Jane Jeffries visits the town that decided to put itself on the map with unique, unified architecture.

After an indulgent week of art and architecture in the quirky town of Santa Fe, the state capital of New Mexico, I was sadly checking out of the La Fonda Hotel on the Plaza.

As I waited at reception for my bill to print I noticed a plaque on the wall dedicated to Sam and Ethel Ballen who had owned the hotel for 39 years. Alongside the photo of this elderly couple, with lined, beaming faces, were these words: "They loved their life, their family, their friends and Santa Fe. They were dedicated to the historical integrity of La Fonda ... they lived with zest, traveled with inquisitiveness and left La Fonda, Santa Fe and the world a better place."

Landscape of Santa Fe New Mexico at dusk with warm colored trees and moon in sky. Photo / Getty Images
Landscape of Santa Fe New Mexico at dusk with warm colored trees and moon in sky. Photo / Getty Images

This testament to Sam and Ethel's dedication to Santa Fe summed up the sentiment I felt for the place.

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With a population of only 80,000, Santa Fe is dedicated to preserving its essence — art and architecture. And it's this spirit that was recently recognised and won Santa Fe the Conde Nast title, "best small city in America".

This passion and determination to create a unique town with a strong culture started a long time ago. In the early 1900s, the people of Santa Fe were envious of the town of Taos in the north, where the economy was booming, fuelled by painters who had discovered the southwestern landscape and came in droves to capture the desert terrain.

By contrast, Santa Fe had little going for it. The eclectic nature of its buildings made the town look like any other American settlement. But when the city folk realised the traditional pueblo architecture of the Native Americans attracted tourists they bravely imposed a unified building style modelled on the local Indian pueblo. A hundred years on, Santa Fe is famous for its architecture, a style commonly referred to as adobe.

The thick rounded walls constructed from the sundried bricks, made from earth, straw and water, make adobe houses and buildings easy to identify. They provide good insulation in the winter and summer and typically have small windows. The door surrounds are often painted blue to ward off evil spirits, so the myth goes.

The artists eventually moved south, discovering the beauty of the Santa Fe landscape and the quality of light, high in the desert. In the 1920s five impoverished artists named the "los cincos pintores" moved into the ruins of old adobe houses in Canyon Road. From here, the art scene has grown to the point it dominates the town, now the third largest art market in America after New York and Los Angeles.

Street art in Santa Fe. Photo / Paul Sableman / Creative Commons License
Street art in Santa Fe. Photo / Paul Sableman / Creative Commons License

The quaint and narrow Canyon Road oozes art with more than 120 galleries and many magnificent sculptures. Just walking up the road is an exhibition in itself before stepping into any of the galleries. This is true of the whole town.

The Museum of Fine Arts is one of many museums in the town and was the first significant structure built in the Pueblo revival style in 1917.

It's small but the collections and pieces are extraordinary including the works of Judy Chicago, exhibiting at the time I visited.

The sophistication of this unique art and architectural scene has attracted a certain sort of person to the town and not unsurprisingly a vibrant restaurant scene has grown to nourish its residents and tourists.

For a relatively small town it has many fine dining establishments.

Another beautiful adobe museum is the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, well worth visiting.

Originally from Wisconsin, O'Keeffe was committed to creating an identifiable American modernism, distinct from European traditions.

She fell in love with the geography of the southwest in New Mexico and returned for many summers to paint.

She was particularly drawn to the barren but brightly coloured red and yellow mountains and cliffs of the Ghost Ranch area with its flat-topped mountain, Cerro Pedernal. O'Keefe lived there for many years before moving to Santa Fe in 1984, where she died at the age of 98.

American artist Georgia O'Keeffe (1887 - 1986) poses outdoors beside an easel with a canvas from her series, 'Pelvis Series Red With Yellow,' Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1960. Photo / Getty Images
American artist Georgia O'Keeffe (1887 - 1986) poses outdoors beside an easel with a canvas from her series, 'Pelvis Series Red With Yellow,' Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1960. Photo / Getty Images

In 1945, her heyday, she was quoted in the New York World-Telegram saying this about New Mexico, "It's the most wonderful place you can imagine. It's so beautiful there. It's ridiculous."

For any art lovers, this town is to be slowly devoured. Do not rush, for it must be savoured. It's complex and each piece of art and each building has a story to tell.

Must-do list for visitors to Santa Fe

1. Visit Canyon Road, starting at the bottom and meander up, stopping for lunch at The Compound Restaurant.

2. Go to the Georgia O'Keefe Museum and take the time to watch the video about her life.

3. Across the road from the Plaza is the Museum of Art — a fine example of adobe architecture.

4. San Miguel Chapel was built between 1610 and 1626 and is claimed to be the oldest church in the United States.

5. Don't leave Santa Fe without eating at La Boca. Chef James Campbell Caruso has mastered modern Spanish tapas.

6. Learn about the "miracle" at the Chapel of Loretta.

7. Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis is an anomaly built 1869 — 1887 in the French Romanesque style among all the adobe churches.

8. Visit the roof top bar La Fonda, have a margarita and watch the sunset.

9. Go on a day trip to Taos and visit the oldest inhabited native American Pueblos.

10. Sit in the Plaza and enjoy the moment.

Checklist

GETTING THERE

Air New Zealand flies twice daily to Los Angeles from Auckland. Domestic US carriers continuing onto Santa Fe.

The best way to get around New Mexico is by car as there are other great towns to see. ACCOMMODATION
The historic Al Fonda Hotel on the Plaza is in the heart of the city.