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    Understanding Adobe

Architectural Conservation  
2019 Galisteo Street, Suite N-10 A  
Santa Fe, New Mexico 87505  
505/ 982.2448  •  877/ 982.2448  

Whence Tradition?
Ed Crocker

It is a topsy-turvy world when Portland cement-based plasters are referred to as "traditional" in a place (like Santa Fe) where earth and lime plasters predate it by a millennium or more. We are frequently asked to repair a traditional plaster that turns out to be cement stucco applied in the 1970s. It's all a matter of perception.

In the mid-1990s I spent six years coordinating a project in Zuni Pueblo; for three of those years I lived in a stone house in Middle Village. I learned a lot about tradition. I found, for example, that social behavior is far more likely to persist over time than is a house. In other words, the act of hospitality survives the home in which it is extended. This was exemplified when I re-connected with a family I had known the last time I had worked in Zuni, in 1967. The hospitality was the same, but the house had undergone three or four transformations. The point here is that people are the vehicles of tradition -- walls aren't.

That is not to say that walls can't be labeled, and even appreciated as traditional if you are willing to let your sense of irony rule. I will keep the story in Zuni, a place with a deep architectural history. Stone has always been the fundamental building material there and my task was, in large part, to facilitate the re-opening of the stone quarries that had not been worked for over thirty years. During the course of finding the quarrymen who still remembered how to extract the stone, cut it, dress it, lay it and, furthermore, who remembered the prayers and offerings that made the endeavor a specifically Zuni one, I learned something quite unexpected about "traditional" stonework.

The earliest existing walls in Zuni are constructed of un-worked fieldstone laid up in mud mortar. The edges are rough, and there is no evidence whatsoever of the use of tools. Next we find the same fieldstone, but worked in a rudimentary way; an edge is chipped to make it align more precisely with the vertical plane of the wall. Then interestingly, comes adobe -- no doubt with the advent of the Spanish colonists. (Incidentally, adobe or cast earthen blocks did predate the Spanish, contrary to myth. Adobe construction was not common in pre-Columbian times, puddled earth was prevalent, but there are a number of pre-conquest sites in Mexico that were built with adobe.)

And so in Zuni one architectural tradition led to the next right up to the 1920s. At that time Italian stonemasons were brought in to build the mission church of St. Anthony. I can only imagine the scoffing at the fieldstone and adobe walls -- built without refinement and a decidedly non-Old World level of craftsmanship. The Italians needed a work force, of course, and used the local one. As the St. Anthony mission was built, local masons were trained and that training persists to the present day. "Traditional" stone masonry in Zuni Pueblo today is comprised of beautifully cut and dressed ashlar blocks that are more Neapolitan than Native, arched windows and all. A far cry from what we would think of as indigenous.

Zuni Pueblo

Crocker Ltd
2019 Galisteo Street, Suite N-10 A  •  Santa Fe, New Mexico 87505
tel 505/ 982.2448  •  fax 505/ 995.9877
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