In Praise of Old Hotels – Taos and Leadville


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IMG_0036Here in the high desert of New Mexico, June is our hottest month and the only time when we get temperatures of around 100 degrees. That’s a good reason to head to a cooler location for a few days. I took a road trip north to Steamboat Springs to do some fishing and just stay cool for a few days. I was surprised to see tulips and daffodils blooming up there…it’s still spring and the mountains still have a lot of snow.

Anyway…The most direct route is north through Taos and then, following the Rio Grande, through the San Luis Valley and over the rooftop of Colorado to Leadville and then down the Blue River Valley to the Colorado River at Kremmling, over Rabbit Ears Pass and finally into Steamboat Springs…about 500 miles. There are a lot of historic hotels along that route…some a little too historic, as in falling down. I stayed in Taos and Leadville along the way.



Taos has been a meeting place for over 1,000 years. Taos Pueblo is one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in North America. The pueblo was a traditional trading center between the local Pueblo people and the plains Indians. The Spanish arrived in 1615 and established the town and the trading activity intensified, interspersed with occasional raids and later the Pueblo revolt of 1680. The region became US territory in 1847. The artists and writers began arriving around 1900 and it has been an important center for the arts ever since.

Sagebrush Inn

sagebrust 1930s

I’m starting out with a white lie. I didn’t stay at the Sagebrush Inn on this trip but did on an earlier one about eight months before. The place looks southwestern and is in the Spanish/Pueblo Revival architectural style common to northern New Mexico. It doesn’t appear to be all that old from the outside because, by now, you are used to seeing places that look artificially old. Once you get inside the age of the place becomes more apparent. It looks authentically and honorably and expensively old. It would cost a lot these days to make something look like this without making it look like Walt Disney had a hand in it.


The Sagebrush Inn had its start in 1933 catering to the travelers visiting Taos on their way to Arizona. It was (and still is) a little bit of a distance from the Taos Plaza and the popular restaurants and shops. The Inn was a smallish place but expanded with a restaurant and additional rooms to accommodate more guests. Georgia O’Keefe lived in one of the rooms for a year in the 1930s…now the “Artist’s Loft”. Ansel Adams stayed there and certainly made effective use of his time visiting photographic sites.  He was already familiar with the Taos Pueblo by 1930 and the famous Mission of San Francisco de Asis is across the road and a few hundred yards south of the Inn. The village of Hernandez is about forty miles south near the Pueblo of Ohkay Owingeh, called San Juan Pueblo in Ansel Adams’ day. Dennis Hopper was a frequent visitor at the Inn. Marlon Brando, Robert Redford, Gerald Ford, and famed Navajo artist, R. C. Gorman all spent time at the Sagebrush Inn. Gorman’s original artwork is displayed at the Inn.  In the 1950s it had an illegal gambling room tucked away somewhere that was eventually raided.

In more modern times the Sagebrush Inn has expanded from the original twelve rooms to 156 rooms and become a conference center as well as a hotel. There was an automobile dealership event of some type while I was there.


I stayed in a comfortable modern guest room. The restaurant and lounge were popular with the guests and the food was very good. I suspect there are comparable lodging places at less cost but this is a place with some history and atmosphere if you look past the more modern additions. Another option might be the Hotel La Fonda on the Taos Plaza which has an interesting history dating back to 1880 but has been modernized somewhat over the years.



Kachina Lodge

On this recent trip, I wanted to stay closer to the Taos Plaza so I chose the Kachina Lodge, walking distance from the plaza and shops on Bent Street. I stayed on the way north and again on the way back home a week later. I was scheduled to attend a literary reading at the Op Cit bookstore on Bent Street and this was a convenient and interesting location.


The Kachina Lodge is of a later generation, a classic 1960s sort of place that catered to visitors to Taos. That was the era when Baby Boomer kids, like me, were being dragged around the country by their parents to see the USA in our Chevrolet. The lodge began in the 1960s but expanded considerably in the 1970s but with the same Taos style that echoes Pueblo and Colonial Spanish architecture.  Of course, there is a large swimming pool, sort of in a pinto bean shape.

