Santa Fe architect Conrad Skinner was 19 years old when he heard
, the Italian-born architect, speak at an exhibit in Washington, DC. “He hit the world of architecture like a tsunami, this little guy,” Skinner says with a laugh.
Soleri advocated the fusion of architecture with ecological concepts. “Arcology,” as it was called, was also about ending the isolation of people from one another and their communities.
Some 15 years later, when Skinner moved to Santa Fe, he was captivated by the Paolo Soleri Amphitheater, which the
Institute of American Indian Arts
had commissioned Soleri to design. (The amphitheater was built during a time when the Bureau of Indian Affairs relocated Indian School students to Albuquerque, and the Institute of American Indian Arts took over the Santa Fe campus.)
“There are the expressive elements of the architecture and the earth forms—and the way the canyons come in from the back—and it becomes kind of a cave,” Skinner says. “It’s not just organic in its shape, but it’s organic in its closeness to the geological forms.”
It’s not only rare—Soleri took few commissions—but is also an example of “cultural bridge building,” Skinner says. After all, it represents the work and backing of Natives and non-Natives alike, including the wife of late former Department of the Interior Secretary Stewart Udall
, Erma Lee.
In short, the Paolo deserves to survive, and Skinner, like many others, is increasingly frustrated that the city’s elected officials haven’t done enough to save it.
“I feel as though Santa Fe politicians and a lot of people here are always ready to get up in arms about threats to the Santa Fe style but, when it comes to sticking their necks out about this architectural treasure that we have—because it doesn’t conform to the Chamber of Commerce’s view of the architecture that is promoted as a part of Santa Fe—these people chicken out,” he says. “They’re always ready to sound off about the near-sacred status of Santa Fe style. But when it comes to this somewhat eccentric treasure we have in Santa Fe, their tongues are tied.”
SFIS officials say they have not set a date for demolition—nor are they closing the door on preserving the Paolo.
“Sure, if someone came to us and said, ‘We’ll donate X amount of dollars to keep it open,’ that would be great,” the council’s communications consultant Edward Calabaza says. “Nobody, of course, has come forward, but we are open to those suggestions, and if somebody—a mysterious donor or a philanthropist—came forward, sure, we’re open to that.”
SFIS officials also released a public statement this week in response to US Sens.
that conveyed willingness to meet with the senators to discuss options for saving the amphitheater.
Be that as it may, frustration also is palpable when it comes to SFIS officials.
In a letter to SFR, Talia Kosh, the founder and president of New Mexico Lawyers for the Arts, writes that the amphitheater is sacred to both Natives and non-Natives.
“That is not something that should be demolished because groups acting as a business are going to make room for a parking lot or another office building or some money-making structure,” she writes. “The Paolo is a tribute to this concept and SFIS is tearing it down—as a corporation.”
Demolition for Paolo isn’t a done deal. It may not happen at all. But fear that the ampitheater might just disappear has been palpable throughout the controversy. That’s in large part because the Paolo Soleri situation isn’t the first time the All Indian Pueblo Council has alienated its Santa Fe neighbors and drawn fire from the preservation community.
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
, 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
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
“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 nonprofit could raise the money to lease the amphitheater from the school and also pay the maintenance costs. Similar to the
, 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.
Despite the few students on campus, this summer is still a busy time at the Santa Fe Indian School, particularly as construction on the new wellness center continues.
Indeed, the school’s campus has grown and shifted through time. According to Sally Hyer’s collected oral history of the school, One House, One Voice, One Heart, the federal government built the original school building in 1890. She describes the building as having two side wings, and following the standardized federal guidelines for off-reservation schools: “It was designed to be cheaply built and easily enlarged. Red brick with two stories and a pitched tin roof, the building did not relate in any way to the architectural traditions of the region.”
Expansion occurred over the next two decades: According to Hyer, male students planted hundreds of fruit and shade trees, and were put to work constructing new buildings. In the 1930s, 16 of the buildings were remodeled in the
Spanish Pueblo Revival
style—a move reflected throughout Santa Fe as the city began revamping its buildings and Plaza to create the appearance of a unique regional style. Also by the 1930s, students could choose to come to the school; they were no longer forcibly removed from their communities and families.
Within a few years, 13 new buildings—including ones designed by architect
John Gaw Meem
—were added to the old campus. Dorms were remodeled—students shared smaller rooms, and were no longer made to sleep on porches or in beds lined up within long rooms—murals were added to the dining hall and other buildings, and Hyer says that the school began to cultivate a reputation as an Indian art school.
