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The Padre’s House

July 2024
6min read

It belonged to Taos’s most influential family until well into the twentieth century, but this unadorned adobe hacienda speaks of the earliest days of Spanish occupation of the Southwest

In 1804 a Pueblo Indian sold his four-room adobe house in the farming community of Taos, New Mexico, to Don Severino Martínez, a Spanish trader. No other details of this transaction are recorded, although the dwelling was to become famous—both for the family who lived in it and for its survival as the best example of a Spanish hacienda in the American Southwest.

Situated in the farthest corner of the vast Spanish Empire, at the end of the Camino Real, the ancient road from Mexico City, Taos is almost as isolated now as it was then, but Don Severino Martínez had done well to buy his house. Over the years, as Taos grew into an important commercial center and meeting point for three cultures, Martínez became the town’s leading merchant and its mayor. He kept on adding to his home, so that by the time he died in 1827 it had grown to twenty-one rooms that enclosed a courtyard (a placita ). Today the Martínez family’s house still stands as a monument to the ferment of cultures in the early history of the Southwest.

The best-known inhabitant of the Martínez hacienda was Don Severino’s son, Padre Antonio José Martínez, the priest of Taos. He achieved permanent notoriety as a character in Willa Gather’s 1927 novel Death Comes for the Archbishop : “The priest of Taos was not a man one would easily forget. His broad high shoulders were like a bull buffalo’s, his big head was set defiantly on a thick neck, and the full-cheeked, richly coloured, egg-shaped Spanish face —how vividly the Bishop remembered that face! … his mouth was the very assertion of violent, uncurbed passions and tyrannical self-will; the full lips thrust out and taut, like the flesh of animals distended by fear or desire.”

Willa Gather’s picture of the Southwest and its early inhabitants isn’t easy to shake off, even today. She saw a racial contest where modern ideas struggled against ancient fears and superstitions. To Gather, Father Martínez represented all the evil, corruption, and backwardness that the novel’s hero, the first bishop of the new territory of New Mexico, Jean Marie Latour, would ultimately defeat.

Padre Martínez served as the priest of Taos from 1823 until his death in 1867. His antagonist, the first bishop of the vicariate of Santa Fe, Jean Baptiste Lamy (Gather’s Father Latour), held his post from 1853 to 1885. The two men warred with each other in the same turbulent years that saw the transfer of New Mexico from Spain to Mexico and subsequently to the United States.

When Don Severino bought his house in 1804, the Spanish and Pueblo Indian populations had been living in relative peace for a century or more. Although the Pueblo revolt of 1680 had been launched from the nearby Taos Pueblo, during the reconquest of New Mexico the Spanish soon learned the advantages of a more pacific policy toward the native inhabitants. A growing trade between the Spanish and the Pueblo Indians and the nearly constant threat of raids from Comanches, Apaches, and Navajos helped bring the two groups together.


In the expanded Martínez hacienda, the family could now withstand an Indian attack and could even hold off a prolonged siege. At the first sighting of a cloud of dust on the horizon the household would hurry back to the house, driving their carts and herds of sheep through the large protected gateway (the zaguán ). All the main entrances faced into the placita , where a well provided water, and the defenders could shoot down on any invaders from behind a high parapet on the roof.


Don Severino’s hacienda was ideally adapted to its site in the valley of the majestic Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Its thick walls, made from the most readily available building material—mud—formed rooms that were warm in the winter and cool in the summer. In its design and in its building techniques the hacienda resembled similar structures that could be found in any Mexican town and even as far away as Spain, where adobe brick construction had been brought by the Moors during the Middle Ages.


The Pueblo Indians, too, had been building large earthen cities for more than five hundred years before the Spanish conquerors arrived. Remarkably, many of these ancient dwellings survive, and some, like the one at Taos, are inhabited. The thick mud walls of both Pueblo and Spanish design support large beams ( vigas ) that generally protrude from the face of the structure, and smaller poles ( latias ) are laid on these to form a roof that is covered by as much as two feet of mud. Canales project from the roof to drain rainwater off the building. There are, however, some differences. Native Americans built their pueblos with bricks by “puddling” the mud in layers. They created huge, multiple-story pyramidal communities, piling room upon room, whereas the Spanish kept to a single-story linear pattern. The Indian pueblos usually had few windows or doors; instead exterior and interior ladders that led to apertures in the roof provided access and light. Their rooms were smaller than those of the Spanish adobe, and they lacked interior fireplaces.


