Cover Stories

Even More Castles, Ruins and Mysteries

Discover the stories of Santa Fe buildings

If the headline of this piece seems familiar, it’s because in April of 2017, SFR published the first installation of Castles, Ruins and Mysteries. But this is Santa Fe, and we have more than one castle, more than a few ruins, and lots more mysteries.

Hundreds of years of building houses and churches leaves an unmistakable imprint—even as modernity changes the cityscape. What remains and what we add to the scene keeps the place in a constant state of change.

The last time we undertook this project, the castle in play was a concrete-block structure on the west side. This time, we visit one that's both a castle and a ruin: the former home of a famed naturalist that's now in the hands of a nonprofit.

Then, it's a stroll down memory lane and hint about the future as we unpack the last grocery sack on Palace Avenue before we head to the Traditional Historic Community of Agua Fría and a house that's been begging questions for decades. End up on Airport Road with a tour of the area's first Buddhist temple.

So we guess this is a thing now, wherein we tell the stories of the city's iconic edifices. Where should we go next time? Drop a line to with your biggest question or favorite story.

Renovated, Then Ruined

Seton Castle

By the time I grabbed my notebook and jumped out of the car, flames were crawling across the ceiling of the library. I had followed the column of smoke the way journalists do when something is on fire: Head for it fast. There was so much fire that I wasn't sure where to focus my eyes.

Firefighters from Santa Fe County were trying to save the Seton Castle. But it was too late. The multi-story, 32-room National Historic Landmark designed by the founder of the Boy Scouts of America was fully engulfed.

What compounded the tragedy that unfolded on Nov. 15, 2005, is that workers had nearly completed massive renovations to the home that were intended to transform it into the headquarters for the Academy for the Love of Learning.

Ernest Thompson Seton, known as a naturalist who painted, drew and wrote more than 60 books, lived in the castle from 1934 until he died in 1946. In 2003, the academy bought the building and 86 acres of land in Arroyo Hondo from Seton's daughter, Dee Seton Barber, and her husband, Dale Barber.

At the time, it was in a sad state that included a leaky roof and littered grounds. So, the nonprofit—which does service and training for teachers along with other community educational programs—embarked on a restoration project that would last two and a half years, until the day of the fire.

Founder Aaron Stern writes in an entry on the academy's website that the organization immediately started working on plans to rebuild the castle.

"That was our deepest wish," he writes, "but in the end it was not feasible. There had been too much destruction, and we learned that we would have had to take down all of the remains, even though some were still intact, and start completely anew."

Yet Stern didn't want to lose what was still standing—and it's still standing today.

The academy eventually chose to stabilize the ruins and create within them a new public space. Instead of peering through streaked and smoke-stained glass, visitors can frame the mountains in the distance through a steel-lined void where windows used to be. Gravel crunches under foot instead of floorboards. In the growing seasons, plants take over; Last year, the academy grew corn there. And when I stand in the library, replacement vigas now create stripes against the blue sky.

A new building now stands nearby, its lovely interior full of thoughtful details and well-lit spaces. Stern admits it serves the nonprofit well—a contrast to the rabbit warren of hallways the castle had become over time. The new headquarters also contains a gallery with some of Seton's work that had been removed from the castle and put in storage before the fire.

The castle garden, says Jessica Smyser, the academy's director of relationships and reciprocity, is well-used by people who live in Seton Village and by other visitors, though it's somewhat of a secret to many. An Aug. 11 celebration in honor of Seton's birthday could be one chance to get to know it.

"Years on, it is now this space that is peaceful and meditative and regenerative," she says. "It feels like an honoring space." (Julie Ann Grimm)

Mom & Pop Have Moved On

Palace Grocery, East Palace Avenue

Before the rise of national chains, small neighborhood shops were folks' only option for groceries, short of growing their own. Slowly, the need for the dozens of corner stores that used to pepper our neighborhoods waned, and only a few holdouts persisted into the aughts.

