A month ago, tour guide Tom Gallegos noticed that one of his favorite stops—a place to visit for its history, a cup of coffee and a chat with museum keeper Evelyn Roybal—was closed. The “Oldest House in the USA,” or La Tiendita del Barrio—located across from the country’s oldest church, San Miguel Mission, in what may be Santa Fe’s oldest neighborhood, the Barrio de Analco—is, according to Gallegos, an important window into Santa Fe’s past.
“I was surprised to see it closed up and with no info. Evelyn would always leave a note if she was gone,” Gallegos says. He hoped the historical landmark might reopen in the following days, but it didn’t. It “remained shuttered, and then a notice appeared that the space was available for lease,” Gallegos says.
The small adobe structure, whose history is uncertain and laden with lore, spirits and speculation, is considered one of the country’s oldest standing houses.
Allan Pacheco, a history and paranormal activity tour guide who’s been visiting and investigating the house since the 1970s, says it has experienced several management transfers, often opening up as a curio shop.
According to carbon dating, Pacheco says, the structure dates back to the 1200s, and was taken over by the Spaniards in the 1600s. The museum sign dates the building “circa 1646 AD.”
City Historian José Garcia says the house is “synonymous with Santa Fe and the history of Santa Fe.” He says it has always been an attraction for visitors.
“It just happens [that] we are an ancient city, historical city, and that should be [the house’s] purpose,” he says. “It’s an integral part of who we are.”
In 2010, Roybal—an employee of St. Michael’s High School, which owns both the mission and the oldest house—reopened the vacant building as a coffee shop and museum. In addition to letting locals and visitors peruse the historic building, she served coffee and homemade baked goods, transforming the property into a community gathering place. Her goal was to keep its history alive.
“I was born and raised here,” she says. “It always made me a little sad that the property was closed for so many years.”
For Roybal, it was a labor of love.
“I was getting a stipend, but it wasn’t enough for survival,” she says. “I had nothing other than the love and the passion and the baking.”
Recently, St. Michael’s High School decided to lease the house to another tenant, rather than having Roybal run the property. Marcia Sullivan, the school’s president, says the decision came after the “real estate market started to come back.”
“The income from [the property] supports the school,” Sullivan explains. “It was important to have a [paying] tenant.” The new tenant is Bell Tower Properties, a real estate business that moved into the building last weekend and plans to open its doors this weekend.
Roybal says she wasn’t entirely surprised that St. Michael’s decided to lease the house; she knew that the board wanted to “increase the revenue of the property.” But she is heartbroken. Though she was not officially asked to leave, she says, “I knew that it would probably be best if I got my things out of the property and let them do what they were going to do.”
Garcia says the property was deeded by Archbishop Lamy to the Christian Brothers, upon whose teachings St. Michael’s was founded, for the purpose of education. But Roybal, he says, “was the first tenant that really related the history” to the public.
For visitors, some things will remain the same. Sullivan says it was important that the new tenant make the home “accessible and open to the public.” The museum will still be open seven days a week and, Sullivan says, the high school will continue to oversee it—just not under Roybal’s management.
But for some locals, Roybal has become a part of the building’s identity.
Pacheco, for instance, says the house has a definite strong and often unfriendly energy, but that under Roybal’s management, it dissipated.
“She really did a fantastic job. Great prayer, spiritual strength—she pretty much checked the energy that was there,” Pacheco says.
Roybal has her own explanation for it.
“I was not there to exploit a thing,” she says, “and every day as I went in, I’d always ask the spirits of the house to guide me and help me to do the right thing and say the right thing and bring [the home] back to what it had.”
Visitors from around the world felt at home in, as Roybal puts it, “their home away from home.”
Pacheco echoes the sentiment of many an “Oldest House” visitor: “Whoever takes over this place, they’re gonna have a very, very tall order to make it like it was under Evelyn’s tutelage.”