There are about eight buildings of guest rooms, called casitas (Zia Casita, Tesuque Casita, Santa Fe Casita, etc.). I stayed in the Zia Casita building both visits, once upstairs and once on the ground floor. I recommend the ground floor rooms – they are cooler and easier to get to but don’t have the little balcony sitting area. The room capacity of the place seems to far out-reach the number of guests. It must have been a very busy place at one time. The Kachina Lodge hosts conferences and meetings so maybe I just visited on at a quiet time. During ski season, it might be very popular because the room rate is attractive. During summer months, they have ceremonial dancers from Taos Pueblo perform every night in an open performance space. I was busy in the evenings and didn’t see the performances.



There is a lot of common lobby and sitting room space in the main building as well as meeting rooms. The lounge was closed when I was there. French doors at the rear of the building open on a spacious and shady portal with a view of the swimming pool. I can imagine the moms and dads of the 1960s enjoying an adult beverage while junior splashes around in the pool. Some of those Baby Boomers are still in the pool.

The 1960s are clearly evident if you just look around. I noticed the lighting fixtures and some of the furnishings seemed straight out of an old Elizabeth Taylor, Tony Curtis, Debbie Reynolds, or maybe Jerry Lewis movie.


The Blue Mesa Café is the on-site restaurant and it is another classic 1960s space complete with a totem pole serving as the center support for a round, kiva shaped seating area. When I was there for breakfast the food was good but service was awful. Guests get a fifty-percent discount for breakfast so the price was right and I wasn’t in a hurry anyway. The café is a good place to people-watch while waiting for your food.

The Kachina Lodge is a little quirky but I enjoyed staying there and would do it again. The room rate was very reasonable and you get a cheaper rate by calling the Lodge than by going through Expedia or another on-line lodging site.

Next door to the Lodge is the Taos Ale House/Burger Bar and about a half mile walk toward the plaza is the Taos Mesa Brewery Taproom. I visited both but the Ale House is a friendly and casual place if you don’t feel like walking a half-mile for craft beer. The food was OK at both and the Ale House had several familiar Albuquerque craft beers on tap. Taos Mesa had their own locally brewed beer. It was all good.



The road from Taos to Leadville is scenic to say the least and goes through some of the oldest communities in Colorado. The Spanish ventured up into this part of Colorado and the San Luis Valley was settled by people moving north out of New Mexico. The early settlers were sheep herders and there is a weaving tradition in some communities. Heading north the traffic thins out and you are in view of some of the highest peaks of Colorado. Leadville, the highest incorporated town in the US (10,152 ft.) was founded in 1877 but first settled in 1859 during the Colorado gold rush. Instead of gold, the place became famous and wealthy based on silver deposits.


The Delaware Hotel

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALeadville was booming in the 1880s and was in need of properly designed and constructed business establishments to replace the mining town ambiance that permeated the place…and still does to some degree. Three brothers, William, John and George Callaway recently of Denver, arrived in Leadville in the mid-1880s and began what must have been one of the earliest attempts at urban renewal. There were about 25,000 people living in Leadville at the time and the brothers were very much interested in making a profit from the folks working in the mines.


The brothers first went to work building commercial space…the two-story Callaway Block on Harrison Avenue. Next, they started on the Delaware Hotel on the corner of Seventh and Harrison (named after their home state) and it was completed in 1886 at the substantial cost of $60,000. The first floor was reserved for commercial space with hotel rooms on the two upper floors.  George King, the architect for much of the building boom, favored the then popular Second Empire style with ornamentation and mansard roofs. King also designed the Grand Tabor Hotel in a very similar style across the street from the Delaware.

When I made reservatioOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAns I asked for a room with antique furnishings…why not? When I checked in I had a two-room suite that would have slept seven people. My four-poster bed was high enough that I would have injured myself if I fell out of bed. It was, indeed, furnished with some impressive antique furniture. The second room had a couple iron-frame beds and a nice writing desk. There was a walk-through bathroom connecting the two rooms.

The hotel is entered off Seventh Street. The lobby has a grand staircase leading up to the guest rooms. Antiques are everywhere. There is a breakfast room off the lobby through an arched alcove. At the other end of the lobby is a small 1880ish bar for serving drinks and a seating area. There is some commercial space further toward the Harrison Avenue entrance. Upstairs there is a broad hallway leading to the guest rooms with space designed for seating and more 1880 period furnishings. The place has been modernized a little but still has the feel of a grand hotel in mining country of the 1880s.

