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Redemption Song

For the Santa Fe Indian School, Paolo Soleri’s demise is a beginning, not an end

July 21, 2010, 12:00 am

Over the course of a weekend in July, 2008, the council demolished many of the historic buildings on the campus, including a brick schoolhouse that had been built in 1890.

In 2000, when Congress transferred the school property from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to the Pueblo Council, the State Historic Preservation officer at the Historic Preservation Division cautioned the tribes that the buildings should be

The buildings, in fact, had been considered eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, according to New Mexico’s State Historic Preservation Officer Jan Biella. Under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, states can nominate archaeological sites, buildings more than 50 years old and sacred places for listing and protection on the national register.

The state’s role, however, kicks in only when there is what’s called a “federal undertaking.” That is, when a federal agency is involved in construction—such as of a new highway or a dam—a land transfer or some sort of permitting activity, such as the permitting of oil and gas development or logging projects. Federal agencies are responsible for initiating consultation with the state and stakeholders, Biella says, and the state did prepare a cultural resources report when the BIA transferred the land to the council 10 years ago.

But that was the extent of the state’s involvement.

Biella notes that when intact, the now-demolished buildings had constituted a “district” that was considered eligible to the national list. But the state never completed the nomination or submitted it to the National Park Service for inclusion on the list.

For its part, the Paolo Soleri Amphitheater was never listed as an individual property that might be singularly eligible for the register. Rather, the state had listed it as a contributing element to that district—a district that now no longer exists. Now, with no federal action underway or federal agencies involved with the school or the Paolo, the state’s hands are tied. (Whether or not Sens. Udall and Bingaman can intervene in some way remains to be seen.)

Passions are running high, Biella says, and many people are frustrated as to why a building so important to the Santa Fe community cannot be preserved. The All Indian Pueblo Council has not met with the Historic Preservation Division—nor is it required to do so under state or federal laws.

It’s obvious that Biella is disappointed—by talk of demolition and by the lack of communication between the council and the state. She also understands how frustrated people are with her office. But preservation is a process, she says, not an outcome.

Clearly, the Paolo Soleri Amphitheater is important to many people, she says. But the laws don’t mandate preservation.

“The policy is that you take preservation into account,” she says. “You consider the historic importance and see if there is a way to accommodate preservation or minimize harm to something that is important.”

Despite the office’s mission of preservation, its staff must balance the past with the present. Handling thousands of cases each year, Biella says, the division is sometimes criticized for not doing enough to protect important places; other times, people are angry because they have to take preservation into their development plans.

Personally, she hopes the council will reconsider any plans to demolish the Paolo. At the very least, she hopes it will initiate communication with her office, which can offer technical expertise.

But she also acknowledges that there are sometimes legitimate reasons that prevent a property from being saved.

“Let me just ask a different way,” she says. “What if it were your house and your property, and you had something that was compelling? Would you want our office to come in and prohibit you from doing what you wanted to do with your own property?”

Having recovered from the July 9 Modest Mouse show—the Paolo’s second-to-last music concert before its Aug. 1 closing date—Fan Man Productions’ Jamie Lenfestey recalls his very first show at the amphitheater.

In 1992, he and a partner brought the Indigo Girls.

“It had rained a lot, and the whole backstage was flooded, so we laid down shipping palettes—it was like walking around on the docks,” he says. “Yet at the end of the night, when the Indigo Girls came off the stage, they hugged, saying it was their favorite show of the whole tour.”

That sums up the Paolo, he says: It’s a difficult place to do a show, but an amazing place to see a show and an amazing place for artists to perform.

He also agrees with school officials that the Paolo is falling apart. “It’s definitely a crumbling structure that doesn’t make them money,” he says, “and it costs them money.” He also respects their right to decide the amphitheater’s fate.

“Yes, it is totally unfair and unjustified for the Indian School to be saddled with the burden of maintaining the Paolo Soleri,” he says. “It’s very, very expensive, and it shouldn’t have to come out of their budget—that money should go to educating their kids.”

That said, he regrets the lack of communication—and the resulting confusion—between school officials and the public. Now, he says, officials are backtracking on earlier statements that the amphitheater was definitely slated for demolition.

“I think it’s a great idea for them to sit on it; it will be expensive to tear down,” he says, adding that creation of a nonprofit could relieve the Indian School of the Paolo. “I think there is a very real opportunity to seize upon the momentum of this moment that its closing has created.”

A tour of Paolo reveals the numerous big and small repairs it needs—more than $4 million worth.
Credits: Ana Goñi-Lessan

A nonprofit could raise the money to lease the amphitheater from the school and also pay the maintenance costs. Similar to the Lensic, a nonprofit could rent it out to community groups and theater groups. There is also, he says, a movement afoot to look into building a new Paolo Soleri Amphitheater elsewhere in Santa Fe.

In either case, the public has a responsibility as well. “Santa Fe certainly has a long history of not realizing what they’ve got until it’s too late,” Lenfestey says. Venues like the Paramount or the handful of nightclubs that have closed over the years did so because people weren’t supporting them.

But Lenfestey also believes much of the controversy over the Paolo could have been avoided if school officials had made a clear, concise statement about their plans for the amphitheater.

“It still would have caused an uproar because it’s sad for everybody and a sad loss to the music scene,” he says. “But I think the PR debacle came from the lack of clarity over why it was being torn down and what necessitated that.”

Undoubtedly, the Paolo is an important part of Santa Fe. And for the many people who have seen shows there or been influenced by Soleri’s architectural work, talk of its demolition seems a tragedy.

But for others, the Paolo is only one building among many at the Indian School—a place whose history has not always been a happy one.
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