Tucson Style


Santa Fe Style. By Christine Mather and Sharon Woods. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1986. 264 pp. $37.50 cloth.

I awaken to the summer morning, the cooler blowing a cold wind through the bedroom, quilt pulled up over me. Through the open window comes the purring of cicadas and the call of mourning doves. Outside to pick up the paper, I catch the last cool breath of the night before the engulfing deluge of heat. August in Tucson. Time to take my first sbowcr of the day.
Imagine this. You walk into a friend's house, and on her coffee table lies a sumptuous earth-toned book: Tucson Style. Imagine that this book describes Tucson's houses and gardens, living rooms and kitchens, our folk art and our way of life, our custom cabinetry and clawfoot tubbery. Tucson as a happening, not a mere place.
Santa Fe doesn't have to imagine such a book. Santa Fe Style, written by Santa Feans Christine Mather and Sharon Woods, was published in 1986 at the handsome price of $35, and I admit I have a copy of it on what passes for a coffee table at my house. Every day I gingerly finger the plates of glossy color photos, as if by touching the paper I can stroke the exquisite old adobe houses, now owned by designers and gallery proprietors, featured between its elegant covers. Don't get me wrong: this is a nice book. The text is instructive regarding the evolution of Santa Fe style architecture and interior decor, and the production of the book is bold, colorful and polished. But something about it rubs me the wrong way.
Santa Fe Style treats us to a look at lots of things most of us will never have; in fact, one wonders why these Santa Feans have them. What, for example, are all those eighteenth-century santo figures doing in these people's kitchen cupboards? Why aren't they in religious households, churches and museums where they belong? Another funny thing about Santa Fe Style is its emphatic use of Spanish descriptors, as if saying a word in Spanish somehow renders a thing more exotic. Thus, cupboards become trasteros and niches (where they store their eighteenth-century santos) become nichos, and so on. Perhaps to someone who doesn't live in the Southwest and is unaccustomed to the peculiar mix of languages spoken here (English peppered with Spanish and Spanish seasoned with English), the Spanish words may seem exotic, and the translations endlessly provided may indeed be necessary. But for anyone whose life is truly a part of this region, the emphasis on explaining Spanish words is cumbersome.
Santa Fe Style masquerades as the real thing. But like the religious artifact in the trastero transformed into a coflector's item, the Santa Fe of the book is an emasculated version of the genuine article. The very self-consciousness that led to its writing detracts from the virtues it tries to put across. Santa Fe Style homes are more-Southwestern-than-thou, a glorified, interpreted vision (and, let it be said, an Anglo vision) of what adobe living ought to be like. The homes and lives portrayed in this book, which seeks to define an organic Santa Fe style, are calculated, tailored, designed. Quite unlike the reality of original adobe builders who, in an effort to put a roof over their heads, simply grabbed shovelfuls of the closest substance at hand–mud. Far from being a chosen way of structuring one's life, adobe building was a way of making do with what was there. It was messy, not trendy. The Real Thing was the antithesis of the honed and sculpted existence touted in Santa Fe Style.
So what if they have beautiful historic street names like "Acequia Madre" and the pictures of bewreathed Santa Fe adobes in the snow at Christmastime are so lovely it makes you ache?
3:30. I glance out the window of my downtown Tucson office. Not a glamorous view, but even from here one can see the dark blue Catalinas sulk beneath a sky full of thunderheads. Billowy, pregnant clouds: it's going to rain. Summertime in Tucson. Think I'll stand outside in the rain when I get home.
If cities were music, Santa Fe might be a Sax quartet; Tucson would be C&W or maybe "chicken scratch." If cities were clothes, Santa Fe would be designer jeans and cashmere pullovers; Tucson would be button-up Levis and cotton T-shirts. Tucson Style is West 22nd Street and North Oracle Road, Pat's Chili Dogs, Frank's Place, Bobo's, Peppy Lou's, El Torero and the Crossroads. It is motor hotels of a dubious graciousness on (the former) North Miracle Mile Road, and trailer parks near posh new resorts.
Tucson style is, for better or worse, Chevron stations that look like Chevron stations, not like Spanish Colonial ranchitos. This is a place where chain link and corrugated metal fences are at least equal in number to tastefully stuccoed adobe walls, and pickups and old Cheyys are parked in driveways and rotting in front yards. In Tucson, the frame-and-stucco subdivision reigns supreme. It is not exactly unheard of to see Lyreen Pravel in people's front yards, or shrines made of beer cans and Christmas tree lights. Tucson style is San Xavier1 being used by real people as a real parish church, not a museum. On Saturday nights, Tucson style centers around South 4th Avenue for a combo plate at one of a handful of Mexican restaurants, where you almost certainly will not bump into Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange, and the music you hear will be mariachi, not jazz.
If I were to write Tucson Style, I would write about the old De Grazia plaza at Prince and Campbell, now demolished to make way for a gas station, and the Pioneer Paint bucket sign off West Congress, and colored lights on the patio of Caruso's restaurant. I would tell people about the circle dance at the close of the Tucson Meet Yourself festival and the Scott Avenue Street Dance, and the Joaquin Brothers band playing Tohono O'odham waila music at the Fiesta de San Agustín, and the New Loft theater with its two rows of really good seats. I would write about the Watermelon Man on Fourth Avenue and the folklorist, Big Jim Griffith. And yes, I would write about the old adobes, the few that are left.
Admittedly, there is a creeping Santa Feism afoot. Real estate ads proudly proclaim the sale of "authentic Santa Fe" homes. True to our essential Tucson style, these "authentic" Santa Fe-style homes are generally constructed of gunite and chicken wire, Tucson's faux adobe. Fake adobe pretending to be Santa Fe adobe pretending to be Pueblo adobe. There's nothing wrong with a frame-and-stucco house–building with adobe is a lot more expensive–but there's no need to consciously imitate Santa Fe either.
Our desire to remain "authentic" is so strong here that true natives enjoy the status of demigods. Those fortunates who went to high school here claim semi-native status and relative newcomers avoid the topic of origin altogether. In inimitable Tucson style, natives and semi-natives playfully flaunt their privileged status with stickers on the bumpers of their trucks. This nativity contest doesn't happen everywhere–ever seen a Native Cornhusker sticker? Such determined attempts to seem authentic and genuine fly in the face of what Tucson style traditionally has been: unselfconscious, unlovely and unadulterated.
Driving west on St. Mary's Road at sunset. I pull down the visor, wear dark mirrored glasses, and still I must drive with one band raised to block the rays. The omnipotent summer sun obliterates all vision, removing the perception of anything but oneself and the swollen, beating monster in the sky. With relief I pull into the Safeway parking lot and enter the store's frigid domain, to emerge ten minutes later into the welcoming dark. The monster has been vanquished. Evening in Tucson. Paradise has descended upon the valley.
A few years ago a friend of mine was chagrined to see a review of Santa Fe Style in an issue of Arizona Highways. Since when is Santa Fe in Arizona? Why do we look elsewwhere to define our style whe we've got the Funk DeLuxe right here at home?
  1. Mission San Xavier del Bac still serves the Native American conimunity for which it was established in 1700. The present baroque structure was begun in 1783 and is perhaps the most elaborate example of Spanish colonial architecture in the American Southwest.