Although usually associated with the architecture of New Mexico and Arizona, adobe construction-building with a sun-dried mixture of earth, grass, and water-is also common throughout parts of West and South Texas and the Panhandle. The use of sun-dried mud is among the oldest building technologies. Recent archeological evidence suggests that adobe first appeared in the ancient Middle East, but various forms of earth construction are common in dry regions around the world. American Indians of the Southwest were familiar with this technology and used it to build the impressive pueblos in Taos and Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico. The Spanish, who first arrived in the Southwest in the sixteenth century, brought with them their own tradition of adobe construction. In early Spanish Texas adobe bricks, fashioned by Spanish and American Indian workers, were used to build a variety of structures, including missions, fortifications, and dwellings. Among the examples of early adobe construction in Texas are portions of San Antonio de Valero Mission (the Alamo) and Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuña Mission in San Antonio, and the ruins of San Lorenzo de la Santa Cruz Mission in Real County.
Adobe bricks are formed in wooden molds. They are then left in the sun to dry, typically for about two weeks. Because they are not fired they are a low-strength material and can bear only small weight loads; as a result, adobe structures are rarely taller than two stories. To prevent collapse, the walls of large structures are usually tapered at the top or braced with large buttresses, as in the famous church at Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico. The thick walls of adobe structures provide excellent insulation and thus are particularly desirable in the desert Southwest with its extreme temperatures. The rooms of adobe structures are usually quite narrow. Their length depends on the length of their vigas, wooden beams that support the weight of the roof. In traditional adobe construction, smaller wooden poles, known as latillas, extend between the vigas and support layers of twigs covered with packed adobe mud. The roofs are generally flat with shallow parapets; water drains off through wooden or tile canales.
Mexican Americans used the adobe technology introduced by the Pueblo Indians in New Mexico and the Jumano and Apache Indians in Texas, as well as their Spanish and Mexican forebears, to construct family dwellings. They often built modest, flat-topped adobe structures of one or several rooms, with neither connecting doors nor parapets. However, during the late nineteenth century many second-generation Mexican Americans in Alpine and Marfa altered the interior of their dwellings, adding doors to connect the rooms and expensive gabled roofs. Adobe structures remained typical of Texas Hispanic domiciles up to 1900.
Because of a shortage of wood during the eighteenth century, residents of San Antonio de Béxar erected both adobe homes and business shops, which they washed with blue or yellow. They also added Moorish-style radiating stone or lattice work to some of the buildings. Among the Pueblo people of New Mexico, women were the architects and builders in adobe. They dominated all aspects of plaster mixing and wall building, using only their hands and the simplest of tools to design their dwellings. Indian and Mexican women throughout the Southwest have maintained a significant role in adobe construction, with skills passed down through the generations. Some have specialized in such aspects of interior finishing as fogón (fireplace) building. Mexican-American women in West Texas have continued to build adobe structures.
With the arrival of the railroads in the 1880s, adobe buildings began to sport such nontraditional materials as sheet metal, shingles, tile, and sawed lumber; hip roofs also began to appear. In early adobe structures the floors were usually constructed of fired adobe brick, brick, tile, wood, or flagstone; concrete, sometimes covered with linoleum, later came into use. Several West Texas cities, notably El Paso and Fort Stockton, have passed ordinances curtailing or limiting the use of adobe, but it continues to be used through much of West Texas. In the 1980s adobe construction grew in popularity, and numerous new adobe structures were built in Lajitas and the Terlingua area.