The two-foot-thick adobe walls are decorated with a big white bay window and a porch with a New Orleans-style filigree railing; the house was built in the mid-nineteenth century by French builders imported by Bishop Lamy to construct his great Cathedral of St. Francis, and like the cathedral, the house makes few concessions to recognizable Santa Fe styles.
It was built when the territory of New Mexico was being considered for statehood, and in its sophistication, its reference to architecture more familiar in Louisiana than in the then largely unknown and disregarded southwest, the house was part of a conscious appeal to be allowed to “belong.” It even has a separate kitchen, as so often found in New Orleans when kitchen fires could consume the house itself.
The house has reigned on a leafy corner of a beautiful street, a few blocks from the Santa Fe Plaza, for 150 years, inhabited by a distinguished family before it was divided up into apartments. But the family, with the best intentions, placed the house in a trust with a bank, and the bank, after allowing the house to face the elements unprotected for two years, came to the Historic Board to claim that the building could not be salvaged and must be pulled down.
But this is a city of passionate conservationists, and the ten or twelve of us who addressed the commissioners to plead for the house spoke eloquently and with authority, several protesting this “demolition through neglect” and one man pleading that the crime of arson which nearly destroyed this historic building not be replicated by the crime of completing its destruction.
Saving old houses can seem quixotic, the hobby of the very rich, in this time and place where homelessness and illiteracy, among other problems, places the state second from last in the nation. Sometimes when I look at photographs of the houses Doris Duke built or restored, Shangri La in Hawaii, Duke Farms in New Jersey, and Rough Point in Rhode Island, in addition to an entire Thai village she had disassembled and shipped to Duke Farms, I share the same doubt about the importance of this work.
But then I remember the colonial neighborhood of modest clapboard houses which she saved in the old part of Newport, creating a foundation to both repair and conserve. The old house on Palace Avenue, like the old houses above the harbor in Newport, is part of the fabric of the town, a visual reprimand to the vast energy-consuming mansions of people who visit here for two weeks a year.
It will be saved. It must be saved. The great bare expense to the west of the house will once again bloom with iris and lilacs and the history of a segment of Santa Fe will live on.