From caves to adobes to Spaceport America, New Mexico’s architectural legacy tells a compelling story of people and places written in stone, mud, steel, and glass. Visiting these handsomely wrought sites, you can touch, climb on, and walk through history—quite a privilege.
Boca Negra Cave
Some 1,700 years ago, the people who camped in a cave on Albuquerque’s West Mesa were in the midst of a major cultural and biotechnological revolution: They started to grow and eat corn.
They were onto something. A hundred years later, the culture of the Pueblos would emerge from this innovation, as nomadic hunter-gatherers began to settle in villages, tend their crops, grind corn into flour, and make pottery.
Think of breakthroughs like fire, the printing press, the harnessing of electricity: Growing corn ranks right up there. “After 7,500 years of a very stable—and very mobile—culture, people were on the verge of a whole new way of life,” says archaeologist Matt Schmader, Superintendent of Open Space for the City of Albuquerque.
And right here in Boca Negra cave, a shallow niche tucked into an extinct volcano in Albuquerque’s West Mesa Open Space, within the Petroglyph National Monument, archaeologists have found the earliest evidence of corn in the region. Schmader says the inhabitants roamed between the Río Grande and the Río Puerco hunting deer, antelope, and rabbits. Today, on the steep apron that fronts the cave, you’ll find scattered and splintered artifacts to mark their presence: stone tools, fire-cracked rock, arrowhead fragments, scorched deer bones.
Schmader also found a rusty scrap of sheet metal. “There were World War II bomb targets out here,” he explains. “The way this West Mesa has been used over the years is amazing, from Paleo-Indian hunters to bombers.”
From the Big I intersection of Interstate 40 and Interstate 25 in Albuquerque, take I-40 W. about 9.8 miles to the Atrisco Vista Blvd. exit. Travel N. 4.8 miles to the park access on the right and proceed E. to the small parking lot. Boca Negra cave nestles in the third large volcano from the S., a hike of less than a mile. From the parking lot, follow the dirt road N. a few hundred yards. Another dirt road crosses diagonally. Follow it NE about 2/3 mile. The cave is visible on the E. side of the volcano on your right. For information, call the Open Space Visitors Center, in town. (505) 897-8831
A single, unbroken architectural thread spanning 1,000 years connects New Mexico’s ancient Pueblo years to the latest Pueblo Revival–style home going up in Santa Fe. You can touch a long stretch of that thread at Gran Quivira, in the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument, near Mountainair. The name Salinas comes from the salt that the Gran Quivira, Quarai, and Abó Pueblo people collected from nearby salt lakes, which they considered sacred places. Near the top of a mound of largely buried limestone walls and sunken kivas, you can stand on a 500-year-old wall and peer two floors down into a room closer to 900 years old.
Here at Las Humanas Pueblo, Tompiro-speaking people first built pit houses mostly underground, then thatched-roof structures rising partly out of the earth, then a circular Pueblo of stone, and finally a rectilinear stone Pueblo that rose a few stories aboveground. The masonry work bears the stamp of Anasazi know-how, though it’s less elaborate than the intricate walls at 11th-century Chaco Canyon.
The rooms are tiny because people lived mostly outside. With its rectangular proportions, faintly pyramidal multistory design, protruding vigas, rooftop patios, adobe plaster, and latilla shade structures, the Pueblo typified a design language that continues today: a good example is the Inn and Spa at Loretto near Santa Fe’s Plaza.
Now look over your shoulder. Standing tall on the Pueblo’s western toes you’ll see the roofless ruins of the San Buenaventura mission church. In the mid-1600s, Spanish padres compelled the Indians to build it from the same stone, using many of the techniques they’d used on their Pueblo. It’s New World–Old World architecture.
Perhaps 2,000 people lived at Gran Quivira at its peak. By the 1670s, everyone was gone—drought, famine, and rocky relations with neighboring Apaches drove them away. Eventually, roofs collapsed, plaster crumbled, and blowing dust filled in the rooms. The stone remains.
From Albuquerque, take I-40 E. about 7.5 miles from Tramway Blvd. to the Tijeras exit. Follow N.M. 337 about 30 miles S. and turn right on N.M. 55. Follow it another 25 miles to Mountainair. Follow N.M. 55 another 25 miles S. to Gran Quivira, at milepost 37. Open seven days a week, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. (505) 847-2770; nps.gov/sapu
Las Trampas Church
To see Spanish Colonial architecture intact and unadorned, preserved but neither embalmed nor glamorously restored, take the hour-long drive north from Santa Fe along the High Road to Taos to the church of San José de Gracia, in Las Trampas. After winding your way up from Española, past Chimayó and through Truchas, you’ll find the church at the roadside just beyond the sparkling Río de las Trampas.
