When one thinks of the great walking cities in America, what comes to mind are the big ones: New York, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Seattle and the District of Columbia. Santa Fe should be added to that list. A stroll through the City Different is a delightful experience: Each step a discovery. Any nook or cranny in one of the adobe buildings along the way could contain art, a bit of history or the hint of the compelling narrative that offers a keen insight into our blended past.
It’s impossible to experience the flavor, ambiance, indeed, the romance of the American Southwest in a vehicle, windows shut tight to keep in the air conditioning, while the GPS robot, at best a cyber-nag, continues to screech: “Turn Here.” Why not park the car, dig out some quarters and feed a meter, or choose one of the available parking lots, and see the place on foot. You won’t regret it. This is a friendly city, where horns are rarely, if ever, used. Road rage is something that happens to someone else: somewhere else.
A number of organizations offer walking tours, including the New Mexico Museum of Art. Led by well versed docents, the Museum’s two hour tour features art, architecture and history. It’s casual: Visitors can leave at will. Most don’t because there’s much to see and learn. Here’s a brief sample of what you’ll experience.
The tour begins at the Gift Shop entrance to the Museum on the corner of Lincoln and Palace Avenues on the Plaza near the gold Spitz Clock. As the tour departs visitors pass bronze plaques in the sidewalk in front of the MFA. The “Hollywood Walk” features individual artists and writers who contributed to New Mexico history, including the individual who wrote “Ben Hur,” the novel not the movie. And, no, it wasn’t Charlton Heston.
SPOILER ALERT: The novel was written by Lew Wallace, a Union general and governor of the New Mexico Territory (1878-81). Published in 1880, Ben Hur remained at the top of the best seller list until 1936, when Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind was published. This particular nugget of information combines literature, in other words, art as well as history. New Mexico remained a territory until 1912. While he was governor, Wallace had to deal with corruption, Apache uprisings and Billy The Kid. Wallace convinced The Kid to snitch. The Wallace anecdote is a prime example of how rich each nugget of data can be in Santa Fe.
On the tour, your guide will explain New Mexico architecture, using the Museum, built in 1917, as an example of the Spanish Pueblo Revival Style. Visitors will learn about vigas, lintels, canales, latillas and parapets, all elements of that style. Along the way, other architectural styles will be pointed out.
Inside the Santa Fe County Administration building, visitors will see frescoes by Federico Vigil, encompassing historical themes, including conflicts among the diverse populations – Native, Spanish, Mexican and finally American. The contributions each group made are presented as well. Visitors also will learn the difference between frescoes and murals. Your guide will discuss what attracted – and still attracts - so many artists to New Mexico.
Federico Vigil fresco in the Santa Fe County Commissioners' meeting room in the Santa Fe County Administrative building.
Other stops along the tour include: the Bergere House/O’Keeffe Research Library, the First Presbyterian Church, the Sweeney Convention Center, the Peralta sculpture, the Federal Building and Federal Courthouse, where there are more murals, the Plaza and the La Fonda Hotel, a treasure trove of art, history and architecture, where the tour ends.
The Museum of Art’s Walking Tour - 10:00 a.m. to Noon - is offered on Mondays (April through November) and Fridays (June, July and August). Weather Permitting. The cost is $10 per adult. Children under 16 are free. The proceeds are used to benefit the Museum’s public education programs.