By Scott Gerdes
Just about anywhere you walk in the heart of Taos you will find yourself immersed in the history of this place and of the Southwest. A majority of the most important historic sites in Taos are easily reached on a short walking tour of the town.
Such a leisurely walk can begin at Taos Plaza — west of the intersection of State Highway 64 (aka Kit Carson Road) and State Road 68 (aka Paseo del Pueblo Norte) — the scene of many historic events.
It is in the Plaza in 1861 where during the Territorial Period “Confederate sympathizers” ripped down the U.S. flag. New Mexico volunteer commander Kit Carson, Capt. Smith Simpson and Col. Ceran St. Vrain nailed the U.S. flag to a pole. They stood there day and night with loaded guns to make sure the flag flew during the American Civil War.
With the blessing from Congress, the flag still waves 24 hours a day all year long in the Plaza — a reminder of the early days of New Mexico and a commemoration of the event. It is one of the few flags in the country that flies around the clock.
Also on the Plaza lies the old Taos courthouse, erected after a blaze in 1932, which razed most of the north Plaza area. The courthouse site dates back to the massacre of New Mexico’s first governor, Charles Bent, in 1847.
The exact date of how long the site had been used as a courthouse is uncertain because all records were destroyed by fire during the 1847 uprising.
One of the earliest trials in one of the first courtrooms on the site resulted in the execution of eight American Indians who were tried and convicted for crimes during the uprising. Seven of them were hanged from a cottonwood tree in the Plaza; the other was hanged in the courtroom because he refused to be executed in public, according to historic accounts.
Within the courthouse is the old — allegedly haunted — county jail, which was featured in the film “Easy Rider.”
The heart of downtown Taos was initially a Spanish fortified wall plaza with homes and a few businesses. It dates to the late 18th century when the Don Fernando de Taos Land Grant was ceded to Spanish settlers — who had forced their way onto Taos Pueblo — in 1796 by Don Fernando de Chacon, governor of New Mexico. The Plaza and Taos Pueblo served as terminal points of the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (aka King’s Highway) from Mexico City.
Today, the center of the Plaza is a public gathering place (and the site of many community events, such as Taos Fiestas on July 20-21 and free music concerts every Thursday from 6-8 p.m. during the summer) with shade trees, benches, statues, historic markers, a gazebo and retail shops.
A longstanding site on the Plaza is the Hotel La Fonda de Taos, which has an exhibit of author D.H. Lawrence paintings and is the oldest hotel in Taos.
Merchants on the Plaza include galleries of Native American and locally made art and jewelry, the Gorge Bar and Grill, a couple of coffee shops and souvenir stores.
Kit Carson Road
Moving from the Plaza, walk down Kit Carson Road to the home and museum of the street’s namesake. Along the way, you’ll walk atop the only remaining boardwalk in Taos. More information about the Carson home can be found on Page ?.
On the opposite side of the street is El Rincón, the 109-year-old inn and shop, which was Taos’ first official trading post and early community hangout.
A short distance from El Rincón on the same side of the street is the home of 20th-century artist Eanger Irving Couse and his family, and the studios of Couse and J.H. Sharp — members of the Taos Society of Artists.
Paseo del Pueblo Norte
Walking back toward the main intersection, walk right (north or norte) and within a block on the right, you’ll reach The Historic Taos Inn with its unmistakable neon thunderbird sign. This Taos landmark is known for its margaritas, nightly entertainment, Southwestern-inspired rooms and celebrity sightings.
But before the likes of Robert Redford and Jessica Lange (to name a couple) graced its lobby, the structure was made up of several adobe homes built in the 1800s. Back then, what is now the lobby was a plaza that housed a community well.
Taos County’s first and only physician at the time, Dr. Thomas (“Doc”) Paul Martin, came to town in the 1890s and bought the largest of the adobe homes on the property. The hotel’s award-winning restaurant is named for the prominent Taos figure who made house calls in any weather all over the county — first by horse then by Tin Lizzie. His wife, Helen, was a talented batik artist and the sister-in-law of noted artist Bert Phillips.
In 1912, Phillips and peer Ernest Blumenschein founded the famous Taos Society of Artists in the Martin’s living room. Over time, the Martins bought some of the surrounding structures and rented them out to writers and artists.
In those days, Taos had only one hotel (Hotel La Fonda de Taos). In 1935, the same year Doc died, Helen entered the hospitality business. She purchased the last remaining plaza structure, the Tarleton House, which is now the hotel’s Adobe Bar. Doc’s former patients rallied around Helen and enclosed the plaza. She opened the doors to Hotel Martin the following year. It quickly became the place to see and be seen.