One of those businesses was the Palace Grocery, which served customers until 2007. The little store at 853 E Palace Ave. had been owned by Yolanda and Meliton Vigil since 1959. They ran it as a mainstay for Frito pie, food bought on monthly credit accounts and just enough fresh produce to sell in a day or two. But when Yolanda died in 2007, the doors were locked and the store went untouched for a decade.

Sotheby's International Realty listed the property at $900,000 in 2010, but it didn't move an inch for quite a while. The Santa Fe New Mexican reported as recently as May 2017 that the store was still a slightly postapocalyptic sight; dusty-window peekers could see shelves still stocked with sundries from 10 years ago.

The nearly 1,700-square-foot property was last listed at $475,000 in October 2017. Then the listing was removed from Sotheby's, and by August 2018, Austinite businessman Ted Lusher had purchased it.

Lusher and his wife Sharon, who have renovated a number of historic buildings in Texas, have been visiting Santa Fe for 35 years and own a home here. Their interest in Santa Fe and their love of old buildings sparked an interest in the grocery. "We just got tired of walking by it and seeing it in ruin, if you want to know the truth," he tells SFR via phone from Texas. "We thought it may have deserved a better fate than that."

A recent drive by the property showed the clean white exterior vanished under a new stucco job, the iconic turquoise columns tarped over. Per the construction permit, the estimated cost of new stucco, new windows and a new portal on the Palace Grocery is listed at $360,000—a number that made an employee at the Land Use Department raise his eyebrows, musing that it seemed pretty high.

Contractor Lloyd Martinez of Edificios Builders is managing the building's exterior remodel. When we mention the sticker shock to Martinez, he laughs. "You haven't been around Santa Fe very long, I can tell," he says amicably.

Lusher says he plans to use it as a private office for a while, including storage of some of his collection of Southwestern antiques. Since many items in Lusher's collection are made of sensitive materials like leather, beads and paper, Martinez says the price tag is in tune with security and climate control akin to what you might find at a museum. As for the office space, "I'm kind of a minor historian; I do historical writing and writing on artifacts and the history of the Southwest, so I will do some of that with it," Lusher says.

If you want to say hello to the property's new owner, the Lusher home on Canyon Road is part of the Santa Fe Garden Club's 80th annual Behind Adobe Walls home and garden tour in July—making him more accessible than those dusty Band-Aid tins on the shelf were for a decade.

In another tax bracket, with the closing of the Palace Grocery, the East Side of Santa Fe would be considered a food desert. But as landscapes change and property values rise, we see priorities shift and the gentry takes a firmer foothold, even with a long-distance leg stretch from Texas. (Charlotte Jusinski)

Doorway to Secret Realms Revealed

3683 Agua Fría St.

"On the right side of the doorway, these are the flames of hell," says Steina Vasulka of the artwork surrounding the doorway of her house in the historic Village of Agua Fría at the intersection just past the San Isidro Catholic Church. "The artists chose what they wanted to paint here. It was their vision."

The true mystery of this painting, however, is on the other side of the heavy double doors.

"The outside of the doorway was painted by Leonard Hoffman, but inside is the beautiful, magical part of the artwork. It was painted by Erika Wanenmacher."

Vasulka, who spoke to SFR by phone, says Wanenmacher's creations are hard to explain. The local artist is well known for her multimedia pieces inspired by the spirit world, goddesses and magic. Wanenmacher spoke with SFR in July 2018 for a story about her 2008 show The Boys Room (AC: "Lessons from the Boys' Room," July 18, 2018), which lays bare the disturbing history of the Human Radiation Experiments conducted on children by scientists at Los Alamos during the Cold War. She interchangeably calls herself a "Culture Witch" and "the Ditch Witch"—referencing the art that she makes out of objects found in the acequia—and describes her work as part of the cosmic struggle of the forces of light to overcome the forces of darkness.

Over the years, the art on the doorway has fueled many local rumors and legends about the building and its inhabitants. Tales abound of witches, demons and ghosts, satanic rituals, and children afraid to get off the school bus if it stopped too close to the house.