The hotel offers a continental breakfast in the breakfast room each morning. You can smell the coffee brewing in your room. I was happily impressed with the place and would have stayed there again on my way home but it was booked up thanks to a major mountain bike event. Leadville, and most of Colorado it seems, is mountain bike country. Those biker folks look healthy but scrawny.

Conveniently located across the street from the Delaware Hotel, a thirsty traveler will discover the Periodic Brewery – as in Pb, the designation for lead on the Periodic Table of Elements. You must be a little bit geeky at his elevation. In fact, the Periodic Brewery is the highest elevation craft brewery in the world, they tell me. The place was popular, the beer was good, and my pulled-pork sandwich was good. The brewery is small and only had four beers on tap and ran out of two of them while I was there. Get there early. The staff was not the friendliest I’ve met but they seemed like they were finding more beer in the back room when the two taps ran dry. Maybe they were stressed out…the next weekend was going to be busy with thirsty bikers. Actually, drinking a lot of beer at over 10,000 feet of elevation is not a good plan and it is good that the Delaware Hotel is just across the street. You can get there.


So, all in all the trip was enjoyable. Steamboat Springs was pleasant and cooler although fishing was not as good as I’d hoped. Summer in Colorado is a little too crowded for my liking but that’s because I live in New Mexico. I’m not a skier but I imagine it is more crowded during ski season.




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Discovering Places: The Great House at Aztec


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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASometime around 1085 people started moving north along the great road coming out of the desert. Eventually they arrived on the banks of the Animas and San Juan Rivers near present day Aztec New Mexico. We don’t know what they called the rivers or how they called themselves but we can be sure they probably came from the south, from the Chaco Canyon cultural centers or outposts about eighty miles to the south. We also don’t know what motivated their journey. Were they sent north by some authority to establish satellite communities? Did they follow a respected leader? Were they escaping overcrowding or shortages at Chaco? These people had a culture based on a strong religion, living in established towns, impressive and durable stone construction, farming, and efficient utilization of natural resources. They were essentially farmers who grew corn, beans and squash. They supplemented their diet with wild game and maybe some domesticated animals like turkeys, and gathered other wild plant resources like wild nuts and berries. They knew when and where to find wild food — not much was left to chance. They seemed to have a society that favored symmetry and balance in all things.


The people went to work building a new community. The first thing the built was a kiva for religious ceremonies. After that they began building walls and rooms and more kivas. By the time they were done, thirty years after their arrival, they had an impressive communal great house of over 400 rooms and three stories high enclosing a central plaza and a great kiva. During these years of construction, they also farmed, traded, and hunted. The logs for construction had to be cut and carried many miles from the mountains. The ground had to be prepared and stones had to be carried and arranged in a distinctive Chaco style of construction. Today it is easy to distinguish the precise early Chaco style masonry from the cobbled Mesa Verde style used for later additions. A green stone band was laid along one main wall.

There were several large pueblos or great houses here at Aztec. There are seven within about two miles. One sits unexcavated only a few hundred feet to the east and others are scattered nearby. The earliest settlement is a short distance to the north on higher ground and sits on the ancient road heading north out of Chaco Canyon. Some theories hold that conditions were bad enough at Chaco Canyon that the local leaders hoped to establish a “new Chaco” at the Aztec location. Like the buildings and great houses at Chaco Canyon, the Aztec great house is aligned with the rising and setting sun on the summer and winter solstice.

The people living here survived maybe six generations or more but were pretty much gone by the year 1300. The all-important balance seemed to be out of control due to a persistent drought that disrupted the food supply and may have brought famine and conflict. There is some evidence that it was abandoned and then reoccupied for a while by people from Mesa Verde. Some scholars theorize that the Aztec great house people moved away because of the climate change and that some may have eventually ended up at Casas Grandes in northern Mexico while others moved to Mesa Verde and then into the Rio Grande Valley.

We don’t know a great deal about these people from the south but they left us many clues when they moved away. The buildings and much of their material culture was left behind as artifacts of their daily life. The site was located by looters in the 1880s and literally mined for artifacts. Organized and systematic excavation took place in the 1920s. In the 1930s the National Park Service restored and recreated the great kiva as it once existed 800 years ago. Archaeological science, theories, and techniques have made great strides since the 1920s and there is still work being carried out adding to the knowledge base. I first visited fifteen years ago and the information about the people and the site has improved and advanced in that time.


