Castles, Ruins and Mysteries (Part IV)
This month, the Multiple Listing Service records 69 Santa Fe County properties for sale at $2 million or higher. The polarization between studio apartments and casitas occupied by the city’s workers who have managed to stay here and these castle-like mansions in the foothills and ridgetops had us searching from Circle Drive to La Tierra for someone willing to let us tour their abode.
Turns out, lots of those people don’t really like it when you call their larger-than-life house a castle, and they certainly didn’t want SFR poking around in their five bathrooms or dipping our toes in their hilltop swimming pool.
Lucky for us, we’re all part owners in a mansion that’s also a de facto art gallery. The residence of the New Mexico governor is owned by the state and in addition to maybe getting invited to an event there over the next year, you can also sign up to take a free tour starting next month.
Welcome back to our “Castles, Ruins and Mysteries” periodic series where we tell the story of the city’s structures—large and small; derelict and decorated; old and, um, really old. In addition to our visit to Mansion Drive, we also visited the long-neglected stacks inside Fogelson Library; peeked inside the former home of famed designer Alexander Girard; and learned why that one building on Canyon Road is not like the others.
Governor’s Mansion Set to Reopen for Public Tours
New Mexico’s first governor’s residence is a major tourist attraction on the Plaza, its well-known facade lined with artisans marking the Palace of the Governors history as the longest continuously occupied government building in the nation.
The state seal welcomes visitors into the foyer. (Anson Stevens-Bollen/)
The second governor’s residence—this one crossing into the definition of mansion—exists now only in photographs and folklore. Built in the early 1900s along the Santa Fe River, the house and its Greek Revival columns were demolished after extensive flood damage (on the cover).
So the 10,000-square-foot house that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham calls home just off Bishop’s Lodge Road is the state’s third, designed by WC Kruger and opened in 1955.
“This is about the oldest state capital with the oldest mansion and also the newest governor’s mansion of all 50 states,” says docent Douglas Beck. It’s also a prime example of post-war industrial reuse: The bricks that make up its exterior were salvaged at the demolition of the state prison in the city.
An aerial view of the mansion.
While the governor’s personal apartment is off limits to the public, the home’s four public rooms for entertainment will be open to visitors next month after a long closure during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Don’t you love our house?” gushes Mary Brophy as she walks by during a docent preview tour for SFR. “I mean all of us. It’s all of our house.”
Brophy, the mansion director, knows each nook and cranny, as she held the job under former Gov. Bill Richardson as well. Beck echoes the sentiment as he invites guests to sit on the sunny banco or the sofa while he talks. (Just three chairs in the home are off limits due to their age and condition.)
In the corner of the living room, a high-tech video setup from which the governor broadcasts public addresses is a juxtaposition to the Spanish Colonial-styled furniture, Native pottery and other art that adorns the space. The interior design that today reflects the state’s cultures and history was largely a hodgepodge until the late 1980s, Beck explains, when first lady Kathy Carruthers worked to establish the mansion foundation and hired interior designer Gene Law to create a unified and historically informed look for the rooms and to design tables, fixtures, cabinets and other pieces that were built by New Mexico craftspeople.
The dining room features stenciled ceiling beams and a table designed by Gene Law. (Anson Stevens-Bollen/)
The dining room is a converted portal whose table—staged with just one place setting of the governor’s official dishes, the Lenox tuxedo pattern, and a raft of Fostoria crystal—extends to 36 feet long and its ceiling beams are stenciled to replicate designs Law sketched at the palace of King Phillip in Spain.
Docent tours also spend plenty of time on the art on the mansion walls. Each governor chooses pieces in cooperation with the state’s museums. Lujan Grisham’s foyer features one of Georgia O’Keeffe’s spring cottonwoods along with a cubist rendition of Taos Pueblo by Andrew Dasburg. The dining room highlights a Native family with gauzy blue layers of sky by Gerald Cassidy and an amazing piece by Paul Burlin that received extensive restoration. Beck notes the house also includes “giants of Native American art” including Fritz Scholder, Alan Houser and Marvin Oliver.
Contact the New Mexico Governor’s Mansion Foundation to reserve a free tour at newmexicogovernorsmansion.org. (Julie Ann Grimm)
Fogelson Complex Destined for Reuse
The still-shelved books occupying most of Fogelson Library’s three floors deflect the notion that the once-bustling academic building has slipped into disrepair since it was shuttered four years ago with the closure of Santa Fe University of Art and Design.
But in the basement, the calcified crust on a now-dry water feature is one signal the building has sat empty for nearly half a decade. A broken window on the building’s eastern side and birds roosting amid the sweeping arches of the cement exterior also point to vacancy.
Fogelson Library, College of Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1971. (Leslie L. Raschko / Courtesy of the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA)/)
The signs of desertion surrounding the building will soon be history, says James Garduño, a project administrator working on the Midtown Campus, as the city prepares to renovate the former college library into a space for the wider community.
