Castles, Ruins & Mysteries

Uncovering the secrets of Santa Fe’s icons and eyesores

Santa Fe’s venerable position in the hierarchy of architecture of New Mexico cities is a hard-fought distinction. Home of the “oldest church,” the “oldest house,” the “oldest continuously occupied government building” and the state’s only cathedral basilica, we’re also proud of our John Gaw Meem and our Paolo Soleri (rest in peace). Building codes that keep the downtown historic district looking like an adobe Disneyland have the rest of the city leaning toward brown and round, too. From the stone facade on the McDonald’s on St. Francis to the faux-dobe on the Target and the Walmart Supercenter, even corporations are in on the game.

But then there are these buildings. The SFR team picked some of the city's structures that are, at present, anomalous to the traditional Santa Fe landscape. What we learned is that in most cases, plans to update, finish and reuse these buildings call for millions of dollars, some of which could be on the way, and some of which seem out of reach.

Ever drive by that crazy cinder block castle on Agua Fría and wonder what the story is? Puzzle over the vacant Railyard shopping center? Question whether it's really BooRadley that lives in the once-fancy house on the corner of Galisteo and Paseo de Peralta? Us too.

St. Catherine’s Indian School


Nestled on a hillside less than a mile from the Plaza, the buildings on the sprawling, vacant campus of the place locals call St. Kate's have been crumbling back to the earth. Among the structures are one of the state's tallest adobes built before the turn of the 20th century, as well as murals painted by Edward O'Brien, an artist who is also buried alongside several nuns in the property's graveyard.

In what seemed like an open invitation for vandalism and squatting, the downward spiral began when the boarding school, with State Supreme Court Justice Barbara Vigil counted among its alumni, closed in 1998. A developer hoping to sell most of the land to the nearby national cemetery took over. Years passed, proposals for development came and went, neighbors raised varying degrees of protest, one dude went to prison, a Colorado bank became the owner, and it seemed like all would surely be lost.

Yet, now an organization with a solid reputation for executing housing projects has purchased the campus and holds out a glimmer of hope. When the school went up for auction on the courthouse steps in April 2016, the Santa Fe Civic Housing Authority took its title for $2 million.

"The board felt that somebody needed to step in and save this property. It was going to continue to deteriorate," Housing Authority CEO Ed Romero tells SFR. "And we felt like we were probably the only organization that could step in to stabilize the property while we figured out what to do with it long-term."

The housing authority provides apartments for people with federal Section 8 housing vouchers, but also runs a number of market-rate units to help offset the costs. A mixed-use project like that could be in the cards for the school, but with at least $5 million in capital required for rehabbing the worst and most historic structures, that's a tall order.

Today, the campus is playing host to elaborate sets constructed for the film Cliffs of Freedom, a Greek war drama starring Christopher Plummer and Billy Zane. Right now it's a feature film, but its producers hope it will turn into a longer-running television series. Romero says the filming lease came at a perfect time, just after the housing authority bought the land in the last part of 2016. It gives them an income source that could last another several years and gives them cash for badly needed work on areas such as the foundation for the tall adobe building, he says. Next, any development plan would need to meet the city's approval.

"We are not ready to discuss long-term solutions to the property at this point," Romero says. He adds later: "It could be a good deal or it could be a huge nightmare." (Julie Ann Grimm)

A Man’s Castle is, Well, His


"The less I say about it, the better," Emelecio "Leroy" Romero tells SFR in a brief phone call about one of the most recognizable homes in town. He's trying to politely get off the phone, but not before impishly sharing a few thoughts about the cinder block castle in the 2700 block of Agua Fria Street.

"I get all kinds of questions about it," he says. "People tell me it's haunted, that people have hung themselves in there, that people have been decapitated."

Yeah. Probably none of that is true.

SFR’s cover photo was snapped in 1981. The castle’s crenellations have become so iconic since then that the Palace of the Governors archived the photo. A couple of decades later, the castle looked largely the same, with gray cinder blocks exposed and construction remnants haphazardly scattered about. In recent years, though, Romero has spruced up the place, stuccoing over the battlements and the rest of the fortress.

