Taos Architecture Tour: Taos Plaza

So there's so much to say about Taos Plaza (Blue Trail Site #1).

 Taos Plaza has changed over time, with several major periods of its development. These include the:

     - Pre-Puebloan and Puebloan Periods
     - Early Spanish Period
     - Territorial Period
     - Spanish Pueblo Revival Period
     - Modern Period

Taos Plaza in approximately 1880

Pre-Puebloan and Puebloan Period

Taos was “settled” by Native Americans in the early 1100s, who built pit-house shelters for their seasonal hunting and gathering trips to the area. The first Puebloans settled in the area in approximately 1320, and what we know today as Taos Pueblo was established in the 1400s. Taos Pueblo was a regional trade center and community civic functions occurred in the main plaza at the Pueblo until the Hispanic community of Don Fernando de Taos was established in 1796. Spanish settlers, who had lived in individual ranchos since the earliest settlers in 1615 until the establishment of the town in the late 18th century, combined forces to create a community.

Early Spanish Period: When Don Fernando de Taos was established in 1796, work began in earnest to bring together 63 original families (157 individuals) into 6 early plazitas. One of those, Don Fernando, would become what we know as Taos Plaza. Only it was quite different than what we see today. The early version of the Plaza was a rectangular shaped residential block, much like a very large hacienda. The plaza had a protected gated entrance so it could be closed off to attack from cattle or horse rustlers, or Indian attack. The traditional Hispanic Vernacular plaza was fortified with thick buttressed walls. Buildings were linear, in one story, with portales and small mica windows, small heavy wooden doors, communicating doors between residences, and with typical flat roofs and parapets to provide shielding for armed guards who would patrol the rooftops. Early settlers built an acequia that fed the plaza from a board flume fed underground from what is now Kit Carson Park.

Taos remained the northernmost outpost of the Spanish frontier for many years and was not accessible by road until the late 19th century. Up until this time, Taos was accessed by foot, then pack trails which were eventually expanded to include the ability for carts to travel. Due to this, Taos remained somewhat isolated, and architecture was extremely simple, using locally available materials.

The first known courthouse dated from this early Spanish period, and was reported to have been built in either 1830 or 1844. The earliest known map of Taos was produced in 1847 and notes the “calaboza,” which in Galacian (a dialect of Spanish from Northwest Spain common in the Americas) means “jail” located a few feet west of where the courthouse sits today.

Territorial Period

In the first few decades of the 1800s, Taos became known for beaver trapping, and the first non-natives and non-Hispanics began to arrive in search of that wealth. These earliest settlers were mostly French-Canadians, but it wouldn’t be long until word got to the East about the unique frontier character of New Mexico, and healing to be had for ailments like tuberculosis. 

By 1847, the first wood mills were opening in New Mexico, and there were a great deal many more Americans and Europeans arriving. They would bring with them ideas about architectural style that would change the face of architecture in the state, and in Taos.

The second phase of the plaza happened in the Territorial Period.

It was really a two-part phase: the first, around the time of the Civil War, whitewashed and then finally eliminated the portales around the plaza. The second period was noted by the vast majority of the adobe buildings being deconstructed or covered with frame construction as was typical of the American West, with clapboard and board and batten construction, wooden storefronts, large storefront windows, pitched roofs, wood trim, and retractable awnings. Old Photographs of Taos in this period are surprisingly unrecognizable to modern Taosenos, with the strange new architecture, abundant signage, the lack of portales, and wood boardwalks then surrounding the plaza. The rectangular shape of the open grassy plaza and its perimeter dirt roads was largely left intact, thought the outside faces of the plaza were now changing as businesses and residences expanded outward to accommodate growth.

Taos County was designated by the Territorial Legislature in 1852. The next year, the old 1830 Courthouse was described by Blanche Grant in her book When Old Trails Were New as “a low rude building less comfortable that the cow stables in some states…” indicating that 20 years later, the 1830 courthouse was already in need of work.

The second Taos County Courthouse was erected in 1880 on the north side of the Plaza on the site where the 1933 courthouse sits today. The building was a one-room deep Territorial structure, one story in height, with adobe walls, earth stucco plaster, and wood trim. Over its life, the structure had a flat roof with parapets, then a gable roof, then a gable roof with a cross-gable. The building appears never to have had a portale.

In 1898, Earnest “Blumey” Blumenschein and Bert Phillips accidentally started the Taos Art Colony when they were traveling through Northern New Mexico on an art expedition and experienced a broken wheel, which would leave them seeking help in Taos. Blumenschein brought his broken wheel to Taos Plaza to be repaired by the blacksmith. Blumenschein stayed for several months but Phillips decided to make Taos his permanent home. This led to another of Taos’ evolutions, as artists and thinkers from around the world were invited by the earliest members of the Taos Society of Artists to explore the area and paint its vast landscapes and the indigenous people of Taos Pueblo. With the influx of new visitors came a need for hotels and restaurants, which would start to change the face of the business district yet again. By 1900, there were more businesses than residences on Taos Plaza.

The first octagonal gazebo was installed on the plaza in 1908.
Taos Plaza in 1903

Spanish-Pueblo Revival Period

The most recent period of the plaza’s development occurred after a series of fires in the early 1900’s. In 1912-1918, the east side of the plaza burned, destroying the old McCarthy House and leaving nothing but a fence. The Columbian Hotel, on the south side where the La Fonda is now, burned in 1928. The west side burned in 1931.The north side of the plaza, including the courthouse, burned in 1932. The Don Fernando Hotel, a converted hotel in what was the Gusdorf store, on the southwest corner of the plaza, burned in 1933. It was at this time that, in response to a popularized Spanish Pueblo Revival architectural movement taking place in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, that the Taos Plaza began to take on its existing form.

