Santa Fe’s newest oldest house

By Paul Weideman at the Santa Fe New Mexican

The building at 215 E. De Vargas St., famously named “the oldest inhabited home in the U.S.” by Harper’s Weekly in 1879, may not even be the oldest in Santa Fe. Tree-ring testing appears to confirm the greater antiquity of the Arthur Boyle House, 650 feet east of the “Oldest House.” Previously, the Boyle House was only labeled as pre-1766, because it shows up on the Urrutia Map drawn in that year. A closer focus on the issue was provided by applications of dendrochronology, the process of dating a timber by examining its growth rings in a cross section or core sample. According to tested cores from the vigas in the “Oldest House,” the roof members came from trees that were cut between 1740 and 1767. Recent dendro-testing of pine vigas from the Boyle House indicates cut dates in the late 1720s.

Dating a building using this testing strategy is not cut and dried. For one thing, the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona can only tell you when a tree’s life began and ended. A timber may have been cut for an adobe house that was later abandoned, and then the wood may have been recycled for use in a new house. “That’s true, but this is a pretty tight package at the Boyle House — they’re all within a short period of time,” said archaeologist Tom Windes, who was hired to take the samples. “So I don’t think there’s a question that the date pretty much reflects the construction period.”

Another difficulty is that vigas and other timbers were typically debarked using steel tools, often also removing some of the outer (most recent) growth rings. But the preponderance of samples — 16 were taken — plus the existence of a few that still had some bark “helps solidify the dates,” Windes said.

Another challenge relates to a chief characteristic of dendrochronology in the Southwest — it relies on droughts. “Each area is somewhat unique. I think the lab has a curve for Santa Fe. If you get enough dates out of an area, you can find the nuances of years reflecting drought.” When there is lots of rainfall, the rings are fat. In drought times, they are narrow — and sometimes, if it’s a really bad drought year, the tree won’t even put on a ring. That can mess with dating.”
So what’s the chance of the Boyle House being the oldest European-built dwelling in the country? Well, the oldest house in St. Augustine, Florida, a city that was founded about 45 years before Santa Fe, also dates to the early 1700s. And in the state of Virginia, there are several contenders for the “oldest house” title. But can any of those boast more than anecdotal dating, for example, by means of tree-ring analysis?

The Boyle House is fascinating to walk through, not just for its antiquity — the stories in these walls! — but for the eclectic conglomeration of details, such as hand-planed boards and square nails; venerable vigas supporting the rough, split-cedar roofing members known as rajas (slices) and the presence in adjacent rooms of more delicate beaded beams; walls that are in some places more than 4 feet thick; and Territorial-style details such as a long rear portal and a bay window at the back of the house. It’s like a riddle, walking through and trying to figure out what’s original and what came later.

David Rasch, director of Santa Fe’s Historic Preservation Division, said one of the house’s portales — the one shading the east facade with its distinctive pointed entry door — was constructed for the 1912 New-Old Santa Fe exhibition at the Palace of the Governors, and then taken down and rebuilt here.

Scott and Cornelia Tobey, who purchased the house last summer, are big fans of historic buildings and of historic preservation. “We came here looking for an old house with lots of character,” Scott said. When he pointed out some old, square nails in the floorboards, he launched into observations that evidenced their enthusiasm for such things: “The early square nails were from a single rod, and you had to hammer each individual nail, then later they took sheets and they would snap them off; those are called cut nails. When the railroad came [in 1880], they started bringing cut nails from the East, but before that they had to use hand-made nails.”