He's gotten creative, too—or stayed creative, and furthered the medieval feel of the place. Huge, flanged concrete pipes are set on their ends on either side of the property, a nod to the towers that often occupy the corners of a castle wall.

It looks like it might be used as apartments, but it's hard to tell. Just the way Romero prefers.

"I'd rather have it as a mystery," he says.

While he steadfastly refuses to share the property's origins, what his designs for it were or even if they started off as his designs, there is some public information available about it. In 2015, Romero convinced the city to let him use the property commercially. His appeal said he's owned the land for decades and that there's a well- and pump-repair business on site, as well as a few mobile homes closer to the Santa Fe River.

It doesn't quite have the same creepy feel since getting a makeover, but Romero is doing his best to at least make the castle sound sinister.

"Who knows what you'll write?" he laughs before saying goodbye. "But I'll enjoy reading it." (Matt Grubs)

Speaking of Castles


"When you throw yourself into the water and you start to swim, you have to keep swimming."

Leonel Capparelli is standing on the second-story veranda of a Spanish Colonial-style building off Rodeo Road on the southeast side of town. He has a big cup of coffee and a cigarette in hand. The sun is shining, a dusting of fresh snow is melting, and the building he's been working on for a decade is, he figures, 90 percent finished.

“I just knew what I wanted,” he says of the project he began in 2007. “I didn’t know what it would cost.”

He does now: close to $1 million by the time he switches on the lights and opens it to the public. Capparelli plans the project as a showroom for his Hands of America antique restoration and reproduction business.

For a time, the work was just too much. The economy tanked shortly after he got started and the building sat with plywood patched over unfinished sections. Stiff winds ripped at the blue tarps that covered spots where the elements eventually poured in. The place looked for all the world like it would start with a grandiose cry and end with an ugly whimper.

But that's not Capparelli's style.

"These days, people don't know about art," he tells SFR, "art that hurts."

The son of Italian parents who raised him in Uruguay, he designed the building with a nod to both his childhood home and the churches he saw throughout Latin America. "I have a thing for churches," he laughs. "When they build them, they build them for God. You cut corners, he knows."

When someone suggested that he close a massive hole in the roof where he planned to install a $30,000 skylight, he refused. For three years. "The place makes no sense without a skylight," he says. He's right. Morning sun floods the building's interior through the peaked panes.

The structure is an homage, he says, to a time when people were willing to build things that last. Much of the material inside—beams, columns, doors, ironwork—is recycled from old cabins in Veracruz, Oaxaca and southern Mexico. Some of it, he figures, is 200 years old.

He moved to Santa Fe 30 years ago and has seen it change, sometimes not for the better. When the city annexed his property a few years back, he had to convince it to let him continue the project, despite the fact he could only spend weekends painstakingly finishing the place.

"I could have slapped up a metal building for a couple hundred thousand dollars," he says, although it takes only a few minutes of talking with him to know he'd never do such a thing.

"I think the New Mexican style is something very special that you cannot see throughout the rest of the world," he muses. He runs a hand along a pile of weathering wood and excuses himself to get back to work. (MG)

It’s a Sin to Kill a Mockingbird


On the historical rolls, the two-story Italianate house at the corner of Paseo de Peralta and Galisteo Street is known as Sargent House. We wouldn't blame you if you thought Boo Radley lives there.

Occupying the prominent site since 1912, the house was lived in by former mayor William G Sargent (1914-18) until his death in 1935. Historic surveyors called it an "excellent example of turn-of-the-century houses that followed the railroad west."

The home unquestionably has a stately air to it, but seems to perennially be in need of repair. When the city surveyed it in 1993, the condition was listed as "fair." The only other classification left was "deteriorating."

Today, it has a decidedly unkempt appearance: trim is weathered, paint is peeling, window screens are sagging and trees are overgrown. Restoring the structure would be a herculean task for the family trust that owns the property. A representative for the Press family, which became the home's owners after the Sargents, declined to talk about the property's history or the cost of keeping the place standing. No one answered the door when we knocked.

