Living with antiques: The Juan Jose Prada house

July 2009 | Santa Fe is known for its earthy elegance and a carefully tended exoticism. Few people have contributed more visibly to its artistic ambience in recent decades than Nedra Matteucci and her husband, Richard. Their deep affection for the heritage of their home state has resulted in a choice private collection of New Mexican art and antiques formed over thirty-five years. Accented with treasures from Latin America and Italy, the trove fills the couple’s two houses, in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, and spills into Nedra’s three richly eclectic, always welcoming Santa Fe art galleries and sculpture gardens.

Called the Juan José Prada house, the Matteuccis’ Santa Fe residence, named to the State Register of Cultural Properties in 1972, illustrates the city’s transition over four centuries from outpost of the Spanish crown to United States territory, state, painters’ colony, and art market hub.

Secreted behind a walled garden on Canyon Road, a street transformed in the second half of the twentieth century from a sleepy residential enclave to a bustling gallery district, the Prada house began as a collection of rustic, single-story buildings, and evolved over time into a rambling one-bedroom residence with an attached guesthouse and adjacent barn (see Figs. 1–3).1 The house itself is named for Juan José Prada, its first officially recorded resident and a descendant of a Mexican soldier who served in the Spanish Army in Santa Fe.

As Santa Fe’s reputation as an art colony grew in the 1910s, it attracted wealthy visitors charmed by its high desert climate and cultural diversity. Two visitors, Margretta Stewart Dietrich, the widow of Nebraska governor and United States Senator Charles Henry Dietrich (1853–1924), and her sister Dorothy Newkirk Stewart, an artist who trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, succeeded the Prada family. Dietrich amassed the land and structures that formed the compound between 1925 and 1934.

In her 1961 memoir, Dietrich described visiting the city for the first time in 1921: “We arrived in Santa Fe about noon and had our first meal at the Blue Parrot, run by two delightful women in a lovely old house at the corner of Palace Avenue and Burro Alley, where the Bokum Building now stands. The house had many patios, with sheep in one of them, and the windows were of handblown glass. My sister, Dorothy Stewart, was so enchanted by it that she begged me to buy the whole block, but at that time we were not ready to invest in Santa Fe real estate.”2

The women returned to Santa Fe the following spring. Dietrich initially purchased “a sweet little old adobe house, plastered outside with pinkish mud from La Cienega.”3 After relinquishing it to its indignant tenant, the poet and scholar H. Witter Bynner (1881–1968), who had hoped to buy the house himself, Dietrich moved on to the Prada house. Kate Chapman, the preservation-minded wife of archaeologist and artist Kenneth Milton Chapman (1875–1968), helped oversee the modernization of the house, which had packed earthen floors and thick adobe walls topped with brick coping, a feature associated with New Mexico’s territorial style architecture.

Dietrich describes finding vigas, the rough-hewn ceiling timbers that she installed throughout the house, while horseback riding near Cow Springs Mesa, a trading point southeast of Santa Fe. She writes of adding a bedroom with large plate glass windows for Stewart, who painted a mural inspired by Mexican modernist Diego Rivera in the breezeway (see Fig. 11). After Dietrich’s death, the house belonged to D. D. Van Soelen, a local banker whose father, Theodore Van Soelen (1890–1964), was an accomplished Santa Fe painter of portraits and ranch scenes.

The Matteuccis, who purchased the Prada house in 1990, subtly updated the place while leaving architect Robert Nestor’s mid-1980s restoration intact. In Nestor’s view, the house’s most noteworthy historical element, in addition to its vigas, mural, and brick coping, were seven exterior doors (“entradas y salidas”) and double-hung territorial style windows.4

Set into a stone wall behind the guesthouse (see Fig. 2), a small barn, perhaps the oldest structure on the property, is made of squared-off cedar logs erected vertically and chinked with adobe (see Fig. 3). Archaeological excavations undertaken at the site in 1986 unearthed trash pits dating to the 1880s and later that contained bones of sheep and goats, evidence of farming, as well as fragments of Pueblo pottery.5

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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