The city acquired the campus in 2009 when the College of Santa Fe went belly up, then leased the land and buildings to the Santa Fe University of Art and Design until that school shut down, too. Since then, the city has encountered a series of fits and starts in moving toward the future. A partnership selected to lead a massive redevelopment bailed on the idea mid-pandemic, and City Hall decided to handle the project on its own. Last month, the City Council approved pre-development actions on some buildings on the Midtown campus, including a plan for the reuse of the Fogelson Complex.
With the redesign still in the planning phase, Maria Sanchez-Tucker, the city’s new community services director, tells SFR, “We want to honor the history of the building.” While some 21st century upgrades are necessary, she says, the city intends to “adaptively design it, so that the people who have fond memories of the space…will be still included.”
The 53,000-square-foot complex recently turned 51 years old, though few celebrated compared to the dedication ceremony held in October 1970, when Col. EE “Buddy” Fogelson unveiled his namesake, which was then a part of the College of Santa Fe.
The Fogelson Complex has seen little change over the last 50 years, despite serving as the library for multiple colleges and transferring ownership to the city. (William Melhado/)
The college’s roots extend back to the mid-1800s, when it was first named St. Michael’s College. As the school evolved to better serve the student population, it grew, expanding into Albuquerque. At the time of the library center’s opening, which included the Forum Annex and the Southwest Americana Annex, the facility cost $1.8 million.
The collection sitting on Fogelson’s shelves topped 300,000 at one point. Sanchez-Tucker says the books and resources will be distributed throughout Santa Fe’s public library system once they’ve been cataloged.
For this facility, she hopes to maintain the basic functions of a library, but also create “a flexible space that not only provides access to information, through books and collections, but also provides it through community sharing and programming.”
Fogelson’s solid foundation, Sanchez-Tucker says, both in terms of structure and spirit, is a good starting point for the soon-to-be common facility. “A public library is truly the community’s space, it’s there for everyone,” she tells SFR. “So the opportunity to really plan for a library that serves the needs of the public into the future is really exciting.” (William Melhado)
Restoring the Alexander Girard Home
Among homeowners who care for architecturally significant spaces are two prevailing philosophies. There are those for whom the home is a paradise if not entirely lost, then one reupholstered; to restore its fixtures and furnishings in the period style is to return to a state of grace. They express their devotion by attempting to replicate the original intent as closely as current building codes allow. These homeowners are in the literalist school. Heather and John Brittingham, owners of a home that served as creative headquarters of the prolific designer Alexander Girard, belong to the other school of thought—the improvisationalists.
John and Heather Brittingham are the new owners of the house where Alexander Girard lived and worked for much of his life. The interior of the home showcases design features such as L-shaped bancos and folk art adorning a door. (Anson Stevens-Bollen/)
“We know people who dress [Girard-designed houses] in parade gear,” John Brittingham tells SFR. They faithfully fill their homes with the orthodoxy of Girard’s vast catalog of textiles, furniture pieces and art objects. But the compound at the foot of Camino Delora isn’t just any Girard home. It is where the designer lived and worked for much of his life, from the time he moved to Santa Fe in 1953.
After moving from a conservative Detroit suburb, he saw wonder everywhere he looked. Out a window, Girard witnessed a “procession past our house, singing, at night, lit by small bonfires along the road.” The Brittinghams are applying a coat of electrifying Yves Klein blue paint to a tunnel-like window, cut deep through adobe. Inside the narrow opening, one blue collides with another—the New Mexico sky.
Girard didn’t use this particular shade of blue. But it’s the kind of juxtaposition of scale—the oddball gesture that domesticates the mystical—that he would have made. Correction: did make. In a living room nicho, Girard once installed a diorama of a church, its elaborate stained-glass windows backlit: the mighty heavens, miniatuarized.
An obsessive collector of folk art (with his wife Susan, they donated about 100,000 items to the International Museum of Folk Art), Girard treated the living spaces of the home as a rotating gallery, design laboratory and social experiment. A portal is enclosed, turning the entry to the house into a greenhouse and gallery. A beam stops midway through a ceiling, leaving negative space and lingering questions about structural integrity. The leanness of the doorway to the pantry is a daily reminder to restrict calories. At any rate, the pantry was put to better use: Girard hid surprises for his children among the shelves—a toy, a crayon, a note.
As for the kitchen, Georgia O’Keeffe occasionally slept in it, away from the living room’s traffic. Contemporary photographs show most of the living room’s surfaces piled with arrangements of artifacts, books, plants and Girard’s signature textiles. In the photos, there’s often a recumbent guest or two on the L-shaped bancos that anchor the room. To find respite from sprawling guests in the living room and slumbering painters in the kitchen, the Girards would climb up an antique ladder through a hatch in the ceiling to a meditation room, barely large enough for two people in lotus pose. Talk about a social experiment.
