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Adobe, a link to the land

Mixing and applying mud plaster to adobe brick is more than a skill; it's a tangible reconnection to the land – and the past.

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One by one the landmarks have disappeared from the old Plaza.... Its glory is departed with its departed people.

– Lillian Whaley, Old Town San Diego pioneer, 1893.

Shadows climb up the whitewashed wall as the sun passes slowly overhead. Another day draws to a close as I clean the mud off my tools and assemble them in the wheelbarrow. In the rear courtyard garden, branches of the many trees hang like skeletons in the gathering darkness. It's eerily beautiful.

For the past eight months, I have been repairing the Casa de Estudillo, a historic landmark in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. As the park historian, I had taken several adobe workshops and wanted to apply, hands-on, the skills of a dying craft.

This single-story, U-shaped , which was built from 1827 to 1829 by José Maria Estudillo and, later, his son, Lt. José Antonio Estudillo, is perhaps the finest example of a Spanish-Mexican adobe town house in California. And it is massive: 113 feet long on the front facing the plaza and 98 feet long on the adjoining sides. The adobe brick walls are from two to four feet thick. The large recessed windows have hand-hewn wood bars and lintels.

The clay-tile roofs, cupola, verandas, and extending wing walls are a testament to a time gone by when Mexico ruled the tiny pueblo by the San Diego River.

In this semiarid, largely treeless environment, adobe was the principal building material. The river and sloughs provided ample clay, sand, silt, and shells. Thick adobe walls kept homes cool in the summer and relatively warm in the winter.

In my work rituals, I follow the old ways. Every month, I mix sand (40 to 45 percent) and clay (30 percent) with silt, stable straw, and broken shells, and then add water. The adobe is kneaded by hand until it is doughlike and then it's tamped into wooden molds that are 16-by-8-by-3 inches. The molds are set on their sides to dry in the sun for several weeks and are rotated to prevent the unbaked adobe brick from cracking. Each brick weighs from 20 to 25 pounds.

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