Written and photography by Rob McCorkle
For well over a century, the talented hands of the Limon family have played a major role in creating and preserving the unique Southwestern adobe look of Borderland architecture.
Larry Limon, a fourth generation Mesillero, is the last in a family line dating to the 1800s that specialized in construction and renovation using adobe, cement stucco and plaster. He has been called the “master of plaster” due to his perfection of the ancient craft of plastering.
Although Larry occasionally builds or makes repairs using cement stucco, he primarily concentrates these days on restoring deteriorating structures to their former glory by removing old materials and affixing a lime plaster to exteriors and interiors. He eschews synthetic stucco made of rubber and oil-based materials because they tend to trap moisture that penetrates from underneath, leading to rotting, cracking, and bubbling. Instead, he mixes powdered lime, water, and sand into a plaster paste that is applied by a trowel in four layers until walls are as smooth and white as an eggshell.
“I use lime plaster because it’s a breathable material. It’s permeable,” Larry explains. “Applying lime plaster to adobe works best because they’re both natural materials that wick moisture which helps dry out the walls.”
Larry’s craftsmanship can be found throughout Mesilla and Las Cruces, where he has worked on the Double Eagle Restaurant, Amador Hotel, San Albino Church, and St. Phillip’s Chapel in the Mesquite Historic District. It was his restoration work on these local historical landmarks that garnered Larry a coveted 2017 Preservation Heritage Award from the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs.
Larry started working in the plastering business decades ago with his dad, Johnny, who had learned the trade from his father, Juan. Two of Juan’s brothers formed Juan Limon & Sons, which was known throughout the Southwest for their stucco work on banks, schools, and other commercial projects.
The 59-year-old professes to having a carino, or heartfelt passion, for plastering. He prefers to work on old adobe homes like those found lining many of the streets of Mesilla, where he and his wife, Sandra, share his grandparents’ 1920s stucco casita on Calle de Principal with three rescue dogs.
In 2010, adobe specialist and friend Pat Taylor invited Larry to travel to California to ply his plastering skills at the 200-year-old San Miguel Archangel mission, which was undergoing an extensive renovation. Larry spent weeks on scaffolding four stories high, plastering the massive mission’s exterior.
The Mesilla native, who does his plastering dressed in white from head to toe, employs a self-styled method perfected over the years.
“From the beginning,” Larry says, “I have cleaned each adobe brick like a dental hygienist would clean each tooth. Then, I embed little stones in the new mud for anchors, make small squiggles in the plaster for better adherence, and apply four coats with each layer getting smoother and smoother.”
Larry recently returned from White Sands where he was hired to make stucco repairs to the old George McDonald home. He proved up to the challenge of matching the residence’s rough stucco texture.
One of Larry’s favorite and ongoing residential plastering jobs is the old Taylor Home just off the Plaza de Mesilla owned by Paul Taylor’s daughter, Mary Helen Ratji and her husband.
Much of the emplastedor’s work, so far, has been on the interior, where he has restored and plastered what was an 1850s carriage house listed on the historic register, as well as storerooms converted into a study and pantry. Larry’s mastery shines through in the kitchen ceiling’s bright, white plaster that follows the contours of the original curved vigas.
“It was tedious work,” Mary Helen says, “but with Larry, you just let him go, especially with the colors.”
Larry has added special features to the home, which when finished, will encompass 2,900 square feet. A nicho notched into one wall of the zaguan, or hallway, and an inch-thick plaster relief framing a doorway reflect the plasterer’s nuanced skills.
While he waits for the weather to cool enough to begin applying plaster to the water-damaged lower reaches of the residence’s exterior walls, Larry stays busy with other projects. He has been doing restoration work at Fort Bowie in Arizona and serving as a consultant to preservationists at Bandolier National Monument and San Felipe Pueblo.
Larry concedes what he does is a dying art, a more demanding and time-consuming craft than other masonry work done in today’s rush-rush world. But he vows to continue following his heart and passion of working on old buildings and homes as long as he is physically able.
“A building itself has a lot of history—what people did who worked or lived there,” he says. “It was a passion people had. It was a carino, love from the soul.”