The delicate business of restoring a mesa-top city

The mesa reaches upward, the sky downward. And right at the point where they might otherwise touch sits ``Sky City.'' High above the desert some 50 miles west of Albuquerque, Sky City is one of the oldest adobe pueblos in the world. For centuries it has been used as a dwelling place during sacred ceremonials of the Acoma Indians.

Sky City's historical value makes it one of the most vital tribal assets of these Pueblo Indians. Its current state of disrepair also makes it one of the most interesting and challenging long-term projects adobe expert Paul McHenry has ever undertaken.

Years of weathering without regular upkeep have left the tiered, doeskin-colored dwellings with crumbling blocks; rotting beams; and ill-fitting, ill-suited window and door moldings. A few years ago, the New Mexico Historic Preservation office, concerned that the Acomas would lose the historical value of the pueblo, insisted that tribal leaders hire an architect who specializes in historic preservation to assist them in renovating the buildings. Because he is considered one of the world's top experts on earth structures and historical preservation, Mr. McHenry topped the department's list of suggested architects.

With his sons, Jamie and Bruce, and his company's draftsman, Chris Grotbeck, McHenry embarked on what will be a long and detailed project. Funded by grants from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, McHenry's crew is providing a handbook for renovating the entire pueblo. When restoration is finished, the Acomas intend to break with tradition and use some of the units as permanent dwellings.

The preservation effort requires a search for historic photos of the pueblo and a decision as to which of the various styles used over the centuries is most appropriate for the current renovation. It also requires shooting photos of every wall in each unit as it looks today, then developing a restoration plan for each wall. There are 13 blocked-off sections and 10 to 20 dwelling units in each section. McHenry estimates that his team will complete 15 to 25 units a year.

The Acomas were not proud of their need to seek outside advice on the renovation of Sky City. Thus the actual labor is being performed by crews of Acoma Indians, with McHenry's company performing an advisory role.

There have been some disputes to resolve: the style and type of window moldings to use, whether each unit should look identical, and under what conditions McHenry and his crew may photograph the site.

Indian tribes have long considered being photographed a touchy issue. McHenry pays royalties for each photo, then is reimbursed for them. He has been asked to use no camera larger than a 35mm, and not to allow anyone outside his company to take or distribute photos of the project.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to The delicate business of restoring a mesa-top city
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today