Neighbors who've seen it and know what it takes to rehab old buildings tell SFR the cost to get the old home up to snuff would easily clear $1 million and probably double that.

"They did some maintenance about 10 years ago when we asked them to," says Santa Fe Historic Preservation Division head David Rasch. Since then, he describes the upkeep as minimal.

It's a big job, one the city understands.

"Probably the most difficult part of my job is balancing private property rights and the public good," Rasch says. "Yes, you have the right to handle your property, but you're in a historic district and there's a public good to that property."

Because the home is in the Don Gaspar Historic District, there's the challenge of keeping it looking new and old at the same time. It's listed as "significant," so every facade of the house has to stay just as it is. That makes a quick teardown and rebuild impossible. It's still unlikely the city will crack down on the trust anytime soon, but Rasch points out that the law doesn't allow what's called "demolition by neglect."

Across the street, Restaurant Martín faces the structure. Employees say customers routinely ask about the old house. About all the upscale restaurant can share with them is that they think the property has been in the same family for at least three generations and, unless it someday collapses, it's not going anywhere. (MG)

Little Houses Made of Ticky-Tacky


The four casitas across from the Roundhouse are the kind of buildings you might not give a second thought if you pass by them each day. They're tiny. Three of them have tiny garages, too. And they're not in very good shape.

The stucco is badly cracked and pockmarked on the northernmost house. Paint is peeling from the windows. The roof of one garage has fallen in. They are surrounded by a new parking garage that's well cared-for and a parking lot that's in the same rotten shape as the casitas.

But the old homes are historically important; just ask Santa Fe's Historic District Review Board. "Before the state Capitol complex expanded, this was just a residential area like you'd see on the other side of Paseo de Peralta," says David Rasch, head of the city's Historic Preservation Division. "The casitas are remnants of what used to be here. So they embody the story to be told about this neighborhood."

The garages, as dilapidated as they might be, are some of the first examples of purpose-built car storage in Santa Fe. All the buildings were constructed in the 1920s or '30s. "You could get a Model T in them, but not one of today's automobiles," Rasch offers.

The buildings are in the Downtown and Eastside Historic District. So when the H-Board (that's what city staffers call the Historic District Review Board) named them as contributing structures in the 1980s, the distinction carried with it certain protections. When the state announced plans in 2012 to build an executive office building on the site, it asked for another review. The answer this time was that three of the houses and one garage couldn't be altered at all, and the other three structures were still contributing. The state says the building plan is on hold.

That choice may be as much about money as it is about respect for the casitas, which house state offices and are on state land. While the state does need to seek approval from the H-Board, its appeal doesn't go to the Santa Fe City Council, as a normal appeal might. It goes to a seven-member board, four of whom are appointed by the state.

There are minimum upkeep standards for the buildings—as there are with any historic structure—but don't look for the city to go slapping fines on the state any time soon; Santa Fe has done the math for its chances of winning an appeal against the state and knows it's not smart to pick a fight. (MG)

Arts High School Destined for Scrappy Mall


When anchor business Borders closed its operations nationwide in 2011, we all pretty much thought that would signal immediate demise for Sanbusco, the Railyard-area shopping center. But the scrappy little mall survived as Santa Fe's go-to spot for fancy pens, upscale pet accouterments, ladies' finery and more. After all, the Sanbusco Center is a historical landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Developer Joseph Schepps bought and repurposed the former Santa Fe Builders Supply in 1984, more than 100 years after it was first built.

Cut to September 2015, and the New Mexico School for the Arts (NMSA) announced it would buy the building for $7.2 million to create its new campus. The move ups the school's square footage from around 33,000 (at its current location in the former St. Francis Cathedral School) to nearly 76,000, thereby creating the space for more appropriate facilities such as dance and music performance rooms, a theater department, more classrooms, a gallery and an outdoor sculpture studio.

The school displaced a number of Sanbusco businesses, forcing locally owned shops like Santa Fe Pens, Teca Tu and Bodhi Bazaar to the DeVargas Center. Others, such as On Your Feet, temporarily stayed put as the school worked out the details (On Your Feet now plans to move across the street to spaces in the Guadalupe Station over the summer).