The church is a monument to Hispanic Catholicism in the New World, fashioned from native mud, stone, and timber, seemingly left untouched since the 1770s.
“The church has been considered by some ‘the most perfectly preserved Spanish colonial church in the United States,’” says Marina Ochoa, of the Office of Historic-Artistic Patrimony and Archives of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.
Architecturally, the church shows classic elements that define Spanish Colonial architecture not just for churches, but for homes as well. Look at the towers flanking the front door, the balcony joining them, the incredibly thick but upward-tapering walls, the exposed wood lintels, the alternating patterns in the rail-and-stile doors, and the rope-carved posts. Architect John Gaw Meem, considered by many the father of Santa Fe style, built a career drawing variations on these elements, even in secular buildings like his University of New Mexico masterpiece, Zimmerman Library (see p. 32).
From Riverside Drive/N.M. 68 in Española, turn E. on N.M. 76, the High Road to Taos, and take it 24 miles. To arrange a tour of the interior or to find out about mass, contact the Holy Family Parish of Chimayó. (505) 351-4360; bit.ly/lastrampas
Fort Union National Monument
A string of brick chimneys punctuate the rolling prairie, all that remains after more than 100 years of rain, snow, wind, and sun have melted away the adobe walls of the officers’ quarters at Fort Union. Still, this national monument near Las Vegas remains one of the few places you can see the architectural ghosts of New Mexico’s Territorial style ancestors.
When people talk about Santa Fe style, which peaked as the must-have look for New Mexico homes in recent decades, they’re really talking about Territorial Revival and Pueblo Revival. A vaguely classical and symmetrical look, Territorial style went beyond the Pueblo look with a floor plan around a central hall, and by adding milled-wood trim (usually white), fired-brick coping at the roofline, milled vigas, multipaned windows with carved mullions and triangular pediments above, and multipanel doors. All these details became possible as trade picked up with the East after New Mexico became a U.S. Territory in 1850. The arrival of the railroad, in 1878, further accelerated the trend.
Fort Union began guarding the Santa Fe Trail in 1851. Army architects de-signed it and its defunct urban cousin, Fort Marcy, above Santa Fe, to emulate their Eastern relatives. Today, while Fort Union’s native New Mexican adobe walls have all but vanished, its firebrick chimneys remain at attention.
From Las Vegas, New Mexico, take I-25 N. about 20 miles to exit 366, N.M. 161/ Watrous/Valmora. Turn left on N.M. 161 and drive about seven miles to Fort Union National Monument. Open daily except Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day. (505) 425-8025; nps.gov/foun
Alvarado Transportation Center
The original Alvarado Hotel, in Albuquerque, wasn’t just a train stop in the desert between Chicago and Los Angeles. It was a destination in its own right, and a local society hot spot. Built by the Fred Harvey railroad-lodging-tourism juggernaut in 1902, at the apex of the era of glamorous train travel, this crown jewel on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway hosted movie stars, celebrities, and presidential candidates. Guests and visitors shopped for Native American merchandise at the adjacent Indian Curio Building, marveled at on-site Navajo weavers working at the loom, and signed up for auto tours of nearby Pueblos.
The hotel was demolished in 1970, during tough economic times in downtown Duke City. In 1993, the station burned down. Albuquerqueans lamented its loss.
Until, that is, Downtown went through a renaissance. In the early 2000s, the city came to its architectural senses and built the Alvarado Transportation Center, a hub for buses and trains, on the hotel site, just as the new commuter Rail Runner Express rolled onto the scene, revitalizing the iron horse in New Mexico. The local architectural firm Dekker/Perich/Sabatini and lead architect Christopher Gunning hewed close to the grand old hotel’s California Mission style with the clay tile roofs, open arcades, and brick-paved promenades so characteristic of the Harvey houses.
Beside the Center, the Indian Curio Building still stands, now a small office building for Amtrak employees.
Long live the Alvarado!
