Taos Plaza Courthouse

Taos Plaza Sanborn Map 1908. The Courthouse is
located just left of the "Plaza Square" designation

The Taos Plaza Courthouse, in 1908 and 1929 Sanborn maps (before the 1932 fire), shows a structure roughly one third as deep as the current courthouse, aligned east-west across the existing courthouse façade, with a smaller, parallel structure (presumably the jail) aligned on the north side of the lot, between what was North Plaza Drive on the south and Juan Largo Lane (now an alley) on the north. The building filled the block from east to west. The site is clearly identified as the “Taos County Courthouse” but not populated with structures in the hand drawn and labeled 1915 Joy Survey. The National Register Nomination for this structure notes that this building “was about to become obsolete from lack of space and light when it coincidentally burned to the ground in 1932.”

1930 Courthouse, from National Register Nomination
The fire, reported at 2AM on May 9, 1932, left the entire north side of the plaza in ruins, including the ruined single story Territorial courthouse, led to the incorporation of the Town of Taos in 1939 and the establishment of the Taos Fire Department and Taos Public Water system. Interestingly, the 1908 Sanborn map notes that previous to the establishment of the Fire Department, the means of fighting fire in Taos… was ringing the church bells.

After the fire was put out, reports noted that "nothing was left of [the courthouse] but a few blackened walls, the iron work of the jail, and the wooden signs on the front wall which bravely announced, 'County Clerk' in letters on which not even the paint had blistered.” Fortunately, the vault also evidently withstood the heat of the fire, or quick-thinking responders came in and saved what county records were salvaged. Prisoners were removed from the courthouse quickly upon the reporting of the fire, and placed in a hotel room for safekeeping.

Photo of burned courthouse
featured in Santa Fe reporter 1983
According to period reports, the fire was started by faulty, or perhaps jerry-rigged, wiring in a pool hall owned by Frank Baxter and fueled by high winds. Businesses damaged included the Taos county courthouse and jail; the pool hall; the Plaza Cafe and Hotel; the Burch grocery store; the Saavedra drug store; the Bond-McCarthy store; Quality Bakery; the Montaner drug store; an icehouse; and the post office.

Another report of the fire notes that, “Virtually every able bodied citizen in the town responded to the call for help and all were working incessantly today to stamp out the flames. A sudden shift in the wind enabled them to bring the fire under control and it was believed that the buildings on the adjoining side of the plaza would be safe unless the wind should again change. Buckets, garden hose and anything that would carry water or could be used to get water (to the burning buildings was pressed into service. An appeal to Santa Fe to send the Santa Fe fire department was refused by Santa Fe officials who said they could not send the city's one fire truck to Taos because it would leave the capitol city unprotected.”

1932 Construction drawing- First Floor Plan,
University of New Mexico Center for
Southwest Research
Early plans to relocate the courthouse to the National Guard Armory were abandoned, and the Plaza courthouse was rebuilt in situ. 0.188 of an acre of land was assigned to Taos County in perpetuity, in a deed signed by Franklin Roosevelt on March 25, 1935. That assignation was followed on May 21, 1935 by a deed donating the 0.515 acres comprising the existing Taos Plaza to the County. The sites are platted as Exception 279, PC284 PI, County of Taos in a 1930 Plat completed by the Public Survey Office in Santa Fe.

The new Courthouse, designed by Albuquerque architect Louis Hesselden, was built with partial funding from the Public Works Administration combined with a loan from a local bank. Construction was started in 1932 by contractor L. H. Bovos.

The Taos County Courthouse was completed and moved into by January 1934. The facility included offices for County staff, including the Sherriff, County Clerk and Assessor, Commissioner, Treasurer, two vaults, and jail on the first-floor, and the Agriculture Agent, Superintendent of Schools, District Judge, Justice of the Peace, District Attorney, and the Court and Jury Rooms on the second floor. The move into the courthouse was facilitated by “trucks, vans, lorries, and wagons” according to a report by the 23 year veteran Taos News Arts editor Regina Tatum Cooke, who completed the woodblock print of the plaza Courthouse move-in for the front page of the paper on the day the facility opened.

South facade during Fiestas late 1940s, note modified portal

1934 Woodblock print of Courthouse by Regina Cook

Character Defining Features

The Spanish-Revival Style two story rectangular building located is prominently and intentionally located on the historic Taos Plaza and occupies the site of the previous courthouses mentioned above. The adjacent plaza serves as a court square and reflects the Spanish heritage of the area.