While most of the social activities at the pueblo occurred in the open plaza, the center of the hacienda was the multipurpose room, the sala , where spaces were marked off by merely the placement of a brown-and-white-checked carpet, a jerga , on the hard-packed, polished earthen floor. A nineteenth-century visitor called this the “reception room, parlour, dining room and in short room of all work.” Here Don Severino would have concluded his business deals and political machinations by offering visitors swigs of the aguardiente distilled from local cane syrup. Martínez built his fortune from what he produced on his lands and what he could trade locally with the Indians and later on with the American and French mountain men. His long and detailed last testament lists few items that we could consider luxuries, but he does single out a gilded mirror, a saber with a hilt, guard, and scabbard of silver, four plates, four forks and spoons, and one silver cup.

Because of the scarcity of iron in the region, woodworkers constructed doors with extended tenons that pivoted in mortises in the sills and lintels, eliminating the need for metal hinges. Oxcarts, caritas , fashioned entirely of wood are another testament to the carver’s ingenuity.

The philosophical differences between Padre Martínez and the bishop of New Mexico are revealed in the design of the cathedral Bishop Lamy built in Santa Fe between 1869 and 1886, by which time he had been elevated to archbishop. His French Romanesque Cathedral of St. Francis, opposed in every way to the Spanish adobe style, is the summation of a new attitude—architecturally, theologically, and socially. Replacing an old adobe church on the site, the cathedral rose high above the scattered buildings of nineteenth-century Santa Fe, its towers, classical arches, columns, and pediments, seeming to announce the arrival of the church universal. In its harmonious proportions and geometrical symmetry the cathedral expressed a rationalism that would claim victory over what Bishop Lamy saw as the primitive superstitions of the colonial past.


While the Spanish hacienda of the Martínezes looked inward, facing its placita , Bishop Lamy’s cathedral looked to the world outside. The bishop’s God was an authoritative, transcendent being, whereas for Padre Martínez, God was as familiar a figure as any other inhabitant of his hacienda. In the Martínez house and on the altars and walls of the padre’s church hung the santos , figures of saints, who, it was believed, observed and even participated in family life. Bishop Lamy strongly disapproved of such icons; he removed them from his churches and chastised the parishes that continued to display them.

Padre Martínez, in contrast to Bishop Lamy, very much inhabited the day-to-day world of his people. He served in territorial legislatures under both Mexican and American administrations, and as a parish priest he established schools for the children of Taos, published the first newspaper in the territory, and continued to urge peace not only among all the Indian groups in-the region but with the Baptist missionaries who had begun to move in.


From a modern vantage it might appear that Padre Martínez lost his battle with Bishop Lamy. It is true that the peace he had tried to work out between Hispanics and Indians and between Catholics and Baptists ended shortly after his death. Repeated incursions into New Mexico, first by trappers, miners, and powerful railroad interests, then later by artists, hippies, and tourists, have meant that the interests of the indigenous population have often been overlooked. Even the most recent invaders, drawn to New Mexico for its mystical qualities of people and place, are, more often than not, forcing the pace of change. Occasionally local interests have been served, as in the 1970 decision that allowed the Pueblo Indians to regain control of the Blue Lake area of the Kit Carson National Forest. Other conflicts over land and water rights have ended less satisfactorily for the area’s Hispanic people.

Even before the Martínez hacienda passed out of the family’s hands in 1926, it had undergone major changes. Porches had been added to the front, and new windows and doors had been cut from the facade. The house was then bought and sold many times until in the 1960s it stood abandoned, except for an occasional squatter. An adobe house can last virtually forever, as long as it is cared for, but now, under total neglect, its roofs began to leak, puddles of water weakened the foundations, groundhogs burrowed in the moist clay, and some of the walls collapsed. Vandals and treasure hunters dug into the earthen floors in search of hidden Spanish gold.


In 1972, when the Kit Carson Foundation purchased the property, things began to look up. The foundation was headed by Jack Boyer, who, along with many other Taos citizens, had joined the New Mexico National Guard at the start of World War II. Returning home after four years in a Japanese prison camp, Boyer led the movement to restore the homes of Kit Carson and the Taos artist Ernest Blumenschein as well as the Martínez hacienda. All three are now open to the public. The hacienda, which serves as a museum of local history, also presents special exhibits on indigenous crafts. But the place is much more than a museum; it is still the home of Padre Martínez, a ghost who will not rest. A walk around the plazas at Taos or Santa Fe shows that his spirit is expressed in the architecture of those towns. The earthen-inspired buildings of the main commercial districts, the flat roofs, terracing, battered walls, loggias, parapets, vigas , and canales would be entirely familiar to the old padre. The “Taco Deco” style, or the “Tourist Adobe,” as it is sometimes called dismissively by critics, still presents a challenge to the aesthetics of classical rationalism, as it did when its prototypes first rose on the high desert centuries ago.


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