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The spirit of art lives on at Will Shuster’s former property.
Courtesy of Sotheby’s International Realty

Sell Him!

House of Old Man Gloom’s creator hits the real estate market

May 27, 2015, 12:00 am

The annual autumn gathering for the burning of Zozobra may be fleeting, lasting only a few hours. But the property where Old Man Gloom’s creator once lived is permanent. And it’s sunny and cheery.

And now, it’s for sale—the house, the casita next door and the studio out back, all 3,900 square feet of it.

Will Shuster’s former home, just off Canyon Road, hit the market in February, says Sotheby’s broker KC Martin as she gives a tour of the grounds. The asking price is $1.95 million.

If you’re looking for a house that has historical significance plus modern amenities, then this is it, Martin insists of the three-quarter-acre property located at 550 Camino del Monte Sol.

Tom Stoner, who owns the house along with his wife, Laurie Larsen, says the family is going to miss living in it. It’s something they’ve done on a part-time basis since they bought the property in 2010 from Laurie’s mother, Jane Larsen, who had purchased it from the Shuster family in 1987.

The Burning of Zozobra has been going on for more than 90 years; this one from the 1920s sported a loin cloth.

For nearly three decades, the trio of adobe houses has been a place, he says, where the family would hold retreats and gather in the name of some Santa Fe fun and artistic endeavors in the spirit of Shuster.

“The ghosts of Will Shuster and his Cinco Pintores [Five Painters] live on in every corner of that house, and it’s safe to say that they inspired us,” says Stoner in a telephone interview from Boulder, where the couple lives.

“But it’s time to move on now,” he adds. “Our kids are grown.”

What kind of people own the house? Stoner is a renewable energy entrepreneur and business owner; his wife is a painter and a student of mythology, and she is currently working on a doctorate degree.

Mythology: It’s a fitting subject. Shuster’s reputation all but borders on it. He’s long been admired among Santa Fean artists for his paintings—in a part of town, no less, that’s not coincidentally overrun with art galleries on Canyon Road.

Yet it’s not Shuster’s artwork that he’s greatest known for in these parts; it’s the creation of Zozobra, a monolithic doll whose dizzying heights have varied and whose burning has become an annual tradition. It takes place at dusk every year in September, unofficially kicking off Fiestas and providing cash for the local Kiwanis Club.

But the real purpose of the torching, set this year to take place on Friday, Sept. 4, at Fort Marcy Park, is to give residents a chance to thumb their noses at all the anxieties and hang-ups that bummed them out the previous year.

In a tape-recorded interview conducted on July 30, 1964 (and now part of the Archives of American Art), Shuster makes it clear that the idea of Old Man Gloom came from the Mummers Parade in Philadelphia, his hometown.

That parade, held every New Year’s Day, featured a larger-than-life puppet that wasn’t much different from Zozobra, only it was flogged with different “gay colored whips” as it was carried down the streets.

Shuster refers to it in the recorded interview as a “wicked soul” and “a gloomy one.”

In Santa Fe, the first match was lit in 1924, in the backyard of Shuster’s first house on Tano Road. After that, the artist-turned-pyromaniac moved the fun to City Hall, back when that building fronted Palace Avenue.

Shuster relays that the Santa Fe New Mexican editor at the time, Dana Johnson, who was also head of the Fiesta Council, came up with the word “zozobra,” after looking up the word “gloom” in a Spanish dictionary.

The first Zozobra was only 18 feet high. Its current form typically towers to 40 feet.

Says Shuster in the recording, “I remember we stuffed it with excelsior which we had soaked in copper sulfate and then dried and stuffed it with that, the idea being that we’d get a beautiful blue green flame. Gus Baumann made the head out of a cardboard carton. Well, this carton was too small. It looked like a little pinhead on top of this figure 18 feet high…I realized if we were going to make a head, it had to be a big head—the head is about 9 feet high now.”

And of course at the time of the interview, Shuster was living in the house that’s now for sale. In the front yard, there is a turquoise-colored mailbox with Zozobra drawn on it, a telltale sign for those in the know. There’s also Will Shuster’s name, a cursive wrought iron signature that’s mounted to the right of the front door.

The house, which is on the city’s list of significant historic structures, was built in 1924 by Frank Applegate, an artist and friend of Shuster’s. Shuster bought it in 1937, building the studio and casita over time.

A tuberculosis patient, Shuster moved to Santa Fe in 1920 on orders from a Philadelphia doctor, who thought he only had a year or two to live.

Yet he defied the odds, painting up until his death in 1969, when he was 76.

“Next to Georgia O’Keeffe, Will Shuster is probably the most famous person in Santa Fe,” says Martin, who’s already fielding calls from interested buyers, including one from Los Angeles. “I don’t think I’m going to have any problem selling it.”


 

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