Smack in the heart of downtown Albuquerque, the Alvarado Transportation Center sits on the tracks at Central Ave. and First St. From I-25, head W. less than a mile down Central. Look for the retro clock tower. 320 First St. SW; cabq.gov/transit
John Gaw Meem, the 20th-century architect who did more than anyone else to revive and reinvigorate New Mexico’s native architectural traditions, created one of his masterpieces at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Zimmerman Library is the headliner of an all-star lineup of Meem buildings on campus that includes Scholes Hall and the lovely Alumni Chapel. The American Institute of Architects, New Mexico chapter, recently named the library the “building of the 20th century in New Mexico.” Historian David Kammer (an alum himself) notes that Meem regarded the Zimmerman as the “finest building that he had ever designed in the Spanish- Pueblo style, a sentiment shared by many.”
In recent years, UNM has oscillated between unfettered and historically minded modernism, but the Meem buildings endure with the relaxed inevitability of all great designs. Even with major—call them vast—additions to the Zimmerman, Meem’s original rooms remain as a west wing. Inside and out, they give a quick survey of Pueblo Revival architectural elements, from its stepped, asymmetrical massing to finer, oft-imitated details like heavy wood lintels over multipaned windows set deep into battered walls, intricate tinwork light fixtures, and spectacular viga-and-corbel ceilings—the massive carved beams repeat in tight succession, a glorious architectural riff harmonizing with the deepest roots of native architecture. These study areas are some of the most inviting public spaces in New Mexico. Come, grab a book, and settle in.
Reach the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque by exiting I-25 at Lomas Blvd. and driving less than a mile E. Turn S. on Yale Blvd. Zimmerman Library is at nearly the midpoint of the campus, across from the duck pond. (505) 277-9100; library.unm.edu
Río Grande Nature Center State Park
You enter the Río Grande Nature Center in Albuquerque through a seven-foot-diameter corrugated culvert that might have been salvaged from a nearby acequia. The rest of the long, low, naked-concrete building hides behind a grassy, shrubby earthen berm under the stately old-growth cottonwoods of the bosque. That culvert feels both pedestrian and transformative.
Inside, a series of vertical water columns in clear tubes divides an informational display area from broad windows that gape onto the several-acre pond, where various waterfowl reside. You could sit here for hours, meditating. Or you could move outside to continue monitoring the wildlife scene from behind a concrete wall punctuated by rectangular portholes. Or you could walk deeper into the bosque, to the banks of the Río Grande.
Antoine Predock designed the center in the early 1980s. An architect of international acclaim, he has designed grand homes, the stately George Pearl Hall at UNM, and monumental projects like the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, an astonishing structure that treats glass and steel like origami paper. And then there’s the Nature Center, a masterpiece of understated belonging and sensitivity to its surroundings.
GETTING THERE From I-40 in Albuquerque, take the Río Grande Blvd. exit and head N. about 1.5 miles to Candelaria Rd. Turn left and drive just over a half-mile to the Nature Center. 2901 Candelaria Rd. NW, Albuquerque. Visitor Center, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. (505) 344-7240; bit.ly/rgspnm
Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array
The Plains of San Agustin rejigger your sense of scale. In that vast, treeless, mountain-fringed bowl, the sky goes huge while earthbound objects shrink, miniaturized by the void. The scene has no foreground. As you drive west across U.S. 60, your attention leaks into the distance. When you first spot the 27 bright-white antennas of the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array radio telescope, their parabolic dishes cupped skyward, they seem toylike—Pixar tulips.
Some 20 miles west of Magdalena, find the turn to the VLA, which is part of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, under the National Science Foundation. Along with Los Alamos National Laboratory, this almost surreal monument to all things extraterrestrial expresses New Mexico’s deepest duality, the paradoxical cohabitation of the highest of high tech with a landscape of undiluted nature.
At the Visitor Center, stare up into one of the nearly 100-foot-tall antennas. The tower’s struts and braces hold an 82-foot-diameter receiving dish, and can tilt it to any conceivable angle for viewing the sky, day or night. As a built object, the tower epitomizes the modernist architect’s battle cry of “Let form follow function!” It’s beautiful for how it looks and what it does: peering into the deepest reaches of space, more than 13 billion years back in time, gathering radio waves that a supercomputer and its gazillion computations convert into images of the oldest stars and galaxies yet observed by Earthlings.
The infrastructure of the VLA includes 40 miles of double railroad tracks that trace a huge Y on the grassland plains. Along the tracks, a transporter shuttles the 27 dishes into a variety of configurations—the “zoom” of the lens they collectively form. Sometimes they’re bunched together; sometimes they sprawl. After a recent $98 million overhaul, says VLA spokesman Dave Finley, the VLA continues making landmark discoveries as it squints ever closer to the Big Bang. Seeing so far into space means looking far back in time because the light—radio waves, in this case—takes so long to reach us. And while the science may fly over our heads, the VLA itself captivates on a gut level.