William Mee, president of the Agua Fría Village Association, scoffs at the spooky stories. "All that gossip is just nonsense. The people who live there now are nice, normal people who are important artists, and before that the house belonged to one of the main families around here. But kids will always like to make up stories."

Mee tells SFR that some of the people who lived in the house long ago were curanderas who used herbs and folk remedies to treat the maladies of the villagers. While the occasional incantation may have been involved, Mee says "they were like doctors back then, just without the license. They helped people get well."

The original house is one of the oldest in the community, predating the church, which was built in 1835 on land given by Don Jose Jacinto Gallegos. A historical survey of the village by Jane Whitmore on file at the Fray Angélico Chávez History Library says in the early 1900s it was the home of Ceslo Gallegos, a woodworker whose carvings are included in folk art collections at museums across the country. It is fitting, then, that Woody and Steina Vasulka, who bought the building in 1983, are also artists, known internationally as pioneers of the early video-art movement.

According to Mee, the lot adjacent to the Vasulkas' property used to be La Sala, the town dance hall, and Steina Vasulka says that her house was once the town cantina. The building across the street was a grocery and a pool hall.

In this tight-knit community where many families have lived for generations, some still remember a time when this corner was a lively site of village revelry. Yet the history of the ground beneath it is much older.

"You also have to remember that the Village of Agua Fría was built on the site of the Pindi Pueblo that dates back to 3500 BCE," Mee tells SFR. "Around this area was a burial ground. Every time they try to fix the roads they start digging up artifacts, especially around the San Isidro crossing. This is a place with ancient heritage that should not be forgotten either." (Leah Cantor)

The First Stupa

Kagyu Shenpen Kunchab Tibetan Buddhist Center, Airport Road

Halfway down Airport Road, just past a McDonald's, several strip malls and a bus stop shaded by the wrought iron leaves of a sculpted tree, a gilded spire rises up among the actual tree tops, catching the curiosity of passersby.

If it were not for the sun glinting off the golden rooftop of its traditionally built stupa, the Kagyu Shenpen Kunchab Tibetan Buddhist Center would be easy to miss amid the trailer parks, food trucks and industrial buildings that flank it.

"The stupa—the real name in Tibetan is chöten, which means it is an offering —it is a symbol of love, compassion and liberation. Every level of the building has meaning. It is for the people. That we may come together in peace," Lama Dorje tells SFR as he shares a meal with members of his community.

Lama Dorje arrived in Santa Fe in the early 1980s with a vision of starting the town's first Buddhist community and place of worship. He chose a piece of land located several miles outside of city limits along what was then no more than an unpaved country road that grew treacherously muddy in the winter and dried out into dusty potholes in the summer. Since then the city has rapidly expanded southward, surrounding the KSK Buddhist Center in the hubbub of traffic, sirens and activity that is now Airport Road.

Yet within the walls of the garden surrounding the stupa, the atmosphere is calm and quiet. Inside the building, colorful paintings of Tibetan deities stretch from floor to ceiling. An ornate altar takes up one wall with offerings and photographs of important individuals from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, such as the Dalai Lama, who visited the center in 1991, and Lama Dorje's teacher, Kalu Rinpoche, who guided Lama Dorje to this begin the community here. The Kalu Rinpoche has since passed away, but his successor, the young Kalu Rinpoche, who the Tibetans believe to be his reincarnation, will visit the center in the summer. The community is planning a big celebration in his honor.

Since its beginnings, the center has served as a point of pilgrimage for Buddhists from around the region. Debra Snyderman, a resident of the community, says that they expect even greater numbers this summer. She hopes that visitors will not be too disturbed by the cars speeding dangerously down Airport or the discarded hypodermic needles that are sometimes found in the alleyway. She says that a handicapped resident in a wheelchair was recently hit by a truck pulling out of a next door establishment, and she worries that the city may fail to address safety concerns or enforce regulations for the new developments springing up around the neighborhood.

Looking out the window, Lama Dorje seems unperturbed. “We do not know what will happen,” he says. “We do know that everyone is welcome here to join practice and service. The center is open to everyone.” (LC)

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