Some of the rooms in the ruin remain intact and never collapsed. The ceiling is 800 years old. There’s a woven reed screen still hanging in a doorway. The rooms had nichos for storage or possibly religious purposes. Most of the masonry at the site is original, probably 90%. Some modern repairs were made and also some minor efforts at stabilization and to provide access. The log beams protruding from the walls are original and date to as early as 1085. In some places there are remnants of the original roof material clinging to the beams.


The great kiva is a reconstruction from the 1930s and unique in that it is surrounded by fifteen small rooms. The walls are painted according to colored plaster found in the original collapsed building. The ceiling weighs 90 tons.

Of course, the name is misleading. The Aztecs never lived here and these people were already gone when the Aztecs first settled Tenochtitlan in Mexico. It is possible, even likely, that trade routes connected people as far south as Yucatan to those living in the Mesa Verde/Chaco region at various times for different trade items.

Perhaps, dear reader, you have visited Aztec Ruins National Monument or wish to. It is in northwest New Mexico at the town of Aztec near Farmington and some distance south of Durango, Colorado.

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Discovering Places, 2017

Albuquerque High-Rise RFP


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Panoramic view of the skyline of downtown Albuquerque (at twilight), New Mexico USA

Wondering out loud…What are your thoughts on Albuquerque’s possible a new “iconic” high-rise building downtown?

In late February, the City of Albuquerque Metropolitan Redevelopment Agency released a RFP labeled as “Skyline Competition for the Tallest Building in New Mexico”. The two available locations are two acres at 400 4th St. NW and one acre at 101 Silver St. SW.

Project Goals (from the RFP)

The following goals have been established for the Project:

  • Iconic and Skyline Defining Building. The City desires the development to include the tallest building in New Mexico. In order to accomplish this goal, the City encourages proposals that include at least one building at a minimum of 360 feet in height. The ideal development should include one of the most monumentally designed buildings in New Mexico. The project should redefine the Albuquerque skyline and cement Downtown Albuquerque as the business and activity center of the region. The result of the development should be an easily identifiable and visually striking building that becomes identifiable and synonymous with Downtown Albuquerque. As such, a high level of design, fitting of a modern urban city, is paramount. Any redevelopment project should take into account the urban nature of the Subject Site(s) and develop a design that contextually fits into the environment (i.e. multi-story buildings, minimal setbacks, hidden parking and service entrances, interaction with the public realm, etc.). Access points and connection routes to existing facilities, such as Civic Plaza, the Convention Center, the Imperial Building, the Alvarado Transportation Center, and Casitas de Colores should be identified and enhanced.
  • Vitality.  The Subject Sites are located in the heart of Downtown Albuquerque, and as such, should contribute to the activity, energy and excitement associated with such an area.

Subject Site A is positioned directly across from Civic Plaza, the Albuquerque Convention Center and the City of Albuquerque and Bernalillo County Government Center. Redevelopment proposals should build off the activity that occurs between these locations and throughout the greater Downtown area. Efforts should be made to enhance the pedestrian pathways and the physical interaction the built environment has with the pedestrian realm. The proposed development should not just occupy the location, but stimulate the vitality of the greater area.

Subject Site B is located between the Alvarado Transportation Center and the recently completed Imperial Building, which includes a grocery store and multiple retail shops and restaurants on the ground level and residential above. The immediate surrounding area has seen recent increases in residential housing density, in addition to the commercial and transit uses. Any redevelopment should recognize these activity nodes and their relationships with one another, as well as the interaction with the larger Downtown network. Efforts should be made for any development to engage and enhance the existing activity of the area. A Private Subject Site that is being proposed for the redevelopment should take into consideration the context of the immediate surrounding environment and the greater downtown area. Any redevelopment should create a positive impact and add to the life and excitement of the downtown community.

