Historical Lifestyle

The House That Mabel Built

Mabel Dodge Luhan Home

Mabel Dodge Luhan Home

by Lyn Bleiler-Strong ~ photos by Carville Bourg ~

Decades later, a utopian haven created by socialite, art patron, writer Mabel Dodge Luhan continues to attract artistic, intellectual, and spiritual seekers.

When Mabel Dodge Luhan visited Taos in 1917 with third husband Maurice Sterne and son John from first husband Karl Evans, she had no intention of leaving her posh Fifth Avenue New York City apartment. Nor was she in the market for real estate when future husband, Taos Pueblo Indian Antonio (Tony) Lujan coaxed her into buying a 12-acre oasis bordering Pueblo land. But that didn’t stop Mabel. With the sacred Taos Mountain as backdrop, and a flowing acequia, orchards, and fields of sage, she saw potential for a much-needed respite from the post-war weariness and dislocation shared by many of her peers.

Mere months after her arrival in northern New Mexico, Tony Lujan brokered a deal for Mabel to acquire the bucolic spread for $1,500, and Sterne—who was – responsible for Mabel’s discovery of the Southwest—hightailed it back to city life. So began an epic love affair and the most fulfilling chapter of Mabel Dodge’s life.

“Acquiring a piece of this land here was a symbolic move, a picture of what was happening inside me. I had to have a place of my own to live on where I could take root,” she wrote in the last of her four memoirs, “Edge of Taos Desert: An Escape to Reality.” “. . . In that day I became centered and ceased the lonesome pilgrimage forever.”

Under Tony’s supervision, between 1918 and 1922, Mexican and Indian workmen transformed a modest, 150-year-old adobe structure into a sprawling 22-room residence worthy of the avant-garde salons Mabel had hosted during her expatriate years in a Florentine villa and later in New York City’s Greenwich Village.

Los Gallos, named for Mabel’s collection of Mexican pottery roosters that lined the rooftop, was the first residence in the region to represent, albeit loosely interpreted, Pueblo architecture with multi-level adobe construction reminiscent of Taos Pueblo. And it was the first place Mabel felt truly at home.

Employing her intuitive, eclectic sense of design, Mabel enlisted input from locals and friends. For instance, local trader Ralph Meyers carved salomonic columns to anchor roof support beams. Pueblo artist Awa Tsireh painted a mural on one end of a sheltering portal and installed Mexican tiles depicting Don Quixote on an entry wall. D.H. Lawrence painted colorful images on bathroom windows, lending privacy to bathers in the large claw-footed tub, and artist Robert Edmond Jones provided massive courtyard gates from hand-carved balcony railings salvaged from the Saint Francis de Assisi Church.

Over the following decades, a veritable Who’s Who of artists, writers, and thinkers of the day made a pilgrimage to Los Gallos. And the unlikely pairing of Mabel Dodge (doyenne of arts and society in New York and abroad) and Tony Lujan (a full-blooded Indian firmly rooted in an enduring Native American culture), along with the vision they realized together, shaped countless lives and profoundly influenced the American Modernist movement. Its scope is illustrated in a traveling exhibition and catalogue entitled “Mabel Dodge Luhan & Company: American Moderns and the West” organized by Taos’ Harwood Museum of Art.

Mabel Doge Luhan Home

Mabel Doge Luhan Home

In the late 1960s, legendary actor/writer/director Dennis Hopper happened on Taos after allegedly making a wrong turn while scouting locations for filming his classic counterculture film, “Easy Rider.” In an interview with Dr. Lois Palken Rudnick, author of “Utopian Vistas: The Mabel Dodge Luhan House and the American Counterculture,” theater producer Leo Garen remembered driving out to see the Luhan house with Hopper after an LSD party in Taos Canyon. Like Mabel, Hopper was immediately taken with the property and its proximity to the sacred mountain.

High on the success of “Easy Rider,” in 1970 Hopper returned to Taos in a drug-induced haze. At 33 years old, he purchased Los Gallos and changed its name to The Mud Palace.

While Mabel’s circle included esteemed intellectuals and the elite of the day, Hopper’s circle leaned more toward Hollywood and pop culture icons and drifters. And whereas Mabel envisioned her Taos property as an appealing setting for highbrow salons, in Hopper’s day it became a fortress complete with armed, self-appointed sentries lining the rooftops, many of whom, like Hopper, clashed with locals.

Legendary partying there often spiraled out of control. For example, on Halloween night 1970, Hopper and Michelle Phillips of “The Mamas and the Papas” fame were married in a madcap ceremony officiated by artist Bruce Conner. Many attendees (of which there were 200 or so) remember enough lit candles to “burn down the palace.” The marriage lasted eight days.

“American Dreamer,” a grainy, 1971 underground film on Hopper produced by Lawrence Schiller and L.M. Kit Carson features—among other things—Hopper and two naked women frolicking in Mabel’s claw-footed bathtub. Glimpses of the privacy windows painted by D.H. Lawrence appear in the background.

Eventually, Hopper lost control over the endless hordes of people and “great hippie invasion,” who crashed at the Mud Palace, and he sought refuge elsewhere. He sold the “Big House” in 1978, but kept a living space in the nearby El Cortez Theater for the rest of his life.

Mabel Dodge Luhan Home

Mabel Dodge Luhan Home

In 1978, new owners George and Kitty Otero tackled the daunting task of cleaning up the ravages of Hopper’s reign, including replacing one of Mabel’s ceramic rooftop roosters Hopper purportedly had absconded with.

During this incarnation, Mabel’s beloved Los Gallos became known as Las Palomas de Taos, a campus of sorts run by a nonprofit organization with educational aspirations. Curriculums from teacher empowerment workshops to elder hostel programs were offered, and at some point bed and breakfast lodging was established to generate income. Due to numerous challenges, including divorce and employee unrest, by the mid-1990s, the Las Palomas de Taos chapter had ended.

Much to Mabel’s delight, one would imagine, since 1996 the Attiyeh Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, has owned and operated the house that Mabel built. The well-maintained property looks much as it did during Luhan’s day, with unobstructed views of adjacent Pueblo land and the sacred Taos Mountain.

Magpies are plentiful and make themselves known with endless antics. Pigeons populate the much-photographed cluster of dovecotes by the massive entry gate. Pure water from snowmelt from Taos Mountain snakes through an ancient acequia bordering the courtyard.

On any given day, visitors to the Juniper House classroom in the lower parking lot might observe Tibetan monks quietly building a sand mandala, see a workshop of captivated mixed-media artists creating well into the night, or happen upon a poetry reading or other public event. An additional adobe building has recently been constructed to provide a sanctuary for yoga and meditation practices. Now a designated National Historic Landmark and a State of New Mexico Registered Cultural Property, under the Attiyeh Foundation’s thoughtful stewardship, the Mabel Dodge Luhan House honors Mabel’s vision of providing a haven for personal, intellectual, and artistic innovation and creativity.



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