Restoring Pueblo Housing and Rebuilding Community Value
It was quiet surrounding the dirt plazas and pueblos of Owe'neh Bupingah in Ohkay Owingeh, New Mexico. Few footprints could be found crossing one end of a plaza to another; wind and time erased evidence of gathering people. Many of the Owe'neh Bupingah pueblos sat vacant, their once fortified mud plaster walls weak from neglect, the hands that built and maintained them for generations long gone. The Okhay Owingeh Pueblo Restoration Project sought to restore traditional housing and rejuvenate a community.
Over the course of the 20th century, the community which once inhabited the pueblos central to this town and its people gradually left the traditional structures as the surrounding area evolved and modernized. The resulting vacancies left the pueblos to slowly decay and crumble, many becoming unsafe and uninhabitable for families.
Further, the few traditional homes that remained occupied in Owe'neh Bupingah suffered another consequence of modernity: Portland cement. This material, an accessible and affordable alternative, holds moisture in the adobe, expediting the process of deterioration.
Ohkay Owingeh is "Place of the Strong People," but by the early 2000s, their strength was no longer reflected in the traditional adobe structures of central Owe'neh Bupingeh. These homes have held space in New Mexico for more than 700 years; their very existence is a testament to the perseverance of a people, and by extension, their cultural identity. Without the labor of care required to maintain the buildings, however, the pueblos were falling apart. If no action was taken, the traditional dwellings of Owe'neh Bupingah could decay past the point of no return.
First known photo of Ohkay Owingeh, taken in 1877 by John K. Hillers. (Courtesy of the National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution [NAA INV 06344100].)
In 2005, a transformation began: first, Ohkay Owingeh shed its colonized former name, San Juan, then tribal officials and the Ohkay Owingeh Housing Authority launched an initiative to revive Owe'neh Bupingah. By this time, the structures were in a state of critical disrepair.
Only 60 of the historic homes remained where hundreds once existed. Many could only be used for tribal members to stay briefly in when attending ceremonies and other gatherings. Even then, safety was an issue and structures were otherwise uninhabitable. Without a focused and aggressive effort to save Owe'neh Bupingah, these homes, considered by tribal members to be as alive as the people who occupy them, could be lost.
The level of need required of the structures made the project extensive. Ohkay Owingeh, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, would need help. The deterioration of both vacated and occupied homes demanded passion and skilled labor, but most importantly, funding. The New Mexico Historic Preservation Division was the first to provide financial support with a $7,500 grant. By 2015, the preservation plan would achieve $9 million in governmental and other funding.
With the collaboration and support of Atkin Olshin Schade Architects, a comprehensive plan to preserve the living culture of Owe'neh Bupingah was coming to fruition. From the early stages of the project, young people and homeowners were welcome to help restore the buildings, learning the vital skill of mud plastering perfected by their ancestors. This achieved an integral aspect of the Owe'neh Bupingah preservation plan: a revitalization of the town's culture and traditions.
In 2013, the project received an APA National Planning Award, recognizing Ohkay Oweingeh as the first Pueblo tribe to develop a comprehensive preseration plan that guides practical housing improvements according to cultural values.
The project also received the National Trust/ACHP Award for Federal Partnerships in Historic Preservation in 2014.
Shawn Evans, architect formerly with Atkin Olshin Schade and now with MASS Design Group, has worked on this project since soon after it began. "We're close to completing Phase 5 of the project, which will bring the total number of homes rehabilitated to 45," says Evans.
"The current phase of work is being funded primarily by the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians (California), which is a wonderful example of inter-tribal collaboration. We're currently pursuing federal HUD funding for two more phases of work, one of which will focus on additional rehab (potentially completing all the historic homes) while the other will focus on constructing new homes where homes once stood in the traditional village."
With many of the pueblos restored and now occupied, Owe'neh Bupingah has experienced a kind of rebirth. The plazas, once quiet and empty, are now filled with children and other community members. By saving the living culture of Ohkay Owingeh, community life has returned to Owe'neh Bupingah. These plazas used to only enjoy the occasional ceremony; now, daily life is celebratory for its people.
Considerations for Your Community
History is all around us. The restoration of a deteriorating structure may impact more than the building itself. By saving Owe'neh Bupingah, Ohkay Owingeh has experienced a cultural revitalization that otherwise may not have occurred. Through the efforts of tribal leaders, elders, homeowners, and preservationists, the historic, living culture of central Ohkay Owingeh has been reborn.
Generous funding from local, state, and federal sources further enabled this revitalization to occur. By working closely with members of the tribal community, project partners made honoring cultural traditions a priority, a sign of respect critical to the residents of Ohkay Owingeh. The outcome is restorative and will positively impact future generations.
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Top Image: View of Bupingeh, the southern Plaza after completion of Phase I and Phase II. Photo by Kate Russell Photography.
About the author
Dina Walters is part of APA's Prioritize Equity team.