Magazine article National Parks

Like a Good Neighbor

Magazine article National Parks

Like a Good Neighbor

Article excerpt

The Park Service teams up with its Mexican counterparts and the University of Arizona to master the intricacies of adobe preservation.

In 1691, a priest named Father Kino visited a village in modern-day Arizona, home to Native Americans known as the Tohono O'odham or "desert people." As one of many priests charged with increasing Spain's reach in the New World, Father Kino established the first Spanish Mission in the area, which would be called Tumacácori (Too-muh-KUH-ko-ree). Here, the Catholic Church taught native people new farming methods, a new religion, a new language, and eventually a new way of building structures-with adobe bricks.

Earthen building techniques had been used to create structures long before the arrival of the Spanish (think Casa Grande), but by pouring mud into forms to create bricks, builders could create more permanent, varied structures. Beginning in 1800, Tumacácori's community devoted nearly 25 years to building the church that stands today, and forms the heart of a national historical park.

But nearly 200 years after Father Kino's arrival, the Park Service was struggling to maintain the buildings. Although adobe is still used to build homes throughout Latin America, China, and Africa, adobe construction in America has nearly vanished in favor of cement, drywall, and two-by-fours.

"Traditional crafts in Mexico have more longevity than in the United States," says Jeremy Moss, an archaeologist who worked at Tumacácori for nine years, before becoming the chief of cultural resources at Pecos National Historical Park in New Mexico. "In Mexico and in some places in the American Southwest, that knowledge is still in the family and it's a part of growing up; many Mexican families have an adobe building and know all its properties, and understand how to keep it up; in the United States, few people have those skills." And that makes it hard to find workers who can care for sites like Pecos and Tumacácori.

To bridge that gap, the Park Service has teamed up with Mexico's Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, the University of Arizona, and New Mexico's Cornerstones Community Partnerships to share best practices and ensure that these structures remain in place for the next century. At the center of this partnership is a series of workshops that bring Mexican and American master teachers and participants together to discuss the technical aspects of adobe construction, preservation and restoration, in English and Spanish, for experts and novices alike. So far, more than 50 Park Service employees from 15 Southwestern park units have participated; the next workshop will be offered in, Alamos, Mexico, in March.

One of the most efficient, inexpensive, and widely available building materials, adobe is essentially dirt (containing clay) and water combined with sand (and sometimes straw) that acts as a binder. The mixture is put into molds while still wet; once dry, the components form a porous brick that absorbs water in the atmosphere. But if the adobe stays wet for too long, the clay-sand bond starts to break down, and the walls of a building deteriorate, or "pooch out" and eventually fail.

From the 1930s to the 1970s, many caretakers of historic sites in the United States encased adobe structures in cement, which trapped moisture, slowly destroying the adobe bricks beneath, and eventually turning them into heaps of dry powder. …

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