Living with antiques: The Juan Jose Prada house

ANTIQUES Staff

ANTIQUES Staff

July 2009 | Santa Fe is known for its earthy elegance and a carefully tended exoticism. Few people have contributed more visibly to its artistic ambience in recent decades than Nedra Matteucci and her husband, Richard. Their deep affection for the heritage of their home state has resulted in a choice private collection of New Mexican art and antiques formed over thirty-five years. Accented with treasures from Latin America and Italy, the trove fills the couple’s two houses, in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, and spills into Nedra’s three richly eclectic, always welcoming Santa Fe art galleries and sculpture gardens.Called the Juan José Prada house, the Matteuccis’ Santa Fe residence, named to the State Register of Cultural Properties in 1972, illustrates the city’s transition over four centuries from outpost of the Spanish crown to United States territory, state, painters’ colony, and art market hub.

Secreted behind a walled garden on Canyon Road, a street transformed in the second half of the twentieth century from a sleepy residential enclave to a bustling gallery district, the Prada house began as a collection of rustic, single-story buildings, and evolved over time into a rambling one-bedroom residence with an attached guesthouse and adjacent barn (see Figs. 1–3).1 The house itself is named for Juan José Prada, its first officially recorded resident and a descendant of a Mexican soldier who served in the Spanish Army in Santa Fe.

As Santa Fe’s reputation as an art colony grew in the 1910s, it attracted wealthy visitors charmed by its high desert climate and cultural diversity. Two visitors, Margretta Stewart Dietrich, the widow of Nebraska governor and United States Senator Charles Henry Dietrich (1853–1924), and her sister Dorothy Newkirk Stewart, an artist who trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, succeeded the Prada family. Dietrich amassed the land and structures that formed the compound between 1925 and 1934.

In her 1961 memoir, Dietrich described visiting the city for the first time in 1921: “We arrived in Santa Fe about noon and had our first meal at the Blue Parrot, run by two delightful women in a lovely old house at the corner of Palace Avenue and Burro Alley, where the Bokum Building now stands. The house had many patios, with sheep in one of them, and the windows were of handblown glass. My sister, Dorothy Stewart, was so enchanted by it that she begged me to buy the whole block, but at that time we were not ready to invest in Santa Fe real estate.”2

The women returned to Santa Fe the following spring. Dietrich initially purchased “a sweet little old adobe house, plastered outside with pinkish mud from La Cienega.”3 After relinquishing it to its indignant tenant, the poet and scholar H. Witter Bynner (1881–1968), who had hoped to buy the house himself, Dietrich moved on to the Prada house. Kate Chapman, the preservation-minded wife of archaeologist and artist Kenneth Milton Chapman (1875–1968), helped oversee the modernization of the house, which had packed earthen floors and thick adobe walls topped with brick coping, a feature associated with New Mexico’s territorial style architecture.

Dietrich describes finding vigas, the rough-hewn ceiling timbers that she installed throughout the house, while horseback riding near Cow Springs Mesa, a trading point southeast of Santa Fe. She writes of adding a bedroom with large plate glass windows for Stewart, who painted a mural inspired by Mexican modernist Diego Rivera in the breezeway (see Fig. 11). After Dietrich’s death, the house belonged to D. D. Van Soelen, a local banker whose father, Theodore Van Soelen (1890–1964), was an accomplished Santa Fe painter of portraits and ranch scenes.

The Matteuccis, who purchased the Prada house in 1990, subtly updated the place while leaving architect Robert Nestor’s mid-1980s restoration intact. In Nestor’s view, the house’s most noteworthy historical element, in addition to its vigas, mural, and brick coping, were seven exterior doors (“entradas y salidas”) and double-hung territorial style windows.4

Set into a stone wall behind the guesthouse (see Fig. 2), a small barn, perhaps the oldest structure on the property, is made of squared-off cedar logs erected vertically and chinked with adobe (see Fig. 3). Archaeological excavations undertaken at the site in 1986 unearthed trash pits dating to the 1880s and later that contained bones of sheep and goats, evidence of farming, as well as fragments of Pueblo pottery.5 The Matteuccis moved to the Prada house around the time that Nedra emerged as an important Santa Fe art dealer. The daughter of a municipal judge, she grew up in the small southeastern New Mexico farming community of Dexter and met Richard, a retired beverage distributor whose family had settled in Albuquerque several generations ago, when she was a student at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. The couple enjoyed visiting galleries together and began collecting soon after they met, initially buying fine art prints.

Nedra’s first significant acquisition, paid for over time and presented to Richard as a wedding present in 1974, was a painting of American Indian dancers by Patrick Swazo Hinds (1929–1974), an artist born in Tesuque Pueblo, New Mexico. Richard later reciprocated with a gift of a bronze nude of a woman by the Mexican artist Francisco Zúñiga, one of their first pieces of sculpture. By the early 1980s, keen on upgrading their collection, Nedra was dealing art out of her car and her house. She opened her first gallery, Nedra Matteucci Fine Art, on a quiet side street off Canyon Road in 1986.