In September last year, NMSA earned City Council approval to alter the building and repair some structural issues that school officials say calls for an investment of about $30 million.

That's right: a three with seven zeroes behind it.

The director of NMSA's Art Institute, Cece Derringer, says the school has raised a little over half that goal on their own through private funding and hopes for city government to pick up some of the rest as the school continues its own fundraising efforts.

The school says its economic impact should help the city's adjacent Railyard property with additional jobs, new businesses and more foot traffic.

"We're already starting to build great working relationships with our neighbors and our community," says Beckie Mascolo, NMSA Art Institute marketing director. "We're working to strengthen the relationships, and that's very exciting."

Founded in 2010, the charter school enrolls through an audition process rather than the traditional application or lottery formats of similar institutions. For now, Head of School Cindy Montoya says she hopes the former mall will be student-ready for its 221 students by the summer of 2018, with enrollment numbers increasing in the future. "Our charter cap goes to 300, but we're hoping to one day increase that to 400," she says. "We want to reach more of those students who deserve to be here. … I think by 2019 we'll start to see increased numbers." (Alex De Vore)

A Future for Contemporary Art


Built in 1938 as a distribution warehouse, the 34,000-square-foot Halpin Building has served as a bottling plant and the State Records and Archives office (and is named after the first records administrator, Joseph Halpin). Since then, it's been used by the Department of Cultural Affairs as a storage space during the New Mexico History Museum's construction, and as the Office of Archaeological Studies until it moved into its permanent location off Hwy. 599 in 2013. What used to be a loading dock along Guadalupe Street is now a great place to waste time sitting in the warm rays of the same sun that has faded the mural on the building's north side.

But if New Mexico Museum of Art Director Mary Kershaw and President/CEO Jamie Clements bring their vision to fruition, the building may soon become the satellite site for the contemporary collection of the New Mexico Museum of Art.

The state's art museum opened in its grand building on the Santa Fe Plaza in 1917, when just 5,000 people called Santa Fe home. "Twelve hundred people came to the opening of the museum," Kershaw says. On its centennial anniversary, leaders are looking just as far into the future.

"The museum is too small for what we need it to be as the state art museum," Kershaw says. "The spaces are not appropriate for contemporary art, collection storage is full, we have no educational rooms. We were looking for how we could expand the footprint of the museum to accommodate contemporary art collection storage."

Even though the Railyard building is on the other side of downtown, it's the site they hope will serve that purpose. The state Department of Cultural Affairs took over the structure in the late '90s, mostly using it for offices until about five years ago.

Kershaw had seen the interior of the Halpin building in the past, when it was filled with floor-to-ceiling shelving, dwarfing the giant rooms. In her quest for more collection storage, Kershaw popped into the then-empty warehouse and saw its potential. "When I walked into it, it just spoke to me. It said, 'Mary, I am your contemporary art space,'" Kershaw says.

Clements echoes her sentiment. "We call it the big reveal," he tells SFR. "The outside doesn't suggest the magnificence of the inside."

Romanced by the expansive floor plan, Clements and Kershaw conspired immediately to actualize their dream of transforming the building. And, surprise, the museum is trying to raise $10 million to renovate the building.

"Very rarely do you find an ideal building, and then to find an ideal building that's in the right place," says Kershaw. "It's in the right place, so there's the potential for synergy and connectivity."

The museum's directors see the contemporary venture as an opportunity for deeper and more frequent collaboration with existing like-minded institutions such as SITE Santa Fe and the Center for Contemporary Arts.

Clements says the project is on track. "We are about eight months into it and we are a quarter of the way to our goal [for the first phase of the campaign]. We've raised $2.5 million, so we feel very optimistic." In May of 2018, the museum has a gala planned to launch the public donation phase of the Centennial Campaign, at which point smaller donations can be made. Until then, they're seeking larger dollar amounts, including the option to rename the building, Clements says, "for a cool $4 million." (Maria Egolf-Romero)

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story misidentified the Sanbusco Center’s past life. It used to be the Santa Fe Builders Supply, not the Santa Fe Bus Depot.

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