Adobe, a link to the land

Mixing and applying mud plaster to adobe brick is more than a skill; it's a tangible reconnection to the land – and the past.

One by one the landmarks have disappeared from the old Plaza.... Its glory is departed with its departed people.

– Lillian Whaley, Old Town San Diego pioneer, 1893.

Shadows climb up the whitewashed wall as the sun passes slowly overhead. Another day draws to a close as I clean the mud off my tools and assemble them in the wheelbarrow. In the rear courtyard garden, branches of the many trees hang like skeletons in the gathering darkness. It's eerily beautiful.

For the past eight months, I have been repairing the Casa de Estudillo, a historic landmark in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. As the park historian, I had taken several adobe workshops and wanted to apply, hands-on, the skills of a dying craft.

This single-story, U-shaped casa, which was built from 1827 to 1829 by José Maria Estudillo and, later, his son, Lt. José Antonio Estudillo, is perhaps the finest example of a Spanish-Mexican adobe town house in California. And it is massive: 113 feet long on the front facing the plaza and 98 feet long on the adjoining sides. The adobe brick walls are from two to four feet thick. The large recessed windows have hand-hewn wood bars and lintels.

The clay-tile roofs, cupola, verandas, and extending wing walls are a testament to a time gone by when Mexico ruled the tiny pueblo by the San Diego River.

In this semiarid, largely treeless environment, adobe was the principal building material. The river and sloughs provided ample clay, sand, silt, and shells. Thick adobe walls kept homes cool in the summer and relatively warm in the winter.

In my work rituals, I follow the old ways. Every month, I mix sand (40 to 45 percent) and clay (30 percent) with silt, stable straw, and broken shells, and then add water. The adobe is kneaded by hand until it is doughlike and then it's tamped into wooden molds that are 16-by-8-by-3 inches. The molds are set on their sides to dry in the sun for several weeks and are rotated to prevent the unbaked adobe brick from cracking. Each brick weighs from 20 to 25 pounds.

Moisture, usually caused by stagnant groundwater, is a constant threat to adobe buildings. It causes the adobe to crack and eventually melt or crumble. After a rain shower last December, a large chunk of adobe, roughly 2 by 3 feet and 6 inches deep, broke off from the front facade near the main entrance of Casa de Estudillo. The gaping hole had to be carefully chiseled to square it, and then the bricks sawed to size and set in mud mortar.

Mixing and applying mud plaster to the adobe brick is more than a skill; it's a tangible reconnection to the land. The worker becomes one with the elements. I know the ritual well, arching my back as I flatten the hard clay into dust with a shovel or bending over a wheelbarrow to mix the water, clay, sand, and fibers of dried donkey dung into a mudlike paste. The extra sand prevents the plaster from cracking as it dries.

The air is rife with smells. Mud seeps into my pores. My body works in tandem with nature, speeding up, slowing down, glistening with sweat. Everything is recycled, moving from the earth to the building and back to the earth.

Applying layers of mud plaster, no thicker than a half inch each, is an art comparable with sculpture. The tools include a square metal tray with a handle, called a hawk, to carry the mud; a long wood trowel called a float; brushes; a sponge; and plenty of water.

Each worker has a different technique. After soaking the area with a sponge, I slap the plaster on the wall by hand and then brush it into the adobe with a paintbrush, starting at the top and working down. I rewet the surface and then move a wet float up, down, and across the wall to give the finish an even, textured look.

Part of the allure of working with adobe is discovering the unexpected: a pottery shard, an abandoned bird's nest, a child's clay marble. To rub the sand, clay, rock, and shell fragments and to see the layers of mottled colors is to connect with a buried, forgotten past. I always leave these where they were.

Why do I do it? What is it about the building? Is it the venerable casa's fading beauty amid a sprawl of modernity? It's a combination of little things layered like the earth's strata in yesteryear's memories. I remember slapping mud plaster on the fretwork of a rear wall one evening. Suspended 12 feet above on a ladder, I worked without a headlamp as I filled broken crevices with adobe mud.

The whitewashed wall was bathed in a flood of moonlight. I felt a connection not only to this relic of a house, but with the entire universe.

In my mind, I can still see everything: the silhouette of bushes below, the uneven folds in the clay-tile rooftop, and a sky bright with moonlight.

I remember another time – 7 a.m. The sun had just peeked over the empty plaza. As I walked through the park, the cold, gray air clung to the silent, shadow-lined buildings. Nothing stirred. An hour later, I was again working on the rear fretwork. As water soaked into the adobe, beetles, ants, spiders, and other insects poured out in streams. The overhanging ledge became their highway of escape until several big blue jays swooped down like dive bombers, picking them off one by one.

On another evening, I returned to the garden, whose mission-style adobe walls shelter it on three sides. It was private, empty – subdued in the fading light.

The old adobe stands, much as it has for 178 years, a living reminder of an earlier, simpler time. Its glory has not departed.

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