The New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs has declared that the planned contemporary art museum near the Santa Fe Railyard requires a state historic review—reversing course on a position the department held for years.

Previous leaders tried to steamroll the project over a review by the state Historic Preservation Division because the museum's funding source is mostly private money raised by a foundation rather than state capital improvement cash. But Debra Garcia y Griego, named Cultural Affairs secretary by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in January, tells SFR she's stepping on the brakes.

"I inherited a project—a wonderful important project—that is pretty far down the path," she says, conceding the decision means a delay on the timeline, and breaking a promise that the new museum would open next year.

"It's unfortunate that the opportunity for formal public input did not occur earlier. The New Mexico Museum Foundation and DCA did do outreach during events but it was not through those established public channels," Garcia y Griego adds.

Now, she says, the department is committed to the state review and to "making accommodations where possible while making prudent and reasonable decisions."

The Department of Cultural Affairs hired an architect in 2017 to dream up a way to use the 1930s warehouse and its surrounding tract of land for a place to show off and store contemporary art—a bridge, they said, between new and old. Those plans are at least 90% complete, with $11 million in private donations and $4 million in state cash lined up for construction.

The Vladem Contemporary, named for a donor who kicked in $4 million for the rights, is proposed as an addition to the Halpin State Archives building. DNCA Architects designed a "floating" structure that lays a long rectangle over the historic one at the second-story level, growing the footprint and creating some modern facades as well as restoring the original warehouse area.

There's also the question of approval for the plan by the City of Santa Fe. In May, the state made a presentation to the city's Historic Districts Review Board. Garcia y Greigo says the appearance was a courtesy to the city government and its residents, but DCA's position is that the city does not have jurisdiction.

City Attorney Erin McSherry disagrees. Although a series of meetings apparently took place years earlier between former Mayor Javier Gonzales, then-city attorney Kelly Brennan and other city officials and state project managers, neither the city nor the state can produce records about whatever agreement they made. Then, last December, McSherry asserted that the state needed to consult with the city to change the historic building and construct a new one because it was in a restricted Historic Transition District. By then, the state was already far along with its designs.

McSherry tells SFR in an interview Monday that her office was prepared in June to negotiate with the state about the outcome of the H-board hearing, as outlined in the city code. She says that City Hall is now in a holding pattern, one that Gracia y Griego agrees is underway so DCA planners can respond to city and state feedback at the same time.

Some of the strongest voices of public opposition to the museum proposal include people who were involved in the planning for the adjacent Railyard area. They especially oppose disrupting the view of the mountains from the Railyard Plaza. Gayla Bechtol, an architect who worked on those planning processes in the 1980s and '90s, says it's disheartening that the state worked so hard to "avoid scrutiny."

Her main objective is that the building be shorter and less massive, but she tells SFR she remains cynical about the new planned review.

"What does that mean?" she says, noting that both the museum project planners and the department's historic division answer to the cabinet secretary. "It's the same department reviewing itself."

Even though most of them voiced disdain that the hearing came so late in the process, comments from H-board delivered to DCA by the city attorney show some support.

"It is still confounding that this case circumvented (and still officially avoids) the review process outlined in the city's ordinances," writes member Anthony Guida. "Even though it does not conform to many of the city's design standards, I am also in favor of the project's general design approach, and the way in which it treats a contributing historic structure through formal and material contrast."

Frank Katz, the board's vice chair, illustrated nine points in which he says the proposal deviates from the code. Then, he summarized with two questions: "How can those of us charged with applying the city ordinance and preserving the city's historic heritage simply brush aside all these standards and pretend they mean nothing? How can the DCA?"

He suggested one solution could be to remove the parcel from the historic district boundary to "stop pretending" that the new building could be compliant.

The state hired Nicole Ramirez-Thomas, a former city Historic Preservation Office senior planner, as a consultant to compile a report that includes the public comment from the city hearing and additional information for the state process. The state historic preservation officer's review is anticipated to be complete in early September.

The 1930s Halpin Building and its 1980s mural today from Guadalupe Street.
The 1930s Halpin Building and its 1980s mural today from Guadalupe Street. | Anson Stevens-Bollen

What are the sticking points?

Color: One of the museum's main problems with public perception of the structure itself is based on early drawings that envisioned shiny metal cladding. Garcia y Griego says that idea is already off the table; now it's
"a shade of brown."

Size and mass: "Some people don't like it; some people think it's fine," she summarizes. The building is proposed to be just under 43 feet at its highest point—shorter than the 52-foot pitched roof on the Garfield building nearby.

The mural: Between 1980 and 1982 local artists painted the building's east facade facing Guadalupe Street. DCA continues to "be in conversations with the artist about the best way forward." (In May, project representative Peter Brill said the state has appropriated $52,000 for a new mural and is negotiating with surviving artist.)

The quote: A wooden beam that says "A nation that forgets its past has no future," and the plaques that honor the name of former state records administrator Joseph Halpin are now planned to remain on site. An agreement is under negotiation for DCA to pay the city to validate museum patron parking in the underground Railyard parking garage.