Interested in classic art of the American West, the Matteuccis became customers of Forrest Fenn. “Why not sell for me?” the Santa Fe dealer one day suggested to Nedra, who spent the next two years memorizing auction catalogues and sales records. Richard surprised his wife at Thanksgiving in 1988 with the gift of Fenn Gallery. The Matteuccis acquired Morning Star Gallery, a leading source for American Indian art, in 2002.

After initially filling the front rooms of their house with American Indian artifacts (see Figs. 5, 6, 15), the Matteuccis gravitated to western painting. An incandescent sunset view of the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming by Alfred Jacob Miller, one of the first artists to document the Rocky Mountains and the Oregon Trail, occupies a place of pride in the living room (see Fig. 10, lower right).

Of special note in the collection are early twentieth-century paintings by academically trained artists of the Taos and Santa Fe art colonies, many of whom made their way to New Mexico from the East and Midwest after the arrival of the railroad in 1880. Particularly prominent are works by members of the Taos Society of Artists, founded in 1915, including paintings by Joseph Henry Sharp (see Fig. 10, left), who first visited the village on a sketching trip in 1883; E. Martin Hennings (see Figs. 5, 6, 15), known for sun-drenched portraits of American Indians, often on horseback; and Victor Higgins (see Fig. 13), who brought a calm, reductive sensibility to New Mexico’s expansive vistas.

One of the most interesting chapters in New Mexican art involves two Russians, both of whom worked in a colorful impressionistic style. In 1919 Leon Gaspard, a student of William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905) at the Académie Julian in Paris, moved to Taos, whose enduring folkways reminded him of his childhood in Vitebsk. Nicolai Fechin lived in Taos from about 1927 to 1933, and later settled in California. The Matteuccis own several of Fechin’s distinctive portraits and a carved wood bust by the artist (see Figs. 5, 9). A quintessential Gaspard snowscape, Marché du Paretchi, from about 1916, depicts vividly dressed Russian peasants engaged in village festivities (see Fig. 9).

Behind the former Fenn Gallery, the Matteuccis have created a one-acre sculpture garden open to the public. Their Prada house retreat is private. Underplanted with flowering bulbs and annuals, looming cottonwood trees and lithe shimmering aspens shelter sculptures in stone and metal by the Santa Fe sculptor Glenna Goodacre, who created the image of Sacagawea for the back of the United States silver dollar of 2000, as well as the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in Washington; Doug Hyde, known for his refined, classical figures of American Indians (see Figs. 2, 14); and Floyd DeWitt. They join pieces by Dan Ostermiller, a noted Colorado sculptor of wildlife (see Fig. 5).

One of the rewards of collecting for as long as Nedra and Richard Matteucci have is watching artists’ reputations grow over time. The Matteuccis developed a special liking for Eric Sloane, who arrived in Taos in 1926 and later divided his time between Santa Fe and Litchfield County, Connecticut. Captivated by architectural forms, especially barns, Sloane presented Nedra with a birthday gift, a small painting of a New Mexican village church, in 1984, the year before he died (see Fig. 8).

Peter Hurd is another artist with personal meaning to the couple. Born in Roswell, New Mexico, a few miles from Nedra’s childhood home, Hurd studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and privately with Newell Convers Wyeth before marrying Wyeth’s daughter, Henriette (1907–1997), also an artist, and moving in 1940 to the twenty-five-hundred-acre Sentinel Ranch in San Patricio, New Mexico. Hurd autographed wine bottles at the Matteuccis’ 1974 wedding rehearsal dinner at the historic Tinnie Mercantile Company in Tinnie, New Mexico. He is best known for painting the nearby Hondo Valley, a watercolor view of which hangs in the Matteuccis’ study (see Fig. 15).

The Matteuccis are living examples of the famously relaxed Santa Fe style, enjoying their collection in an open, unassuming way that belies their deep commitment to the artistic heritage of their birthplace. Nedra Matteucci is New Mexico, right down to her initials. 1 I am indebted to Elaine Bergman, executive director, Historic Santa Fe Foundation, for supplying information on the history of the Juan José Prada house. Especially helpful was Mimi B. Voegelin’s detailed study of the house, “The Juan José Prada House: A Private Residence at 519 Canyon Road, Santa Fe, New Mexico,” in Museum of New Mexico Office of Archaeological Studies, Archaeology Notes, no. 13 (1990). 

2 Margretta Stewart Dietrich, excerpts from New Mexico Recollections, Part II, ed. Sylvia Loomis (Vergara Print Company, Santa Fe, 1961), n. p., Prada House file, Historic Santa Fe Foundation, Santa Fe. 

3 Ibid. 

4 Prior to the arrival of Dietrich and Stewart, several families sometimes lived on the property, and the rights of ingress and egress through these doors were spelled out clearly in legal documents. See Voegelin, “The Juan José Prada House,” p. 6. 

5 Ibid., pp. 19–26.

Laura Beach writes extensively about antiques.