Next door is the Taos Center for the Arts offices and its Stables Gallery. The TCA is housed in the former home of Arthur Manby, a much disliked English immigrant who was known for shady land dealings, among other questionable business practices.
His decapitated body was discovered by two lawmen on a cot in the 19-room Spanish hacienda. The murder was never solved although there were three suspects. He, along with Carson, Smith and other of Taos’ notables, are buried in the adjoining Kit Carson Memorial Cemetery in Kit Carson Park.
And a block or so north from the park is the Taos Art Museum at Fechin House, built by prominent Russian painter Nicolai Fechin between 1927-1933. The home also served as his studio.
Directly across from The Taos Inn is Bent Street. On this one-way road, tucked in between eateries, galleries and specialty shops is the small and quirky Gov. Bent Museum. Read more about this site on Pages 48 and 52.
The north side entrance to the John Dunn House Shops can be accessed from Bent Street. This pedestrian mall connects the John Dunn House Shops and Taos Plaza. “The John Dunn House, which sits amid the independently owned shops and eateries, is on the National Historic Register. Better known around these parts as ‘Long John’ Dunn (1857-1953), this lovable rascal came to New Mexico from Texas in the late 1880s,” wrote Mel James for The Taos News.
Never sugarcoating his past, Dunn admitted to spilling the blood of many men and was a horse thief, smuggler and gambler. However, there was always a thread of nobility in this old-time Westerner’s actions. Dunn was also considered one of the best gunfighters, bronc riders, ropers, stagecoach drivers, trail herd drivers, saloonkeepers and stubborn businessmen in Taos. He built the bridge named for him that crosses the Río Grande at the confluence of the Río Hondo in Arroyo Hondo.
Walking from the John Dunn Shops toward the Plaza you’ll run into Teresina Lane. The Alley Cantina can be found here as well as the rear of the old courthouse. This local hangout known as “The Alley” features nightly entertainment.
It was built by Pueblo Indians in the 16th century and a portion of it is one of the oldest structures in town. It was first an outpost along the Chihuahua Trail and was later used by the Spanish government from the 17th to 19th centuries. The oldest section of the building was also Gov. Bent’s office in 1846. The street is named for his daughter. The property first became a restaurant in 1944.
Steps from The Alley you’ll return to the Plaza. Heading southwest, you can stroll down Ledoux Street. This secluded winding street is named for French trapper and guide Antonine Ledoux. He settled in the Taos area around 1844. The street, which is in an area that was designed like a fortress, was first named after Charles Beaubien (an 18th-century Canadian-born fur trader) and later after Capt. Smith H. Simpson, who served in the Ute War in 1855.
From 1859 to 1861, Capt. Simpson was the confidential clerk of Kit Carson who, during that time, was an Indian agent in Taos. In the fall of 1863, he enlisted as captain of Company I, First New Mexico Volunteers, and served until September 1866.
The first historic encounter on Ledoux is the E. L. Blumenschein Home and Museum. It is the original home of the famed artist and his family and is a National Historic Landmark.
Further down the street is The Harwood Museum of Art, which showcases a permanent collection of more than 4,700 works and an archive of 17,000 photographs from the 19th century to modern day. The Harwood was established by artists Burt and Elizabeth Harwood in the early 1900s. In 1935, the Harwood Foundation was given to the University of New Mexico. The structure is a nice example of Pueblo Revival architecture.
A ghost tour is another fun and unique way to experience the Historic District. If you are not afraid of things that go bump in the night, Taos is full of paranormal activity. For more, contact Ghosts of Taos at (575) 613-5330 or visit ghostsoftaos.wordpress.com.
A map of the Historic District can be found on this website under “Maps.”
Let the hallowed footsteps of Taos’ past citizens guide you on your exploration: it’s an adventure of historic proportions.
Where to park
Just about any street near Taos Plaza is also part of the Historic District, and street parking is available on Paseo del Pueblo. There is metered parking on Bent Street and on the Plaza. Kit Carson Road has metered street parking, and a free lot is just a few blocks down the hill. Camino de la Placita, which runs along the west side of Taos Plaza, has a metered lot right by the John Dunn House Shops. There’s a metered lot off Camino de la Placita behind U.S. Bank and a free lot sits across the street by Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. Please note: Bent Street is a one-way street, and will take you from Paseo del Pueblo Norte to Camino de la Placita.