Last week at the invitation of alumna Hema Pandya and the good people at New Mexico State University/Doña Ana Community College, I traveled to Las Cruces, New Mexico to give a lecture “Preserving Community” (Subtitle was Sustainability and global issues on existing and Historic Buildings in the United States, China and Peru).
I like Jerri Wells’ poster – I look like Godzilla
The lecture was well-attended, even a City Councilman was there. I tied together a variety of disparate experiences and locales by using the IMPROVED definition of sustainability that my colleague Frances Whitehead introduced me to. You remember the old Venn diagram where sustainability is the sweet spot with the orbs of Social, Economic and Environmental sustainability? I learned from Frances that we need a fourth globe: Cultural. And in fact this is how heritage conservation fits into it.
The problem with looking only at Social, Environmental and Cultural is that you solve sustainability only mechanistically, and only in the here and now. (Which means it isn’t really sustainability, which is about maintaining things for the next generation.) It is the same elision that gave us urban renewal, which is to say it is kind of inorganic chemistry for the environment, rather than biology.
Heritage conservation sustains not merely our social (living, working, gathering, playing), economic (producing, consuming, exchanging) and environmental (breathing, eating, etc.) but also those subtle humanisms that we can never eliminate, things like soul and identity and love and attachment. How we know where we are and why we want to continue to be there.
Rio Grande Theatre, Main Street, Las Cruces
But enough of the high theory, let’s get down to the brass tacks, or in the case of Las Cruces, the adobe and vigas. Here stands Hema and my brother Tom next to a marvelous doorway in Mesilla, which is contiguous with Las Cruces but designed around a traditional Mexican church zócalo in the days before the Gadsden Purchase (1854).
But we had a good meeting with officials and preservation leaders in Mesilla, where they have had some challenges, like this adobe bungalow that is slowly losing its historic fabric and residential classification in one of those long, drawn-out, disingenuous projects that slowly but surely erode local character. You can always tell those projects because their own character shifts day by day. First it is an addition to the back of a house (on a corner). Then full-scale bathrooms go in. Then it suddenly takes advantage of possible commercial zoning. Then another wall goes. Eventually the owner will reveal the project’s true intention and the town will have lost the better part of an historic building.
The zócalo in Mesilla is great, what with the twin-steepled brick church and the Thunderbird, the oldest brick structure in New Mexico, and the Billy the Kid Gift Shop, which I remember from a childhood visit here in 1975, and of course La Posta, the former post office and restaurant which is expanding dramatically, giving us these unique views of melding ancient and modern construction techniques:
The challenges in Mesilla and Las Cruces are familiar to many. Partial embrace of community character, preference for new over old, incomplete apprehension of the heritage conservation process, which as my lecture showed, is a community-based evaluation process that seeks to maintain cultural connections found in the environment and in its caretakers. Residents were frustrated that master adobe plasterer Pat Taylor, a local resident, found more business OUTSIDE of town (around the world) than in the town itself.
our meeting in Mesilla
Las Cruces also has the challenge of its Main Street, which features the lovely Rio Grande theater pictured above and below, but suffers from the emptiness and abandonment by both public and private entities following a classic 1970s pedestrian-mall treatment.
There is also an interpretive sculpture of a church that was replaced by a bank. It nicely frames the Organ Mountains from the Rio Grande theater, but it is a little misleading, since the church was about 80 yards away and facing a different direction.
City Councilman Greg Smith is a big promoter of preservation and Main Street, and there is hope, thanks to the arts anchors at the north end of the street, including the Branigan Cultural Center with its great 1935 WPA-style mural and the private Black Box Theater.
We also toured the lovely Depot-Alameda historic district, starting with the 1910 Maud Witherspoon house, a uniquely high-ceiling variant on the adobe style. In fact, many of the homes in the district evince Eastern styles but use local materials and techniques. Here is a sampling:
This is the historic Women’s Improvement Association building
Finally a hike up to Dripping Stream in the Organ Mountains with Hema and Matt Byrnes. There is a 1910 TB Sanitorium preserved up there.
Thanks to Hema, Matt, Luis Rios, Dr. Lovelace, Irene Oliver Lewis, John Sullivan, Eric Liefield, Greg Smith, Lori Grumet, Clark Meyers, David Rockstraw and all of the others who made me so welcome in Las Cruces.