  • Catalytic Economic Redevelopment.  The proposed redevelopment should be of such quality that it adds and integrates into the Downtown community and catalyzes economic growth and redevelopment, which could include, but is not limited to office, residential, hospitality, entertainment and retail, in the surrounding area.
  • Contribute to the Goals Outlined in the Downtown 2025 Plan. The Downtown 2025 Plan serves as the Sector Development Plan and the MR Plan for the Downtown core. The goal of the Plan is “to make Downtown Albuquerque the best mid-sized downtown in the USA.” Any redevelopment proposal should work to meet this goal and achieve the specific initiatives described in the plan, as further discussed in paragraph E, below.
  • Experience. The project team shall be experienced and professional with a demonstrated expertise and track record in the development of high rise buildings and complex real estate development projects in urban environments.
  • Parking. The redevelopment of any Subject Site should provide enough off-street parking to meet the parking demand of that Subject Site. Additionally, Subject Site A currently has 212 off-street parking spaces, and any redevelopment proposal for Subject Site A should, at minimum, retain the 212 spaces in addition to providing enough off-street parking to meet the parking demand of Subject Site A.

You can find the RFP here:

There is also this recent Biz Journal article:…te-iconic.html

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A Thought or Two on Preservation


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img_1012It has been a while since I posted here and things have been happening. My lengthy description of the East Capitol Avenue demolition by neglect is maybe turning obsolete…I hope. The City of Jefferson has finally decided to take some action to save the neighborhood. It is too early to tell how this will go but it seems that the intent is there to wrestle the failing properties away from the neglectful owners and salvage what can be salvaged. My hope is that everything can be saved but there will be assessments and appraisals and my guess is that a couple buildings will be lost.

This week there was a news item that the old shoe factory on the east side of the old abandoned Missouri State Penitentiary grounds will be converted to lofts. The building is on private land — not on prison land – so it isn’t a direct part of the foolishness of the prison redevelopment debacle.


The shoe factory, last operated by International Shoe Company, is a vestige of the once booming shoe industry in Missouri and is a reflection of the prison inmate labor pool that powered other shoe factories in the city. The building is largely intact and has some interesting architectural features if you look for them. It has been in use as a warehouse of sorts in recent years so it hasn’t been totally vacant. It does present a challenge for lofts. It is essentially aligned on an east-west axis so one side will be sunny and the other will be mostly in shade. I’m guessing that the upper floors on the north side would have a view toward the Missouri River. When I worked for the city I spent some time photographing the building and I wish I had copies of those pictures. If you look closely you can see some detail around the front doorway and the side entrance also had some interesting detail. The clock tower and the corbels are also intact. The building serves as a landmark on the east side of the city and it is heartening to see that it will remain. There is a similar old factory building on the west side of town: the old JCD Furniture store. The factory floors were used as a furniture showroom almost warehouse style. The construction and sturdiness of that building is probably similar to what the shoe factory is like. The main problem with the old JCD building is that it is next to Wears Creek and prone to Missouri River flooding.

These old impressive buildings are not always saved. The old Alexian Brothers Hospital served south St. Louis city for over a century. My wife’s family used that hospital in time of need and I recall, on hospital visits, walking through the galleried hallways that seemed to come from the 1860s. Surely it wasn’t that old…surely not. But it was old. And the monks would make occasional appearances in the halls in full monastic regalia. I, not being of the Roman Catholic persuasion, would be mesmerized as if I had taken a step back in time. This was a relic of the cholera and small pox epidemics that ravaged the city. High ceilings and door-sized windows made it tolerable in the summer heat and humidity…just barely.


Dear reader, you might have some recollection of the old Alexian Brothers Hospital because it was the site of the 1949 exorcism that was retold in the movie The Exorcist. Happily, I was unaware of that fact when I visited the place but I can imagine it happening there. I am the owner of a brick from the old hospital. My wife’s grandfather went to the site when the old building was being demolished and picked up a brick for each family member to keep as a memento of the old place. His dad died there in 1906 after being injured in an accident on the Mississippi River levee. I keep the brick outside…not in the house. There are still stories about the malevolent force associated with the site of the old hospital.

On sort of a lighter note, the story of the brick reminds me of my mother’s vacation to California back in the late 1960s to visit her brother and sister in law. She had a great trip. I think it was her first airplane ride so she was excited. She stayed a week or so and they took her around to see all the local sights. The beach, the mountains, Monterrey, and a few old Spanish missions. At one of the missions, she decided that she wanted a souvenir so she pried up one of the old clay floor tiles and brought it home on the return flight. I suppose that would have been some sort of offense – antiquities act or something. She was proud of her souvenir and showed it off to the family. We were a little shocked that she would do something like that but then she proceeded to turn it into a trivet that resided in our kitchen for several years. It was there until I moved away after college.

