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The Adobe House
by A. H. Verrill
When we speak of a mud house we usually imply a mere hovel, but mud has in the past been glorified into a useful material for building houses in warm climates where the rainfall is negligible.
The Spaniards in the South, particularly in South America, were very quick to appreciate the manifold advantages of mud as a building material, and vastly improving the aboriginal methods of the Indian, they built their splendid churches and palaces of adobe, but adobe glorified with stucco, sculptures, friezes, and facades, until the fundamental material was unrecognizable.
Since the early days the methods of adobe construction have been greatly improved, until to-day the building of an adobe house is as much an art as the erection of a frame, brick, or concrete building. In its simplest form, the adobe house is built of rectangular bricks or blocks formed of a mixture of mud, hay, and water, dried in the sun, and placed, like ordinary bricks, one upon the other with the joints "broken;" the whole being ultimately either daubed with mud, covered with plaster, or merely whitewashed. Such walls will withstand but little weight and will not support more than one or two stories—a difficulty overcome by the Incas and their predecessors by tying the walls together by means of wooden rods or beams. A better form of construction consists of adobe spread upon canes nailed to a rough frame-work, and for higher and more elaborate buildings a combination of frame and adobe is used. Such structures are framed much as a wooden building is framed; the adobe bricks are placed against and between the timbers to form the lower walls, while laths or canes nailed across the framework and plastered with mud form the upper walls. At times metal lath or iron reinforcement is used in place of wooden frames. Also, many most admirable results are secured by combining adobe with brick, concrete, wood, stone, or other material to form a composite structure. By such methods very large, many-storied buildings are constructed— veritable mud skyscrapers in fact.
In Peru the elaborate and artistic ornamental work of the native artisans with mud is nothing short of amazing. Moldings, friezes, pillars, columns, arches, and cornices are produced which, when coated with plaster or stucco, and painted, give the effect of intricate stone carving. Many of the churches, as well as residences and public buildings, are remarkable examples of the possibilities of mud in architecture.
Adobe construction is by no means confined to any one type of architecture, although the Moorish and Colonial Spanish types lend themselves to it particularly well. It is especially adaptable to the earlier English types of houses, the effect of exposed timbers, tiled roofs, sharp pitched gables and chimneypots being very pleasing, particularly when such dwellings are surrounded by stately pines, drooping yew-like cedars, symmetrical poplars, velvety lawns, and gorgeous flower beds, or when, as is the case in Peru, they are covered from earth to eaves with the ivy-leaved climbing geraniums, with their pink blooms, which clamber over trees, houses, and walls everywhere. Inside the Peruvian adobe house, however, the fancies of the owner run riot. A sala with walls and ceiling finished in wonderfully carved wood, and furnished with antique Cuzco chairs, viceroy's chests, and stands of Spanish armor, may open upon a tiled hallway whose walls are hung with Japanese prints. Across the hall, the dining room may be copied bodily from that of a time-mellowed English inn. A winding Colonial stairway may lead up to bedrooms in Louis XV style. And somewhere, and often most conspicuous, may be a huge bathroom so completely equipped that it might serve as a show window display for a dealer in plumbers' supplies, for to the well-to-do Peruvian a modern bathroom is as essential, even if not so useful, as the kitchen with its electric and gas ranges in juxtaposition to the old-fashioned wood-burning stove of mud and bricks.
Fortunately for the sake of picturesqueness, the Peruvians have not lost their love for color. While some of the buildings are of dull shades or glaring white, the majority are tinted in shades of blue, pink, lavender, green, yellow, and pastel shades, making most delightful dashes of color in the midst of greenery.
Of all the adobe buildings in Lima and its environs, the ancient cathedral is the largest—the largest adobe building in the world in fact—although the equally old palace of the Viceroys, now serving as the Presidential Palace, covers a greater area. Until one has visited Peru one cannot appreciate the possibilities of mud as a building material. It is hard enough to believe that the beautiful homes in Miraflores and elsewhere are practically all of adobe; but it is still harder to realize this when within the houses. With their beautifully finished trim and woodwork, their tiled floors, their electric lights and modern plumbing, there is no hint of the ugly mud of which they are composed. It might be thought that adobe construction would be cheap. To secure building material it is only necessary to dig a hole, pour in water, mix the resultant mud with chopped straw, or even manure, mold the sticky mass into rectangles, and dry these in the sun. And, as a matter of fact, a small adobe house of old-fashioned construction, and a single story in height, is one of the cheapest and most easily erected dwellings in the world. But to build a modern adobe house with its complete wooden or metal frame, its glazed windows, its hardwood trim, its tile floors and piazzas, its open fireplaces and Spanish tiled roof, costs fully as much as a concrete, brick, or wooden house of equal size, for the plebeian mud, which is the basis of the whole, forms only a small item in the total cost of construction.
Of course, adobe construction can be used only in arid climates, for much rainfall would wash away the walls. As a rule the process of disintegration begins at the base of the walls where water dripping from the eaves spatters against them and softens the mud until the entire structure collapses. Most of the modern adobe buildings, however, are constructed with a sub-wall or foundation of concrete, and the entire outside surface is coated with cement stucco in place of plaster of paris, as in the old-fashioned method.