In the 1920s and 1930s, we also start to see a vertical expansion of the plaza environs, as the Gusdorf Store built its two-story fa├žade on the southwest corner of the plaza, the La Fonda Hotel’s south plaza expansion to a second and even third story in 1937, and buildings began to be built with clerestories for better light. The expansion upward was also evident in the two-story Taos County Courthouse that was built in 1933 to replace the one burned down in 1932.

The acequia on the plaza was abandoned in favor of barrels filled from the well at the center of the plaza. In 1929, the street around the plaza is widened to accommodate cars and a stone wall is installed. The Columbian Hotel (now the La Fonda) installed the first replacement portale on the plaza in more than 30 years. And those characteristic boardwalks installed in 1847… were abandoned and replaced with concrete sidewalks, probably due to fire danger and maintenance issues. In 1933, the 1908 octagonal gazebo on the plaza was replaced with a Spanish-Pueblo Revival one, with a stucco parapet and wood vigas, lintels, posts and corbels, to match the entirely renovated surrounding buildings.

Taos Plaza 1918
It was also in the 1930s that the Fiestas de Taos were organized by plaza merchants. The fiestas were organized in midsummer to bring shoppers which would normally be at the Pueblo for San Geronimo Day (an Indio-Hispanic predecessor, in September) to downtown. The portale of the Taos County Courthouse on the plaza was historically used as a viewing platform for Fiesta royalty to enjoy a bird’s eye view of the three days of festivities.

Modern Period

Taos Plaza in 1934-1937
Since the 1930s era development of the plaza, the buildings have remained largely the same, except that the buildings on the east side of the plaza, which was left open for some time after the fire in the early 1900s, were eventually replaced with a gas station, and then in the 1990s, a series of rather poorly detailed Spanish-Pueblo Revival-influenced structures that now house “The Gorge” restaurant and several other shops.

The Taos County Courthouse was abandoned in 1968 for a new facility on the south end of town. Since then, the building has had many iterations, and tenants, sometimes acting as an “incubator” for young local talents, and often being underutilized to the point of seeming abandoned.

Parking meters were installed on the plaza in 1957. The Bataan memorial cross was installed on Plaza in the 1960s, as was the gazebo plan we see today, with police offices below. The plaza was entirely redesigned in 1975 by a landscape architect from Albuquerque, who attempted to create a plaza made of many rooms, with planters and trees and no grass. The roof of the current gazebo was replaced at that time.

Due to an influx of merchants selling kitschy tourist stuff, and an abandonment of the plaza by the theater, drug stores, and shops that had once catered to locals… by the 1980s, locals had basically stopped using the plaza at all, except for the Fiestas. The plaza landscape design has proven to be less than ideal, and plans have been under way for more than 10 years to renovate the plaza back to a more community-friendly, useable form. Grass was installed in one of the “rooms” in the 1990s and a visitor’s kiosk was installed on the east side of the plaza in 1995.

Currently, more than 70 shops and storefronts make up the plaza and its environs.

Follow the link HERE are some more old photos from Taos Plaza.

My Favorite Buildings on the Plaza 

On the northeast side of the plaza, where the Silver Touch building is today, is one of the most important places in Taos' history. The current building sits on the site of what was once Hinde's Blacksmith Shop. What's relevant about a little blacksmith shop in Taos? Well, in 1898, when  Bert Phillips and Ernest Blumenschein suffered a broken wagon wheel on their western adventure through Colorado and New Mexico, they came to Hinde's to have it repaired. It took him a few days, and while they were waiting, the men kindof fell in love with the light and landscape, and they decided to stay. In so doing, they gave birth to the Taos Artist Colony, drawing artists from around the world to our little town to paint and/or collect art. That's likely why you, as a visitor, came to Taos today. ; )

Just west of the Silver Touch building, at the Nambe store, are some of the best little architectural details on the plaza. Check out the little inset portale at the entrance of this store and the one next door, with it's detailed beams and painted details... Now, that's architectural beauty!

Heading west again, just a bit more, at the Saavedra Building, is the only remnant of Deco style in Taos: an aluminum Streamline storefront on what was once the local soda fountain.

Just west of that: The Taos County Courthouse (Taos Blue Trail Site #3). Inside, it's WPA murals are one of Taos' great treasures. They had never been fully documented and interpreted until 2013, when I was lucky enough to get to work on their documentation with architect David Henry and art historian Robert Cafazzo. Their interpretations are here, as are the histories of each of the painters. (just click on their names)

According to local legend, there are tunnels that run from Taos Plaza to La Loma Plaza, which were used by any number of people, for any number of reasons. From hiding family members, to unscrupulous acts like prohibition and prostitution... who knows what's true. What we DO know is that some of the buildings have very tiny basements that seem to go beyond where we'd expect them to go, and then, they end. Were they cut off? Closed in? Never tunnels in the first place? Part of the fun of having legends is letting them stay that way, so even if I know, I'm not tellin. ; )

On little shopping suggestion for the Plaza: antiquers and freaks, make sure to stop at Maison Faurie on the southeast corner of the plaza, in a little sub-plaza. They have some truly extraordinary stuff in this little hidden away shop! ; )

For the next part of this tour, head west at the northwest corner of the Plaza, crossing Camino de la Placita, and moving towards taking a left (south) turn on Padre Martinez Lane.