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Holy Dirt – The Adobe Churches of Northern New Mexico


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I just returned from a trip to Colorado through northern New Mexico. This was nothing new; I’ve been that way before and have fallen in love with that part of the state. There is an ageless beauty to the landscape and a gracious spirit among the people living in the small towns and villages. Some families go back 400 years in the same community. New Mexico is the fifth largest state – bigger than Illinois and New York combined – but has only two million residents, mostly living in or around the Santa Fe – Albuquerque area. That means that the rest of the state is sparsely populated and change comes slowly – when it comes.



I was not on a tight schedule during my recent trip so I wandered a bit. That just whetted my appetite to see what is up in the next valley or around the bend. I will have to go back to explore some of those places on another trip…or two…or three.

Many of the old villages were somewhat isolated until well into the 20th century. If you look at a detailed map you will see a few main highways that kept mostly to the valleys but there are smaller roads connecting these communities. Then there are tracks leading around and through the named communities and off in various directions from the villages and towns to homes or fields. There were no city planners back in the 17th century and the villages were somewhat dispersed based on the availability of water and farm land and the various land grants from the King of Spain. These do not resemble towns or villages of the Midwest or New England. Many are unincorporated and exist as census designated places. Many of these smaller communities will have an ancient “acequia madre” that irrigates the local farms and kitchen gardens through a series of smaller water channels. Some of the larger places might have a Family Dollar Store and there might be a post office. Almost all will have a parish church of some type.

The parish church is a central focus point for many of these communities going back into the 1700s. I found myself taking pictures of these adobe churches on this and earlier trips. These are just a few…there are dozens more.

San Francisco de Asis

Thanks to Ansel Adams, the most famous and most frequently photographed church in the region is San Francisco de Asis in Ranchos de Taos, dating to the 1770s and reaching its current configuration around 1816. This was a mission church built by the Franciscans in what was then a fortified plaza. Ansel’s iconic photographs are in black and white but there is a lot of color there. The building has something of a glow due to reflected light and, although just a mass of mud and straw, it takes on some interesting colors. The building itself is not pink but there is sometimes a reddish or even lavender cast to the adobe mud surface depending on the light. The massive walls and buttresses present different shapes and surfaces that reflect light differently throughout the day.

The interior of the church is off limits to photography but there are photos on the internet of the interior and the two altar pieces. It is fairly simple in terms of decoration, which is typical for these old mission churches.

Thanks to Ansel Adams, there were about a dozen people all taking pictures of the place when I was there. On my first visit, about five years ago, the church was being re-mudded with a fresh coat of mud and straw plaster. That seemed to be a community project.


Santa Cruz – Holy Cross

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASpanish settlers began occupying the Espanola valley around 1595 in small villages and scattered haciendas. These early settlers were driven out in 1680 during the Pueblo Revolt but returned after the re-conquest about a dozen years later.  A few years later the Spanish Governor saw a need to establish authority and protect settlers in the area north of Santa Fe and established a new administrative town, called a “villa”, in 1695.  The town was named Villa Nueva de Santa Cruz de los Españoles Mejicanos del Rey Nuestro Señor Carlos Segundo (The New Town of the Holy Cross of Mexican Spaniards under the King Our Lord Charles II). That was a mouthful in any language so it was eventually shortened to Santa Cruz de la Cañada. “La cañada” is a descriptive term meaning sloped hillside or ravine. There was apparently a small church of some sort there as early as 1595 but it was swept away in a flood or otherwise disappeared. The new town built its own church but by 1733 it had deteriorated beyond repair. The current structure dates to the period of 1733 – 1748 and still serves the local Holy Cross parish. It remains as one of the largest and most impressive colonial-era parish churches in New Mexico.

This large adobe structure is constructed without a foundation…it simply sits on the ground with walls that are over four feet thick. Like all of the old Spanish mission churches, it had a packed dirt floor until the 1940s.   The interior is plastered with a form of white clay found locally. There are many historical and sacred objects in the church including three altar pieces, bultos, paintings, and other fixtures dating back to the 1700s. Local Santeros or religious artisans created much of the interior pieces including some from local Pueblo master craftsmen. As was common in the early days, there are several burials in the sanctuary floor.


