of the best nachos we have had. Regardless of how good the food was we left the table unable to finish either of the large dishes.
We were quite pleased with our lunch at this small Thai Café on Canyon Road. Our dishes were pad thai and a cashew stir-fry with sweet red pepper, died chili, and chili paste which, despite the warning and ingredients, hardly qualified as hot or spicy.
Our Sante Fe Hotel
Inn of the Governors, while technically a 3 star hotel, is a wonderful place to stay. It is located right by the plaza .The room is large and comfortable with a wood-burning fireplace. Comfortable bed and linens, bathrobe, refrigerator. No microwave and the in-room coffee pot is one of those cheap ones but it works. The bathroom is small but that is the only negative. While the bathroom is small and its tiles are dated, they are keeping within the architecture. But the hotel goes further on so many other ways. You have an option of a breakfast that is served to you. Everyday they have a sherry and cookie hour from 4-5. The staff is first class. They have free parking and a person in the parking area to help. In short, they have thought about lots of ways to make your stay more comfortable. A 5 star place with a 3 star official rating.