Interior photograph of Courtroom in session,
1950, Taos News
The two story flat roofed building with curvilinear parapet and exposed vigas is a well preserved example of a typical Spanish Pueblo Revival Style public building. Original fenestration included 6 over 6 double hung wood sash windows on the main south façade. Rear and side fenestration included simpler double hung wood windows without the divided lites. An extensive Pueblo-Style portal extends across the entire south façade and is detailed with exposed round vigas and wood decking at the ceiling, 10x10 wood support beams, 12” diameter round columns, and carved wood corbels transitioning between vertical column and horizontal beam. The portal was originally terminated on the east and west ends with massive stucco “zaguan” like elements that lead to open alleyways to the north. The entrance to the courthouse is in the center of the south (front) façade.

The interior has 2” wide oak flooring with a clear sealer, lime plaster walls (painted) over wood lath or adobe, simple plaster ceilings that match the walls are typical for all rooms with the exception of the second floor courtroom. The interior wood stair consists of geometrically carved wood balustrades and railings. Originally the building contained first floor public restrooms located midway along the western half of the structure. Minor remodeling of interior walls and the removal of nearly all plumbing fixtures has occurred. Additionally the east and west alleys were filled in with support structures (offices) beginning almost immediately after the structure was occupied.

Evaluation of Significance

Postcard from 1951
The original 1932 building is architecturally significant as a well preserved example of the Spanish Pueblo Revival Style that was popular for many public buildings in New Mexico beginning in the early 1930’s. It is typical of Public Works Administration courthouses built throughout the state, of which there are a total of 12 (5 Pueblo Style, 2 Territorial, and 5 Art Deco). The building is exceptionally relevant due to its well preserved Courtroom murals that were funded by the Public Works Administration era of arts funding, that were received in 1934. These murals are period interpretations of justice by four of New Mexico’s most prominent artists, Emil Bisttram, Ward Lockwood, Bert Phillips, and Victor Higgins. Another mural, completed 1994, was designed and implemented by renown modern muralist Frederico Vigil.

The building is one of five Pueblo Style County Courthouses funded by the PWA during the 1930’s. The architecture of the Public Works Administration era of courthouse building explored contemporary design themes based on regional influences. These buildings were larger and more massive but simple in detail, reflecting the difficult times in which they were built. Throughout New Mexico, the WPA era courthouses are all either Art Deco style, or the regionally significant Spanish-Pueblo Revival or Territorial Style.

South facade from 1982 National Register nomination, note
missing viga ends, and simplified stucco massing of portal
The location of the interior courthouse functions within the building follows a prescribed pattern. The courtroom is located on the second floor allowing for a custom designed staircase to ascend on the way to court symbolizing a “rise to justice”. Locating the courtroom on above the first floor Jail also gave a more prominent position to the courtroom. Convenience undoubtedly controlled the first floor location of the administrative functions; as these service areas had to be easily accessible to the public. Similar to other courthouses of the era the building has a linear floor plan with a double loaded central corridor on both floors. The courtroom is distinguished from all other rooms in the building by the use of much higher ceiling, 16’ in lieu of the 10’ ceilings throughout the remainder of the structure. The courtroom also is the only room in the building with exposed wood vigas and wood decking at the ceiling. The custom painted murals reflect the overall them of “Justice.”

Records indicate that the county was still paying for the burned courthouse in 1938, 6 years after the fire. At that same time, it was discovered that the new courthouse was “sinking” on the north side due to a double dose of bad design - use of adobe foundations to three feet below grade and a lack of drainage around the building. The building was declared unsafe by then Sherriff Malaquias Martinez. It was noted in news clippings at the time that the concrete block wall at the front door, upon which the dedication plaque of the building was attached, was likely to be the only structurally sound part of the building. The stabilization of the courthouse was passed off to WPA architects, although reports lament that the implementation was delayed several times.

The building is clearly visible, though no details are clear, in the 1952 or 1957 NMDOT aerials.

After the building was vacated by Taos County Government in 1970, a minimal maintenance schedule and accompanying minimal budget was provided. Reports of roof leaks, damaged adobe, damaged plaster, creaking floors, a need for better windows, a need for electrical and mechanical upgrades, cracking and chipping of the ceilings and walls, and damage from break-ins became more and more common, until the facility was stabilized and the roof repaired in the 1990s. Since 1970 the structure has been used for a myriad of purposes including but not limited to: Lawyers offices, art galleries, retail shops, and theater and dance companies (occupying the old courtroom).

view from the roof, 2013