The wildly popular "beehive" fireplace made of adobe is one of the central and most engaging symbols of Southwestern architecture around.
Erroneously named “kiva” fireplaces by misinformed tourists, this hooded, squat-bottomed adobe fireplace has a long history in the Southwest and our very own Doña Carmen Romero Velarde, at age 90, is one of the last traditional enjarradoras/women plasterers who created most of the notable adobe fireplaces throughout Taos and in many places around the world.
Throughout her 50-year adobe career, Velarde traveled to Colorado, California and Texas, twice to the Smithsonian, as well as Alaska, Hawaii and Japan, among other places, to build her signature fireplaces and outdoor adobe ovens called hornos. Here in Taos they can be seen in the The Sagebrush Inn & Convention Center, The Taos Inn, The Quality Inn, Inn on the Rio and many, many more.
Through the years, word spread about her style – the addition of shelves, nichos (recessed openings) and even bancos (adobe benches) on the fireplaces became her trademark. She also made retablos and santos – images of saints carved in wood. She sometimes would leave a retablo in a nicho when she was finished, blessing the people and the custom work she created. No two of her fireplaces are alike.
The Adobe Bar at the Historic Taos Inn is so named because of Carmen Velarde’s adobe work. Then owner, the late Feenie Lipscomb, said in a 1988 Harwood Museum dedication speech that Velarde’s suggestion to put exposed adobe bricks on the front of the bar inspired the name, “The Adobe Bar.”
“With the help of her sons Trini and Juan, she put in bancos, nichos and incredible fireplaces throughout the Inn, each one different,” Lipscomb wrote about Velarde’s work. “Some had wood boxes, some were off the floor if space was tight; some were round; some were squarish – all were beautiful. Some had tiers for pots and santos to stand on, like the one in Doc Martin’s Restaurant.”
Born in 1928 in Ranchos de Taos, Velarde was raised by her half-Mescalero Apache and half-Taos Pueblo grandmother and Mexican-European grandfather – Trinidad and Julian Ybarra. Like other Taoseños of those times, the Ybarras used adobe, vigas and latillas in their construction projects. They harvested the materials themselves and made their own bricks and adobe mix.
In the winter they would spin and dye wool with red chili powder, weave with other families and trade for different kinds of wool. With no electricity until 1948, the water came from the well for drinking and the ditch for cleaning.
Anita Rodríguez, a Taos artist and former building contractor, observes online that prior to the turn of the 20th century, “80 percent of religious and secular buildings were adobe. In an infinite variety of strikingly different styles, each earth-building culture developed its own unique architecture, adapted to local climates and available materials, created to accommodate the patterns of that culture’s lifestyle. From subtropical China, to Egypt, to Africa and the Americas, plain dirt – a free, universally available, nonpolluting and climatologically adaptable material – has housed mankind more generously, longer and with more creative originality (because of its infinite plasticity) than any other material.” (Never Say “Kiva” Fireplace, Green Fire Times, July 2018).
She has trained hundreds of men, women and students from middle school to college in the art of building adobe fireplaces and other Southwestern architectural techniques.
Up until she was 88 in 2016, Velarde still helped with the enjarre/mudding of San Francisco de Asís Church in Ranchos de Taos.
Her work has been exhibited all over the country. One of her fireplaces and one of her traditional New Mexican ovens are in the Smithsonian’s permanent exhibit; and in the Smithsonian’s 1992 Festival of American Folklife she was recognized for “exceptional contributions to the increase and diffusion of knowledge about cultures and traditions which enrich our nation and the world.”
She has received the Award of Merit in appreciation for her work and the Governor’s Award for Excellence and Achievement in the Arts. She was named Woman of the Year in 1995 by the town of Taos. She is also included in the book “Remarkable Women of Taos,” published in July 2013 by Nighthawk Press.
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