Like most Western towns, Marfa’s history is in turns celebrated, exploited, contested, forgotten, ignored, and most enthusiastically traded privately among locals. And while Donald Judd’s presence in the town from the 1970s forward tends to feel contemporary, his legacy there now spans more than four decades and is similarly brandished.
From his arrival in far West Texas until his death in 1994, Judd relentlessly converted domestic and utilitarian buildings into spaces that suited his art, his life, and his ideals. Most famously, the Chinati Foundation was a maverick effort to create and maintain an art museum for permanent installations within a derelict military fort hours away from the nearest airport and at least a day’s drive away from a significant art center. What would have been less familiar to anyone outside of Judd’s inner circle during his lifetime is the work on his private spaces scattered around downtown Marfa. These properties exhibit an American postwar Gesamtkunstwerk that balances the vision of an architect, the hand of an artist, and the eye of a collector.
The Judd-designed private buildings recently have been recognized by the state of Texas and by the federal government as historically significant achievements in art and architecture. In early 2022, the U.S. Park Service added the Central Marfa Historic District, which includes all the Judd buildings outside of Fort D.A. Russell, into the National Register of Historic Places. Notably, the district was created by the Texas Historical Commission to capture both the contribution of Judd’s art and architectural practice and the town’s regionally significant collection of mercantile buildings related to ranching, recognizing over 183 buildings, sites, structures, and objects that contribute to the historic fabric of the city.
The new district overlaps some buildings already on the National Register, like the Presidio County Courthouse and the Paisano Hotel. Other local sites on the register include Fort D.A. Russell, where a majority of the Chinati Foundation buildings are located, and the Blackwell School, the site of Marfa’s segregated educational facility for Hispanic children from 1909 to 1965.
While Fort D.A. Russell was reimagined as a museum of permanent works by Judd and artists that he considered worthy, the buildings in town were mostly dedicated to his personal collections and pursuits and included residential spaces for himself and his guests. These exist quietly and expansively on and around Marfa’s main drag between Highway 90 and the Presidio County Courthouse. Handsome — if often blank and mysterious — facades stand mutely on the street or are screened off in walled compounds. The group includes an old bank, a grocery store, and several of what had been shops in the city’s war-era boom days. The old Safeway on Oak Street, now referred to as the Art Studio, presents obscured storefront windows and is flanked by an empty, cabled-off parking lot. Second-wave gallery owners tend to mimic this approach to public-facing buildings, which adds to an often empty strangeness downtown. The impression these personal monuments make on a small community is not always positive: Older residents recall the busy downtown shops of their youth with nostalgia. Some continue to view the famous adobe site walls of the Block — a complex of buildings comprising a full city block where Judd lived and installed his art — as the inhospitable gesture of an outsider who wanted to shut them out. One might indeed wonder why one person should acquire so many buildings and why he should need so many spaces for organizing highly cultivated collections in obsessively ordered ways; it is a fact, however, that Judd’s interests and proclivities coalesced into something many consider a significant achievement worth preserving.
The various restorations of common and uncelebrated typologies of the Southwest were in turns banal and romantic, architecturally restrained and over-the-top in their reimagined uses. Judd let the rhythms of the original structural systems restore order, stripping off unnecessary additions and retaining only fundamental materials. Cabinetry and furniture were fabricated out of yellow pine planks and combined into beds, tables, and chairs. The detritus of postwar consumerism was banished, restoring the austerity of the frontier. It is a world where modernism existed without much of the modern.
From the exterior, Judd’s hand can typically be found in the quartered wood-framed windows, pivot doors and gates, and adobe site walls. While from the street the buildings have been mostly left alone as a testament to their straight Southwestern vernacular, a radical reimagining is found in the interiors. There is something dreamlike and uncanny about exploring the galleries, libraries, and the austere yet earthy living quarters focused on communal eating and drinking. Perhaps architect Lauretta Vinciarelli best captured this enigmatic quality in her watercolor paintings of these spaces in the 1980s. (Judd incorporated her motifs and ideas into several of these projects, a fact long overlooked by Judd scholars and enthusiasts.) There is the hard glare of the Southwestern sun pouring into cavernous spaces and across raw materials. The insertion of open space and modern geometries into stark utilitarian buildings creates a sublime superimposition of a contemplative impulse and an industrious instinct.
