Santa Fe proudly boasts its Pueblo-style architecture, : which consists of flat roofs and dammed canales

We bypassed Albuquerque and drove another hour to Santa Fe, the city that calls itself "different."

It is different.

While most American towns and cities have escaped from decayed downtowns along strips of motels, fast-food stands and mimi-shopping centers, Santa Fe has preserved its historic core.

It gives the illusion of living in its past by re-creating its past in fantasied form. At its historic center, every major building, no doubt by law, is in the brown adobe architectural style of the Pueblo Indians.

Three- and four-story hotels all conform to the characteristic look of the pueblos--like boxes piled one on another. Timbers emerge from the plaster like the ends of telephone poles. The ultimate touch is an occasional rough-hewn ladder climbing from one rooftop to another, as if there were no stairways indoors.

We stayed in The Inn at Loretto, an enormous example of this pueblo style, only a block from the old plaza.

In the morning we walked to the plaza. Santa Fe is 7,000 feet high. The temperature was below 40 degrees. I had no sweater to wear under my jacket. A chill wind came down from the snowy mountains to make it even colder. We took refuge in a Woolworth's on the plaza, and had a cup of Sanka at the counter. Nothing historic or romantic about that.

We warmed ourselves on benches in the sun. The plaza is old. It is the western end of the old Santa Fe Trail, much memorialized in Western movies. Santa Fe was founded by one of the conquistadors in 1610--before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. It has been the capital of one power or another for 376 years, and remains the capital of New Mexico today.

The ancient Palace of the Governors faces the plaza on the north--the oldest public building in America. Its overhanging roof shades the broad sidewalk. Here, all along its length, Indians sat behind jewelry and other artifacts laid out neatly on cloths or blankets. The Indians sat backs against the wall, wrapped in robes or ponchos.

"See," I told my wife, "even the Indians are cold."

I was drawn to St. Francis Cathedral, a block east of the plaza, partly because its facade was starkly Romanesque. I was relieved that it had not been plastered over with adobe, to match the prevailing style. It had been built in 1869 by Bishop Juan Baptiste Lamy, the title character of Willa Cather's novel "Death Comes for the Archbishop." I had been obliged to read that book for American literature in high school, and while I couldn't remember much about the old chap, I was pleased to see this church he had built to preserve Christianity in this outpost of the Western world.

Nearby we entered another stylistically anomalous building, the small gothic Loretto Chapel, a copy of Sainte-Chappelle in Paris. It has a curious interior feature--a spiral stairway of 33 steps that rises to the choir loft without support of any kind but wooden pegs. It is known as "The Miracle Staircase," or, if you don't believe in miracles, "The Inexplicable Stairs."

The story is that the chapel was built by Mexican carpenters (1773-1778) for the intrepid Sisters of Loretto, who had come out from Kentucky 21 years earlier by wagon train.

But the architect forgot to put in a stairway from the chapel to the loft. It was too late. It could not be done without taking up too much room. They would have to use a ladder. Disappointed but undismayed, the sisters prayed to St. Joseph.

Now get this. One day an itinerant gray-haired carpenter came along on a donkey. He told the sisters he had heard they needed a stairway. He went to work. All he had was a saw, a T-square and a hammer. In time the staircase was finished. The carpenter disappeared. The sisters couldn't even pay him. He never came back. Now you can make of that what you like. Some of the sisters think it was St. Joseph himself. I say why stop with St. Joseph. Anyway, to paraphrase Richard Nixon's observation on the Chinese Wall, it's a great staircase.

We also saw the nation's oldest house--built by the Indians more than 800 years ago. What remains are two or three small adobe and stone rooms whose only modernization has been the insertion of a window. It looked authentic.

At the hotel I happened to read an article by David Tijeras in New Mexico magazine on the New Mexican obsession with Pueblo-style architecture.

He noted that the main feature of the style is the flat roof, which tends to catch water. So they build parapets around the roofs to contain the water and then insert short narrow canals ( canales ), to drain it off. The trouble with that, he said, is that leaves and gum wrappers and other kinds of debris clog up the canales , and the roof leaks.

"This combination of parapets and dammed canales (as in 'I oughta clean them dammed canales ') explains why there are more roofers per capita in New Mexico than in other Southwestern state. And more wet beds, too."

But Tijeras is a true New Mexican. In a footnote the magazine says: "Tijeras lives and writes in the mountains east of Albuquerque, in a flat-roofed custom solar adobe that he designed and built before he knew better. He is not an architect."

What New Mexico architecture needs is for that fellow on the donkey to come back.

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