Detail of latillas in an alternating diagonal pattern resting on top of supporting beams called vigas in a historic adobe home located in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Image: Debbie DeMarais
A Rich Tradition of New Mexico Building Techniques
One of the joys of being an interior designer and home stager in Santa Fe, NM is getting an up-close look at the unique architecture that sets Santa Fe apart. I get to work in historic homes with traditional architectural details, new homes with modern interpretations of classic features, and homes in varying states of preservation, renovation and restoration.
This is the third article in a series I’ve written about the special architectural and design elements that have piqued the curiosity of my Instagram and Facebook followers. If you missed the first two I’ve linked them (along with another about Saltillo tile) for you at the end of this blog post.
I love sharing what I know, and what I continue to learn, about some of the key building features that contribute to the unique charm of my home town. For today, let’s take a deeper dive into three special architectural details found in Santa Fe: latillas, corbels, and portals.
Latillas: An Innovation of the Ancestral Pueblo Peoples
A latilla is a long, slender wooden lath made from the branches or saplings of Ponderosa pine, cedar or aspen trees. These straight poles are laid crosswise or diagonally atop vigas, which are large exposed round beams crafted from the larger pine trees of the high desert mountains. In Ancestral Pueblo structures vigas and latillas were structural elements that supported the floor or roof above, and distributed the load to the exterior adobe walls. There are some excellent photos and explanations on the architecture and travel blog of Erika Alatalo, which can be found here. She shares an image of a partial reconstruction representing how Ancestral Puebloans used vigas, latillas, and adobe mud to form the early pit houses.
Because construction techniques have had to keep pace with modern building codes, latillas are now used mainly as a decorative element. Below are two such examples, the left showing how a bleached latilla ceiling can still appear quite bright, and the other a very orderly diagonal pattern that is highly decorative, but not at all structural.
Modern use of latillas are largely decorative, adding a wonderfully organic feeling that softens the hard geometry which dominates conventional construction.
Latillas offer a visual in the home that is simultaneously organic and geometric. A ceiling chevron or herringbone pattern made up of hundreds of hand-stripped branches in bright natural wood is resplendent in its imperfection—and exactly the sort of design element that makes Northern New Mexican homes so unique.
Corbels: Wooden Support Brackets in a Southwest Style
A corbel is a form of bracket that helps support and distribute the weight of a structure. The use of corbels as an architectural element is not unique to Santa Fe. Many distant regions have traditionally used corbels in their buildings - ancient Egypt, medieval Europe, Indo-Islamic architecture, to name just a few.
Two examples of wooden corbels used to support beams and posts on different portales (outdoor patios) in Santa Fe, NM. Images: Debbie DeMarais
In the American Southwest, corbels are mostly wooden, and were likely introduced along with Spanish missionary influences. The name comes from the Old French “corbel” and the Latin “corvus”, inspired by its crows-beak shape. Craftspeople are still hand-carving many of the most charming examples of this decorative detail, often with beautiful floral or geometric designs.
Corbels have a sculptural quality, and craftspeople in the Southwest often carve designs into their shapes, as seen here with the lovely floret rounds on the two corbels supporting a substantial beam with a decorative row of latillas above. Image: Laurie Allegretti Photography
Corbels found in Santa Fe-style design are usually the kind used to support and distribute the weight of a structure where vigas meet vertical support beams. They are also used as decorative elements in interior and exterior living spaces of Santa Fe homes. Here is a beautiful example of corbels from a home I staged in the past…
Image: Debbie DeMarais
You can see that the corbels sit atop rough-hewn wooden pillars, and the horizontal beam sits atop the corbels, providing strength as well as rustic beauty.
Portal (or Portales): The Perfect Covered Porch or Patio
Any covered patio in Santa Fe, NM would generally be referred to as a portal. This lovely space extends the function of the home by creating an outdoor living room that is protected from the bright high desert sun.
The glossary of the New Mexico Architectural Foundation describes a portal (pronounced por-TALL) as “A covered entryway or porch-like structure leading into a home, a church, or a public building — sometimes quite elaborate. Also may refer to a covered patio attached to a home.” These covered spaces are often formed by the vigas continuing past the exterior walls of a home, although in more modern homes standard wood beams are also used.
A well-designed portal extends the livable space within a home, creating an excellent place to take in the cool of a summer evening or enjoy the low winter sun on a bright February day.
Brick is a common flooring for portales in the Southwest as they are readily available and, when situated properly in relation to the sun, can extend the thermal mass of the structure.
There are many ways that outdoor living can benefit the health and wealth of homeowners (and entice potential buyers).
Science supports the health benefits of time spent in nature. An article published in 2019 by Scientific Reports concludes that just 120 minutes outdoors per week can improve overall health. That is certainly easier to accomplish when you can simply walk from your living room onto a covered portal to feel the breeze, get some fresh air, and smell the pinon in the air.
Biophilia is the scientific term for “The human drive to connect with nature and other living things.” Psychology Today says that, “An understanding of biophilia can inform design choices that curb stress and boost well-being.” I wholeheartedly agree. I know that the need for such outdoor connection has only increased for most people since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Economics also supports the power of outdoor spaces. I've seen first hand how the addition of useful and beautiful outdoor living spaces can add value to homes. In fact, I've lost track of the number of portal spaces that I've staged over the years—adding furniture, decor, and plants to help show off those spaces best to potential buyers. Blending indoor comforts and beauty found in the Great Outdoors will always be on-trend.
There are countless considerations that go into any sort of home project. While I’ve focused on latillas, corbels, and portals here, the truth is that all the elements of your home’s interior are inter-connected. That’s why Santa Fe homeowners seek me out: to help them cut through all that complexity so that they can more easily arrive at a plan for their remodel or new decor that reflects who they are, and how they want to live. If you call Santa Fe home (or will soon) and are thinking of remodeling or restyling your house, give me a call at 505-699-4989 and let’s chat about how to turn your dreams into reality.
New Mexico Museum of Art, History: Ancestral Pueblo Architecture. 2010
Erika Alatalo, Development of Ancestral Puebloans and their architecture. FieldStudyoftheWorld.com, 2016
Jackie Craven, Corbels in Architecture—A Photo Gallery: All About Victorian Corbels, the Corbel Arch, and Trulli of Alberobello. ThoughtCo.com, 2019
New Mexico Architectural Foundation, The Guide to New Mexico Architecture: Glossary. 2020
White, M.P., Alcock, I., Grellier, J. et al. Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing. Sci Rep 9, 7730 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-44097-3
Biophilia, Psychology Today