“Nothing is orthogonal,” John Brittingham says. An architect who has previously documented other significant buildings, he is drawing precise plans of the house. Where a single floor plan suffices for most homes, the Camino Delora residence demands several horizontal layers at varying heights in order to capture the openings and niches, inexplicable elevation changes and fluted walls. The Brittinghams call these diagrammatic slices the “Swiss cheese” approach.
Improvisationalists prize the spirit of the place over its letter. Alexander Girard inflected the modernist vocabulary with color, joy, playfulness. He responded to the rigor of his contemporaries, Eero Saarinen and George Nelson, with a kaleidoscope of patterns, carpets printed with frolicking cats, repurposed barn wood and reflections cast by brass tabletops. He countered postwar ideals of abundance and efficiency with craft objects, misfits in both the worlds of high art and industrial production. Under the heading of “tradition” in a manifesto, Girard wrote: “let’s find our way / our forefathers found theirs! all that was Good [sic] / was modern / in its day.”
The new owners are finding their way. If the literalists would try to outdo Girard’s ghost, the Brittinghams instead opted for a low-key, laconic palette: understated furnishings, a few pieces of art, a splurge of blue. Rather than following their forefathers, they learn from a generation ahead. “When kids come over,” Heather says, “they give us ideas for how to use the space.” Children are at ease roaming around a house designed for wonder. They climb ladders and sneak around tight corners. They are mesmerized by cabinet doors painted in saffron and magenta, embellished with columns of fingernail-sized seashells—talismans from a sea more ancient than the desert.
After Girard’s death, the saffrons and magentas were prudishly muted by a renovation. But the spirit of play persists. When the Brittinghams moved in, last summer, the place was completely empty. “It was magic,” Heather says. “Incredible! It was in its most monastic form.” That night, if a procession wound past the house, they would see two grownups on skateboards, gliding smoothly over the tiled floors. (Philip Barash)
First Ward School’s New Life as Ventana Fine Art
As we move around the edge of the portal, longtime employee Wolfgang Mabry gestures toward where some windows used to reach up to just below the roof. Others have been altered, some have been covered up completely. It’s fitting that he pays so much attention to the windows given that he’s offering a tour of Ventana Fine Art, but Mabry also points out where a slight color difference in bricks signifies an addition and takes pains to highlight other decorative touches.
The brick exterior, replete with a plaque boasting its historical significance, looms tall and almost out of place in a sea of adobe, and the cupola above juts into the sky for all to see.
The First Ward School, pictured here in 1920, was only used as a school for a few years. (Brownell Howlan / Courtesy of the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA)/)
Originally completed as the First Ward School in 1906 to the tune of $5,311 for Santa Fe taxpayers, the building has housed numerous people and operations since its inception. It was originally conceived as a schoolhouse, however, and built by architects IH and WM Rapp. And it worked out pretty OK as a school, too‚ for a scant couple years, anyway—until 1909, when the St. Francis Cathedral School, which had started offering classes in 1902, became the more-attended institution.
“The resurgence of Santa Fe parochial schools made the new building on Canyon Road something of a white elephant, and after three years it became evident that continued operation was not economically feasible,” reads a report in a 1979 edition of The Historic Santa Fe Foundation bulletin that is retained in a City Hall file on the property.
The brick building at 400 Canyon changed hands semi-regularly over the years until 1928, when Philadelphia doctor Frank Mera traveled to the Southwest in search of a tuberculosis treatment. Finding quality convalescence in the drier air of Colorado Springs, he eventually migrated to sunny Santa Fe and bought the old First Ward School building for a now-mind-boggling $5,000. Mera and his brother founded and ran the Sunmount Sanatorium, which is today better known as the Immaculate Heart of Mary Retreat Center, but perhaps more notable is that the elder Mera rented part of his home on Canyon Road to conservationist Benjamin Hyde (ever heard of Hyde Park?), who used the space as a Boy Scouts headquarters.
By 1936, the building was sold to one Katherine Gay, who lived and ran a movie theater there, which she named The Little Red Schoolhouse. Rumor has it she was the first to screen foreign films in Santa Fe, and Gay would also renovate the building into the more apartment-like interior we know today. An English antiques dealer bought the old First Ward School in 1962 following Gay’s death, while notable Santa Feans like Joan Kelly and Linda Durham have, at one point or another, reportedly taken over.
Ventana Fine Art utilizes interior exposed brick and maintained the original threshold. (Anson Stevens-Bollen/)
Cut to 1996, a pretty good year for alternative rock, and the same era when Ventana’s Connie Axton took over the lease under current owner, Anderson-Schroeder Inc. Axton has performed renovations since then; a retaining wall here, a beautiful new brick stairway/stoop there and, in 2009, Axton and Schroeder picked up the The Historic Santa Fe Foundation’s Architectural Stewardship Award for their ongoing preservation of the building’s historical value. Which pretty much catches everyone up to speed. Oh, but before we forget—have you seen the original hardwood floors in there? Gorgeous. (Alex De Vore)