“I call this art,” says Laura Barish, education and outreach specialist. “People come just to hang out and commune with the antennas.”
Bart Prince House
Maybe it takes a native son to imagine life outside the adobe box.
Architect Bart Prince lived in Santa Fe through kindergarten, when his family moved to Albuquerque. Those Santa Fe years shaped his tastes, but not in ways you’d expect. Known internationally for designing mind- and form-bending homes that often defy the public’s sense of earthly architecture, Prince couldn’t have diverged further from Santa Fe style, though his roots are deep—his great-grandfather served as Territorial Governor, and lived in the Palace of the Governors, on the Santa Fe Plaza.
As an architect, Prince went in a different direction. Consider his studio-home in Albuquerque. Built in 1983, nestled into the ground yet three stories tall, it crouches among the postwar Pueblo-, Territorial-, and even Tudor-style suburban bungalows.
As he does for every commission, Prince designed his home from the inside out, first thinking how he’d use the space, then shaping the structure around it. He created an organic complex of interconnected spirals, curving walls, and slatted overhangs, every inch a remarkable but functional detail. Overhead hovers an ellipsoid room reached by an internal spiral staircase. A library tower guards one side, while an angular flying-bridge gallery shoots over the nearly 70-year-old adobe next door. It’s all steel, wood, tile, cement, carpet, acrylic, and other materials, with structural elements like concrete piers and pipe rafters on full display.
How do the 66-year-old and his buildings fit into the state’s architectural legacy? “I don’t! It’s the story of my life.”
From Central Ave. at the eastern edge of the University of New Mexico campus in Albuquerque, turn diagonally left onto Monte Vista Blvd. and drive 0.5 mile to the house on the NE corner of Monte Vista and Marquette Ave. Please respect the homeowner’s privacy by observing the home from the street.
In the distance, a Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway train rolls down the old Jornada del Muerto route of the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, near Truth or Consequences. From Spaceport America the train looks like a Lionel set as it retraces the route followed by Spaniards from Mexico City to Santa Fe some 400 years ago.
And now the sparkling new Spaceport creates a three-dimensional crossroads marking the exact spot where the earthbound past meets the extraplanetary future. Sometime next year, Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson plans to board the company rocket, ride it out of the atmosphere, and jump-start the era of commercial space travel. Not bad, considering that, 1,800 years ago, New Mexicans lived in caves and were just learning to cultivate corn.
The Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space terminal and hangar at Spaceport America stake New Mexico’s claim as the pioneering civilian space center on the blue planet. Six hundred and thirty deposit-paying customers have already signed up for two-hour flights with four minutes of weightlessness in space.
The New Mexico Spaceport Authority operates the Spaceport, owns the site, and leases the terminal and hangar to Virgin Galactic. The London-based firm Foster+Partners designed the Spaceport for Virgin Galactic, while the URS architectural firm, in Albuquerque, handled the project in New Mexico.
“As the point of departure and return, as well as the operational and training base, the Spaceport is central to the astronauts’ experience,” says architect Antoinette Nassopoulos Erickson, a partner with Foster+Partners. “In a sense, its design brings space back to Earth.”
On the west side, the terminal’s faintly geomorphic terminal burrows into graveled berms under a winged roofline that echoes the skyline of the distant San Andres Mountains. Visitors and astronauts enter through a channel cut into the earth that leads to a gallery above the maintenance hangar. Continuing through the building, you end up on the second floor at the astronauts’ lounge, where two-story-tall windows overlook a broad apron for staging spacecraft.
If you have the underworld associations of caves and kivas on your mind, it’s not hard to see this passage through the building as a transition between realms, from inside the Earth to outer space. Beyond those huge windows, the runway disappears north and south into the creosote-studded desert. The sky domes overhead, improbably large. Waiting.
If you can’t spare the $250,000 to book a flight, tour Spaceport America by bus instead. Follow the Sun Tours go to the Spaceport on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Pickup locations are 710 Hwy 195, Elephant Butte; and Holiday Inn Express, 2201 F.G. Amin St., Truth or Consequences. (866) 428-4786; spaceportamerica.com ✜
Charles C. Poling has been writing articles about New Mexico for 34 years and he isn’t bored yet: You can’t beat good material.