I’ve been going to Canyon Road since my childhood, when my Aunt Margaret led me there on a wintry Christmas Eve to view the farolitos and visit with one of her Santa Fe neighbors. I love it still – the galleries, the sculpture, the narrow street, the restaurants and patios. I love the general feel of Santa Fe history mixed with the excitement of creativity.
But I never took the time to learn the history of Canyon Road. Quite a confession from someone with a history degree, but I unjustly assumed it had always been sort of a chichi fancy little street in Santa Fe where the artists hung out.
It’s actually quite the opposite. I found that some of the oldest houses on Canyon Road date back to the 1750s. Mere blocks from the city’s center at the Santa Fe Plaza, Canyon Road was a tiny rural neighborhood built on the south banks of the Santa Fe River along an old Indian trail that led to the Sangre de Cristos. Every house was part of a family farm where corn, wheat and vegetables were raised on patches of ground near the river. So pastoral that it was unusual not to see sheep being herded up Canyon Road to higher pastures.
Canyon Road was the road that led to the mountains – It wasn’t out of the ordinary to see a burro led up the road to the mountains by a smart local planning to cut and sell firewood in Burro Alley. After the US Army arrived in 1846, a sawmill was built in the canyon and the wood from it carted down the road into down to build Ft. Marcy. Canyon Road has seen some varied history, from Spanish settlement to Mexican independence to U.S. takeover.
And then the artists came.
Drawn here for various reason, the first artists showed up as early as 1904 looking for a tuberculosis cure in the high desert air and sun-filled days that are Santa Fe trademarks. You can find an exhaustive history of Canyon Road and the Santa Fe Arts Colony here. Be sure to read the hilarious story of Los Cinco Pintores (the five painters) attempting to build their own adobe homes on land near artist W.P. Henderson’s atudio – they were artists, not builders. . .and you know how mud behaves. . .
The artists in turn attracted a vibrant, interesting and varied stream of houseguests that included folks like Robert Frost, Mary Austin, Mabel Dodge Luhan and Tony, Willa Cather, Thornton Wilder, Edna Ferber, Ernest Block and Martha Graham. I’m pretty sure we need an entirely separate post just to talk about the list of artists that showed up on Canyon Road in the 20th century.
At the end of WWII, Canyon Road was still a rural neighborhood, but now descendants of the original families lived side by side with an avant garde group of writers, musicians and artists, many from the East Coast and trained in Europe. Houses that had been in Spanish families for generations stood next door to houses filled with people like Will Shuster.
For example, typical of Spanish families, Geronimo Lopez bought a farm on Canyon Road in 1753. Within a few years, he had purchased more land, another house, 14 trees, crops, pastures, field. . .The Geronimo Lopez house is now the home of Geronimo Restaurant at 724 Canyon Road.
And then there’s El Farol, one of my personal favorites. Considered possibly the city’s oldest restaurant and bar, El Farol has been in business since the 1830s. Every time I go there, I have to take a minute to admire the murals.
I recently learned that the first artist to paint one was Alfred Morang. Already an established artist when he found El Farol, Morang painted my favorite (on the west wall of the bar) and the one behind the bar sometime between 1948 and 1952. His reason? To settle his tab. I love that story – sometimes when it’s time to leave El Farol, I wish I could come up with a trade. . .
Today Canyon Road is no less entertaining or interesting than it was in the early 1900s or in the 50s and 60s. One of my favorite galleries is the Waxlander, home of the founding and featured artist, the amazing Phyllis Kapp.
I love color, and I love the Southwest, and I think Phyllis is, to borrow a phrase from the website, “the Southwest’s most delightful watercolorist.” She says she loves to play when she paints, and she loves to make people laugh.
The Waxlander sits back from the street, fronted by a sculpture garden that invites you to sit for a while after that margarita you just enjoyed at El Farol. It’s a beautiful gallery, home to more than thirty artists. I’m going to take a minute and write a longer blog post about the gallery in a couple of weeks, but while I’m writing about Canyon Road, I have to give you one fabulous gallery to visit. This is it.
Canyon Road. Home to bonfires and farolitos on Christmas Eve. Home to El Farol. Home to the Waxlander Gallery. But more than that, home to a history that’s rich, at times very funny, and totally Santa Fe. I can’t wait to go back.
And of course when I do, I’ll stay in one of Wendy’s homes at Two Casitas Santa Fe Vacation Rentals. She has several that are a short walk from Canyon Road – the perfect location for me. . . and for you, if you’re wanting to explore!