From a preservation perspective, the success of Judd’s approach to restoration is apparent, even as the buildings are marked with unresolved details and decades of deferred maintenance. Although both the Chinati and Judd foundations have long maintained their respective structures, major renovations are necessary on the order of tens of millions of dollars. Significant efforts are already underway. A complete restoration of the Chamberlain building was carried out by the Chinati Foundation earlier this year, with drawings by architects Schaum/Shieh. The Houston-based firm has been engaged by the Judd Foundation for many years on their suite of Marfa buildings, all of which will undergo extensive renovations over the next decade. Renovations on the Architecture Office building on Highland Avenue were nearly complete in 2021 before fire gutted the interiors and roof. Work is scheduled to resume there with a completion date of 2024.
The Judd and Chinati foundations are relatively well-positioned to successfully steward their respective Judd properties through the coming decades. The future of the other 153 buildings within the new historic district, however, is far more tenuous. By design, the historic status is a carrot not a stick, offering federal tax credits for renovation work that is considered sensitive to the building’s history. Marfa City Hall continues to take a hands-off approach to historic preservation, issuing demolition permits and building permits for a fee and basic planning review. Judd himself worked within a local paradigm of DIY libertarianism which suited him and to which many current property owners feel entitled as well. Today, the city and its limited supply of tradespeople struggle to keep up with the number of properties that are turning over and being converted into short-term rentals and, most recently, renovated into NFT galleries.
Marfa’s historic district is an inheritance for which no one alive is much responsible, a relic of its former status as a trading center for the ranching industry. Into the early 20th century, military operations at Fort D.A. Russell during the second World War did not result in much building beyond the base, so very few buildings were significantly renovated or torn down, and the post-war decline after the fort was decommissioned left the downtown mostly intact due to inactivity and a lack of resources. Judd arrived in this depressed era when much of the building stock that originally serviced the army and the local ranching industry was no longer useful or commercially viable. Older buildings like the Marfa National Bank were abandoned for newer modern structures. Judd bought every available building that he felt had architectural significance, including a number of residences that were later sold.
Into the current era, it seems that Marfans tend to respect historic fabric. One glance at Livingston Ranch Supplies or any number of buildings on El Paso and Highland streets communicates that people there don’t rush to grab their sledgehammers or paint brushes in order to erase decades worth of character and patina, and that it is in fact the way in which new activity springs up from within the patina that makes the town interesting. Tourism took off in the early 2000s, thanks to strategic post-Judd developments undertaken by Tim Crowley and his wife at the time, Lynn Goode Crowley; these efforts, combined with persistent media coverage of Marfa as an off-the-map gem, ensures that Marfa’s popularity as a cultural hub and wedding destination continues to grow as an organism unto itself beyond the bounds of Judd enthusiasts. Its popularity across demographics and relatively inexpensive property values have led to post-pandemic turnover and an influx of buyers of first (or second, or third) homes, investment properties, and art spaces of one kind or another.
But not everyone wants to deal with the difficulties of rehabilitating old buildings, of course, and adobes or facades suddenly vanish from time to time, causing minor dust-ups within the community. The inclusion of so many vernacular buildings now eligible for tax credits should give pause to those in a hurry to make their marks in a town where even minor efforts can receive national attention. At the moment, real estate agents are the primary conduit of information about properties and the dynamics of town for non-local buyers. There will be consequences, however, if Marfa does not create more effective ways to protect its historic buildings as they pass out of the hands of their longtime owners. El Paso Street, which contained an entire block of mercantile buildings specifically referred to as significant by the historical commission, has lost two original storefronts in the past few years. One adobe facade was removed and is currently being rebuilt with wood framing. The other building, wedged between a soon-to-be NFT gallery and the long-time furniture store Christopher’s (currently on the market for $625,000), was replaced with an ambitious structural steel frame before sitting dormant the past few years like a missing tooth with braces.
The gift that the historical commission and the park service have offered Marfa will need to be cultivated to have an effect. While some will see it as a Trojan horse of government regulation, the Chinati and Judd foundations will use it to their benefit and set a very visible example. The responsibility for the rest of the buildings in the historical district lies with individual owners who will need to balance their interests with those of the town in general, which for now is reorganizing itself around a growing number of visitors and tourists who are drawn to the character of a town that often feels lost in time.
Stephen “Chick” Rabourn, AIA, is an architect in Marfa.