In Marfa, thanks to the vacation-home owners and retirees who have flocked to this artsy outpost in the West Texas desert, adobe also has become fashionable, a building material befitting the town’s cool mix of culture and desert aesthetic.
But for many of Marfa’s longtime residents, the gentrification of the adobe home has made living in one rather expensive.
“Why are you going to tax them for using the cheapest building material they could get?” said Sam Martinez, 58, whose family owns an adobe home built in the 1800s, and whose ties to Marfa are just as longstanding.
All over town, the tax authorities sank their hooks into adobe.
A century-old two-bedroom partial adobe house with a metal roof and laminate floors, wedged between two much bigger homes on West Dallas Street, saw its annual property taxes rise from $905 five years ago to $3,003 today. In that same time, a renovated three-bedroom with a partially exposed adobe wall in its living room saw its taxes go up from $1,365 to $4,988.
Taxes on a wind-battered one-bedroom on the southeast edge of town, with a rusting corrugated metal shed in its yard, rose from $319 to $1,953. For a tidy three-bedroom with a wood-burning fireplace, a detached garage and a large yard, located north of the Marfa courthouse, the bill went from $1,848 to $4,469.
Originally a water stop along the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railway, Marfa began as a sleepy ranching town that was de facto segregated well into the 1960s. Most of the existing adobe homes were located on the south side of the railroad tracks, without plumbing and electricity.
“The Hispanics, in my time, all lived in little adobe houses,” said Rito Rivera, 78, who still lives in one of those houses. “The Anglos were ranchers — cowboys and landowners — and they could afford better material.”
The appraisal on his adobe house increased from $39,770 five years ago to $104,660 this year. Mr. Rivera recently learned that he had prostate cancer, unlucky news that came with one upside: Under state law, it helped him qualify for a veteran’s disability exemption from his rising tax bill. But an adobe home his wife inherited from family in town saw its bill spike to $1,925 from $1,170 five years earlier.
Fortunes changed for Marfa, and adobe, when the sculptor Donald Judd arrived in the 1970s and turned its empty expanses into something of a vast outdoor studio. Marfa came to signify something within the art world, people from far reaches traveled to the desert to see it, and the prices of things began to reflect the cities they came from.
“The big empty” is how my seatmate describes the landscape as our plane makes its descent to El Paso. To me it is the opposite: this is a place I’ve visited and lived in for the last 13 years, and it is a land filled with memories, adventure and possibility.
In 1996, on my way back to the airport from vacationing in Big Bend National Park, I detoured for what I thought would be a quick stop to see the work of the artist Donald Judd in Marfa, Tex. The little I knew about this major Minimalist had led me to the opinion that Judd, who had died in 1994, was hard-headed, with a conceptual ax to grind. But as I drove toward Marfa from the south and saw Judd’s giant concrete boxes lined up along the road, and beyond them two enormous brick buildings with gleaming, rounded corrugated metal roofs, I felt as if I’d just woken up. His work in Marfa — created and installed on a scale in keeping with the vast, prehistoric landscape, as well as the repurposed buildings he bought all over town — was both subtle and exhilarating to behold.
The road to Marfa with Davis Mountains in the background.CreditCreditStacy Sodolak for The New York Times
By Hayley Krischer
When you escape your life at 45, as in a Thelma and Louise-level escape, you go to the desert. My best friends of 25 years joined me. We were all leaving behind something. Beth and Miriam were leaving their young children behind. Sara had just recovered from breast cancer; her mastectomy was fresh, just under a year. I was taking a break from kids, my husband and my 80-pound incessantly barking dog.
We picked Marfa, the artist hub in the middle of the West Texas desert as the destination of our road trip last winter. We had been traveling together for 15 years. The quirky art community was part of the reason we landed on Marfa. We wanted to fade into the weirdness of the town, with our identities washing away into the artist Donald Judd’s concrete blocks, the dry landscape and the big sky. We knew it would be the kind of place you might forget to call your family. (Indeed, it was.)
Donald Judd entered the pantheon of Minimalist art for works like his “Judd boxes,” deceptively simple containers that stand on the floor or get stacked on walls.
This fall, the Judd Foundation has started shoring up the walls themselves, specifically the cluster of buildings it owns in and around Marfa, Tex., where the artist lived and worked starting in the 1970s.
Led by his children, Rainer and Flavin Judd, the foundation has embarked on a several-year project that will eventually involve renovating six of its structures, out of the 21 total it owns in the area, to fulfill plans the artist wasn’t able to complete in his lifetime.
It will add 26,500 square feet of new program space and make open to the public for the first time another 16,000 square feet. (The project doesn’t affect the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, the museum Judd founded, which features his own work as well as that of other artists.)
The first phase, which costs about $2 million, is already underway and so is the fund-raising. It will rehab two buildings, the Architecture Office and part of the compound known as the Block. In the Architecture Office building, slated to be completed in 2020, visitors will now be able to see Judd’s architectural models and drawings, furniture and other design objects.
Judd had a passion for architecture, once saying: “The space surrounding my work is crucial to it: As much thought has gone into the installation as into a piece itself.”
Ann Temkin, the chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, noted that because of that precision, “many of his biggest fans are actually architects.”
Flavin Judd said that he and his sister committed to the plan because Marfa “is one of the only places where you can see Don’s work as it was meant to be seen.”
“A work by itself in a museum is just not the same,” he added.
The overhaul comes as Ms. Temkin readies a coming retrospective of Judd’s work, which will open after expansions at MoMA, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, are completed, and as the Judd sites in Marfa grow ever more popular as a pilgrimage destination for art lovers.