Caitlyn Marrs
Joshua Tree National Park

At the western base of Ryan Mountain lie adobe ruins representing early turn of the century life in Joshua Tree National Park. What remains there today is the footprint left behind by the Ryan family, who came to Joshua Tree in the 1890’s to manage and eventually acquire the Lost Horse Mine, the most successful mine in the area. Ryan Ranch originally consisted of three adobe structures: a small one room structure of unknown purpose, a two room bunkhouse, and the main house. Wood and metal structures were eventually added to the site. While the main house is thought to have been built around 1896, the construction dates of the neighboring structures are unknown but thought to post date the main house. In 1975, Ryan Ranch along with the Lost Horse Well, was added to the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). The site was nominated as a historic district based on its profitable history and depiction of early mining life and, therefore, its local significance to Joshua Tree National Park and the surrounding communities.

Ryan Ranch circa 1983

Ryan Ranch circa 1983

Unfortunately for Ryan Ranch, a history of vandalism has also been a part of its past. As a result, the site has deteriorated more quickly than naturally expected. Although Ryan Ranch became the property of the park in 1966, the Ryan family retained a life estate until the death of Leanta Ryan. The park, therefore, was not in a position to stabilize the adobe structures until much later in their history. In 1975 all three adobe structures were still structurally sound, however, vandalism in the form of graffiti on the adobe began accumulating. The main house had a roof, plastered walls, window panes, doors, and many other structural elements associated with a turn of the century homestead. The small one room structure had remnants of all four walls and two window frames, but vandalism was contributing to the process of natural deterioration. On August 12,1978, the Ryan ranch house experienced a devastating blow when the structure was burned. Arson was suspected. All that remained of the main house were its fragile adobe walls. With the roof gone and much of the protective plaster spalled off, the structure was now completely exposed to the elements. Today, only two of the original adobe structures have walls remaining, the old bunkhouse and the main ranch house. The small one room building has since melted into an amorphous mass of adobe.

In 1936 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Joshua Tree’s enabling legislation which cites the preservation of historic resources as a primary goal in reserving the land in public trust. With the site’s later inclusion on the NRHP and based on the historic relevance of Ryan Ranch to park history, the National Park Service was tasked with the preservation of Ryan Ranch for future generations. As part of the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Historic Preservation, two options were available to the park for the treatment of Ryan Ranch; preservation or reconstruction. Reconstruction would rebuild the adobe structures based on historic data available to the park, whereas preservation is intended to essentially “stop the hands of time”, preserving the structure in its current state. Due to the prohibitive cost and lack of historic data to accurately reconstruct the adobe structures, preservation was the park’s only option. Part of preserving structures is the continual maintenance and monitoring of the structure, a process requiring considerable time, energy, and funding. Adobe structures are particularly problematic to preserve, even in arid environments. Even while occupied, residents must periodically re-plaster the structures to provide a “shelter coat”, or a layer that would be allowed to erode leaving the adobe bricks intact. A lime plaster shelter coat has the beneficial property of allowing the adobe to breathe as moisture wicks in and out of the walls.

In the past five years, several efforts have been made to stabilize Ryan Ranch. Below is a condensed summary of this work. Reports are available for each of the stabilization efforts and all documents are available for public viewing. These can be found in the Joshua Tree National Park library in Twentynine Palms.

2003 April-May Kelly Clark and her historic preservation crew from New Mexico perform stabilization. They recreated adobe bricks, using historic methods, to repair missing sections of walls; rehabilitated deteriorating steps and foundations; stabilized historic plaster fragments; and capped window sills and tops of walls to protect the structure from rainfall. They also recommended the NPS consider reconstructing the old roof.
2004 May David Yubeta and his Tumacacori preservation crew reassessed Ryan Ranch. Walls were showing a honeycomb effect and they were concerned that the adobes could not breathe properly.
2004 August Yubeta’s team returns to treat walls. Shaved off honeycomb effect; recapped window sills and tops of walls with a more breathable option; and addressed drainage issues.
2005 Dec-Jan 15+ inches of rainfall within two months caused the collapse of three walls on the main house. 125 square feet of original fabric was lost.
2005 February Yubeta’s team returns to assess wall failure. They drained standing water away from the structure, graded floors to promote runoff, and temporarily secured walls (braced them with lumber). During the clean-up it was discovered that remnants of historic lime plaster remained from an earlier period. Four treatment options were considered: (1) rebuild fallen walls to stabilize ones still standing; (2) apply a two coat lime plaster cap and rendering on exterior walls that would ensure the adobes breathe and leave interior visible for interpretation; (3) install structure over ruins to protect from direct rainfall; and (4) no action and deem structure as liability. The decision was made that a lime plaster rendering on the remaining ruin walls would be the preferred treatment alternative.
2005 April Yubeta’s team returns to encapsulate adobe ruins of the main house with lime plaster. (The original adobes were thought to be made from mine tailings and were found to contain high levels of lead and mercury. Using the lime plaster mitigated the concern of toxic materials as an added benefit). After applying the lime plaster the walls were stained using a wash made from the fallen adobe bricks still on site.
2005 June Yubeta’s team returns to treat bunkhouse structure with lime plaster.

While the appearance of the most recent stabilization work may present a degree of shock value in comparison to the original fabric, that was not the intent of the preservation crew nor the park. The park’s objective was simple: to prevent further collapse of the adobe walls. The lime plaster used to restore the structure emulated the historic materials and this plaster was stained using a wash made from the fallen adobe bricks on site. This treatment will protect the walls from moisture, allow the adobe to breathe, and provide an acceptable maintenance cycle of 5-7 years. Although a more aesthetically pleasing stabilization would have been preferable to some, the materials used were as historically accurate as possible. The work done was contracted out to professionals well established in the field of historic preservation. The truth is this structure was rapidly disappearing, not from natural deterioration alone but also from the pressure of continued vandalism. While the outcome of this work may not have been ideal, it was the best choice under the circumstances. At least now the structure still stands and the original fabric is still visible on the interior walls, displaying pockets of historic plaster and adobe bricks as seen through an interpretive window.

The most recent vandalism to the structure took place in November of 2008. The structure was tagged with extensive graffiti on multiple walls and a hole broken into the west wall of the main house using an old pipe that had been previously used to drain water away from the structure. If water is allowed to stand within the rooms of the structures it disintegrates the basal course of adobe, undermining the foundation of the wall. The actions of these individuals will likely cost the park and its visitors a considerable amount of time and money. In addition, yet more of the historic integrity of Ryan Ranch will be gone and with it, a piece of Joshua Tree’s history. Despite these recent setbacks in the preservation of Ryan Ranch, the National Park Service still intends to do everything in its power to ensure this historic site stands in perpetuity for the education and enjoyment of future generations. It will be only through the consolidated efforts of the park and the understanding of the public that this goal will be achieved.

What has been done in the past is now history. As for today and tomorrow, we still have a choice. The hope is we can learn from the past and do better in the future. Public interest is always appreciated. For the most accurate information or if you have questions, comments, or suggestions regarding the management of Joshua Tree National Park, feel free to drop us a line. We will be happy to talk with you and may even be able to shed some new light on what’s going on in the park.

Write to:

Superintendent Curt Sauer
Joshua Tree National Park
74485 National Park Drive
Twentynine Palms, CA 92277

Or Call Park Headquarters at 760-367-5502