Betty Stewart grew up on a ranch in Harding County, New Mexico. As an adult, she dressed like a cowboy and had a bit of Calamity Jane in her, with her drinking and rowdy drinking bouts. His legacy is that of a contractor who fought the Historic District Review Board (also known as Council H) for the right to build houses with pitched roofs – in defiance of the Ordinance on historic styles, which requires homes in the historic district to have flat roofs. But there is more to Stewart’s story than controversial architectural choices, says his biographer, Mark H. Cross.
A Tale of Santa Fe: Betty Stewart in the Different Town (Caminito Publishing, 238 pages, $ 26.95) is Cross’s first biography. He is also the author of Encyclopedia of Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico (2012). Cross writes that Stewart overcame significant challenges to become a successful builder, famous nationally for his design style. She struggled with Attention Deficit Disorder from childhood and later developed alcoholism. She became sober in 1968 when it began to seriously threaten her health. And Stewart was a lesbian “in a time and place where homosexuality was most often a shameful secret.” Cross calls her ability to forge a fulfilling life in Santa Fe a “tribute to her and her adopted city.”
Cross, 70, heard about the Stewart pitched roof controversy while researching his first book and was delighted with his personal life. The retired New Mexico Legislature proofreader grew up in Virginia and moved to Santa Fe when he was in his 40s, a refugee from mainstream America – that’s how he sees Stewart and many of its contemporary Anglo artists who moved here in the early to mid-20th century. “They were escaping where they came from. They didn’t want to change Santa Fe, ”he says. “They wanted to protect the Hispanic and Indian cultures.
Stewart died of a stroke in 1994, when she was 68 years old. People who knew her say she wasn’t particularly thoughtful, preferring to face what was in front of her, not what was inside of her. She did not write letters or keep a journal. She left no paper. Much of the information that Cross gathered about Stewart came from reports of public meetings and from people who knew her. Her main sources were her brother Pete Stewart’s partner, Douglas Atwill, who remained close to Betty and her mother after Pete died of cancer in 1975 at the age of 46. Other stories have come from Merrily Pierson, Betty’s partner in her last decade. life.
Cross believes that Stewart’s charm and charisma is due to his upbringing in a family who loved him unconditionally. This kind of love (and financial support) spawned insane confidence that attracted others. It may also have empowered her to be true to herself, while many other women were still hiding in the closet. “If you have to realize that you are a lesbian in the 50s and decide to go [your hometown] – it’s not an easy thing to do, ”says Cross. “And she had to stop drinking, and it doesn’t happen on its own. You have to do a lot of work.
During Stewart’s childhood, the family divided their time between Dalhart, Texas, and their ranch in New Mexico, about 80 miles away. Stewart’s father, Victor, sold cars and drank too much. Her mother, Anne Lu, was a Southern Belle from Dalhart. Betty was born in 1925 and her younger brother, Victor, arrived four years later. Betty nicknamed him Pete, who stayed. Betty and Pete loved each other, but they had a somewhat antagonistic competitive relationship their entire lives. After spending time in Santa Fe as a child, Stewart definitely moved here in the 1960s. Pete arrived at the turn of the decade and they got into designing and building homes, although none of them was not a licensed architect. They often worked together on real estate and construction projects, many of which were funded by their mother, who also lived in the city. Although the “Betty Stewart Homes” were known to the world in the 1980s, the open ceilings and sloping roofs that were part of her signature style originate from Pete. According to those close to them, however, Betty took her vision and followed it, becoming the most accomplished designer.
Although pitched roofs existed in the historic Santa Fe district, they predate the 1957 restrictive ordinance that enshrined the Pueblo Revival de Santa Fe architectural style in law. Stewart called her preference for pitched roofs a matter of taste and didn’t think she should have to justify herself when there were already pitched roof homes along Acequia Madre, where she wanted to build. . And sloping roofs are just one marker of a Betty Stewart house. Other aspects of her style are now emulated by contemporary home builders and sought after by those seeking the ‘authentic’ Santa Fe style. Cross writes that “she used natural materials – adobe bricks for them. walls, red bricks for the floors, old hand-hewn beams for the trusses, hand-worked plaster and simple metal light fixtures. It was as if she had studied the rules of Modernism: in her houses, form follows function and materials look like they are.
Cross said he wanted to write a book about a Santa Fe woman who didn’t get her due – and he felt a personal connection to Stewart. “I used to drink too much and smoke too much, like her. And then I stopped doing that, like her, ”he says. “Betty was irrepressible. She was happy. She was in a good mood, but she found it hard to recognize that anyone had authority over her, other than her parents. She wasn’t angry, mad, or hostile. She was just who she was. ◀
Mark. H. Cross reads and signs copies of A Tale of Santa Fe: Betty Stewart in the Different Town at a free event at 5 p.m. on Saturday August 7 at the Travel Bug specialty bookstore and café (839 Paseo de Peralta, 505-992-0418, mapsofnewmexico.com).