But the school closed in 1962. Students could either attend public schools or the Albuquerque Indian School, and the Institute of American Indian Arts moved onto the campus. A few years later, the All Indian Pueblo Council—which represents the 19 pueblo tribes in New Mexico—put the newly enacted Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act to the test and took over the Santa Fe Indian School. By 1981, the institute had been relocated and the Albuquerque Indian School students, grades seven through 12, had been moved back to the Santa Fe campus.
In 2000, the council solidified its control of the school when Congress transferred the campus to it from the BIA. Within a couple of years, the council had begun work on a brand-new campus and, in 2008, it demolished almost all of the old campus. A few buildings remain, which house administrative offices, the Indigenous Language Institute and the Tierra Encantada Charter School. But for the most part, there is nothing but bare, flattened ground. Even the groves of trees are gone.
Continuing the tour of the campus, Chavez defends the decision to demolish most of the old campus. When the federal government transferred the land and its buildings, it did not provide the cash to maintain the deteriorating buildings.
“We tried to work with the federal government, to put them back on their inventory list, but they didn’t want them back,” he says. “We worked for a few years to find a vehicle to do that but, in the end, they said they were not going to take them back.” Unwilling to bring the buildings up to code or to address issues like handicap access as well as environmental and public health threats such as asbestos, the council instead spent $1.5 million on the buildings’ demolition.
But it wasn’t just money. The old campus also represented a period of time during which Native children were taken from their families and forcibly indoctrinated into the mainstream, Anglo-American culture. During the school’s early years, representatives from the Santa Fe Indian School would take children from the pueblos to bring them to the school.
In her oral history, Hyer relates the recollections of a woman who was taken from San Juan Pueblo (now
Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo
) in 1915. Officials had come for her older brother but, because he was helping his family with the cattle and harvest, they took the family’s 5-year-old daughter instead.
On the train to Santa Fe, the girl wrapped herself in her mother’s shawl. But then, ‘That [Indian School] lady said she was taking my shawl off. She didn’t want me to wear a shawl. You know, they didn’t want us Indians to be Indians in those days. They wanted us to be something else than that. And then she wanted to take my shawl. No! I held it to me because that shawl touched my mother and I loved it. I wanted it to touch me.’
“Can you imagine being torn away from your mom and dad? That’s the kind of history we have,” Chavez says. Since the 1970s, tribes have been working toward a vision of educational sovereignty and the re-creation of Indian schools. At the Santa Fe Indian School, that has meant creating a new campus—one on which Native students feel at home.
Continuing the tour, Chavez steps into the new math and sciences building, outside of which a traditional-style plaza is surrounded by the humanities building, a dining hall and library, and the practical arts building.
Throughout the campus, there are technology centers and computer labs that were created through partnerships with entities that include the
Department of Energy
and Intel Corp. Within the new educational buildings, students work on projects that benefit their tribes—they do geographic information system mapping projects, work on environmental issues, and even try to address dietary issues and prevent diseases such as diabetes. There’s a
project on campus, where students collect and save the seeds of plants grown and used by the tribes in order to protect them from genetic corruption.
Nearby, the dormitories resemble homes. Two or three students share individual rooms. Common rooms, complete with fireplaces, resemble those in traditional pueblo structures. Within the high school dormitories, there are rooms in which students may pray.
All along the way, Chavez brags about the school’s students: 97 percent graduate, and many go on to college. Recent graduates have gone on to Stanford, Yale and Georgetown. And many come home to work for their tribes afterward.
Pleased to be showing off the new campus, Chavez seems genuinely baffled by all the attention paid to saving the Paolo. He guesses few public school districts would want a concert facility in the middle of one of their schools.
As he heads over toward the new wellness center—an indoor athletic facility that he says one day may host concerts and theater productions—and its bright green AstroTurf athletic fields, he talks about the school’s future.
He recalls the words of one of the people who was at the forefront to gain control of the
Santa Fe Indian School
property: “If we’re going to be in control of our destinies, as tribal people, we need to be in control of our education.”
He still believes those words, he says.
“It’s important that we do things as we please. We do it because we’ve had this vision for a long, long time, and we’re finally moving on it. And we can’t be faulted for moving on that vision,” he says. “Our educational agenda is going to liberate and empower our people.”
With or without music in the background.