The Tobeys bought the property from the Hunker family, who had owned it for several decades. But the ownership story can be traced back to the early 1800s, when the house and outlying lands constituted the rancho of Salvador Martín, according to the book Old Santa Fe Today. Martín conveyed the property to Antonio de Jesús Ortíz, who bequeathed the property to his daughter, Ana María. In 1863, she sold it (for $315) to the Very Rev. Peter Eguillon, Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy’s vicar general, who had brought the Christian Brothers to Santa Fe from France and helped found St. Michael’s College. A record of the property on file at the Historic Santa Fe Foundation describes it at the time of that sale as “measuring 210 Castilian varas, with boundaries on the east by lands of Mauricio Duran, on the west by a path leading to the San Miguel cemetery, on the north by the river of this city, and on the south by the properties of E. Vigil and Miquela Baca.”
In 1867, the Catholic Church conveyed the property to Morris Bloomfield and Col. Herbert M. Enos of the quartermaster corps. Seven years later, Bloomfield sold his interest to telegraph operator Joseph Gough and his wife. During the 1880s and 1890s, one room in the house served as a Western Union office, although if Gough was involved in that enterprise, it was probably just for a short time, because he and his wife sold their interest in the property to Arthur Boyle in 1881.

Boyle, born in England, had been employed as a sheepman in Australia and served as secretary to Sir Charles Brooke, second white rajah of Sarawak before marrying Blanche Blackmore and emigrating to the United States. For a time, Boyle managed the very large Colorado and New Mexico land grants owned by Blanche’s brother, William Blackmore, but in 1877 the Boyles moved to Santa Fe. A story about the economic opportunites of railroading in the March 7, 1884, New Mexican referred to Arthur Boyle as secretary of the Santa Fe Board of Trade. By 1886 he was a founder of the New Mexico Horticulture Society. The famed Boyle business Clarendon Gardens began furnishing the city with cut flowers in 1887.

The property, which had been split, was again joined in 1889 when the Enos family conveyed its half to Blanche Blackmore Boyle. There are plenty of stories in which visitors or newcomers to Santa Fe bemoaned and even besmirched the town’s “mud huts,” but Blanche loved her ancient adobe. A 1986 story in the Albuquerque Journal said she wrote about the house in a paper for a literary group called the Fifteen Club. At one point, she recalled a roof job during which “we found a layer of mud 3 feet thick in places and took off tons of it, leaving enough, however, to preserve the great comfort of these roofs, namely their coolness in summer and warmth in winter.”
There is still dirt on the roof, according to the Tobeys.

The house has been changed and expanded over the centuries. Two changes from fairly recent times were the addition of the northern tier of rooms during the late Territorial period (1880-1912) and a few “Santa Fe Style” alterations by builder Kate Chapman in about 1915.

The Boyle’s nursery operation, Clarendon Gardens, was extensive and long-lasting, but Arthur and Blanche didn’t restrict themselves to flowers. An item in the local paper on Nov. 3, 1898, reported that Las Vegas grocers were in Santa Fe bargaining for two carloads of fruit, including apples, pears, and peaches from Arthur Boyle and other fruit raisers.

Arthur Boyle died in 1910, after which his son, Van Der Vere Boyle (who changed his name to Robert V. Boyle), took over the greenhouses and ran them with his wife, Elsie. The couple also opened a florist shop next to the Guarantee Shoe Store on the east side of the Plaza. In 1942, the newspaper called the Boyle greenhouses west of the house “the largest and best equipped in New Mexico, having a surface area at over 38,000 feet of glass.”

Those awesome glazed expanses posed special problems for youngsters always interested in strengthening their arms and their aim. “I remember, as a kid, that whole area where El Castillo retirement home is now was nothing but greenhouses,” lifelong Santa Fe resident Joe Valdes told me for another story in 2004. “I wouldn’t ever dare throw rocks because, even though I’m left-handed, I’d hit something, there was so much glass there.”

Valdes remembered the flower shop on the Plaza. That changed, too, in time. After Robert V. Boyle’s death in 1946, Elsie Boyle leased the business to horticulturist John Stuppy, and when his wife’s sister, Florence May, joined the firm, it became Stuppy-May Flowers. That business, which was located next to Sears on Lincoln Avenue, flourished into the late 1950s.

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