Las Trampas

Las Trampas is a small mountain village on the “High Road to Taos” – highway 76. The adobe church is easily located on the northeast side of what was once a defensive plaza but now serves primarily as a parking area. The village and the church are designated as National Historic Landmarks. The village was established in 1751 with the settlement of twelve families. The inhabitants built the church themselves in 1761 and it remains intact as one of the most original of the Spanish colonial churches in New Mexico. The official name of the church is San Jose de Gracia but it was originally called La Iglesia de Santo Tomas Del Rio de Las Trampas.

The church was padlocked on the day of my visit but the exterior seems to be in good condition though still undergoing some renovation. Pictures of the church on the internet show some significant deterioration of the exterior mud plaster but it is now mostly restored. At some point I would like to return and see the interior. The church is apparently floored with broad planks and decorated with paintings, including some on the ceiling planks. There is an impressive altarpiece.


The church in Abiquiu, Santo Tomas el Apostol, is relatively new compared to other adobe churches in the region as it was constructed around 1930 replacing an older village church. It was constructed in the old Spanish colonial mission style and is somewhat austere. The interior is decorated with religious paintings but is missing the large monumental altarpiece found in other churches.

The Abiquiu land grant was created for a community of Genizaros, native Christianized Indians who were captured and sold, often as children, to Spanish settlers by Comanche and Apache raiders. These captives, who once served as house servants, shepherds, or laborers for Spanish colonists, eventually became settlers themselves and made up a sizeable portion of the colonial population. During the mid-18th century the region was frequently being attacked by Comanche raiders and the Genizaro community helped protect the northern approach to Santa Cruz and Santa Fe. The original church was established as a mission for the mixed Indian population in 1754 and administered by the Franciscans. It became a village church about twenty years later.

There is a ruined adobe structure across the street from the church in Abiquiu that shows what happens to adobe if it is abandoned and left to the elements. It takes considerable effort to maintain these large adobe structures.


Of course, Abiquiu is most widely known as the home of the painter, Georgia O’Keeffe, who lived and worked there up until the 1980s.

Acoma and Taos Pueblos


The Taos and Acoma pueblos are considered to be the longest occupied places in the United States. People have been living in these villages for 1000 years or more. Christianity arrived with the Spanish about 400 years ago. Most, if not all, of New Mexico’s Indian Pueblos have mission churches. Some have a history of conflict and violence. Ansel Adams made the Taos Pueblo church of San Geronimo de Taos (after St. Jerome) somewhat famous based on his photographs. Any visitor to the Taos Pueblo will see the San Geronimo mission church positioned between the two large pueblo housing blocks

A mission church was established at Taos Pueblo as early as 1620s but was not well received and was a source of conflict. That church was destroyed following the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. A second mission church was built around 1726. The current church was constructed in 1850 following the destruction of the second church in a battle between American soldiers and Mexican and Indian defenders during the Mexican-American War. The church we see today is changed somewhat from its original design due to the addition of the two towers and other modifications but it fits in the Spanish colonial style.

san_esteban_del_rey_mission_acoma_pueblo-1934_valencia_county_new_mexicoAt Acoma Pueblo, west of Albuquerque, the mission church of San Estevan del Rey is a massive adobe structure perched on the mesa top in the pueblo village. The church is the largest adobe structure in the United States. The Coronado expedition of 1540 took note of the Acoma pueblo and Christianity arrived when the first Spanish Governor arrived in 1598 to impose Spanish control and establish settlements. This was not a peaceful transition and a mission church was not established at Acoma until 1629 – built with the forced labor of the Indians under the direction of the Franciscans. The Spanish were driven out during the 1680 Pueblo revolt and Acoma retained its independence until 1699 when the Spanish regained control over the pueblo. The mission church survived the revolt relatively unscathed and mission life soon returned to the community.



The church we see today is the original structure dating to 1629. It was extensively restored in the 1930s and is now maintained by a special society of Acoma residents who dedicate their life to maintaining the mission. The mission bell was a gift from King Charles of Spain. Portions of the structure are constructed with a mix of stone and adobe.

The interior is largely unadorned except for wall paintings and the altarpiece and religious paintings. The church still has its dirt floor. The church cemetery is in front of the building in a flat area that has been built up with burials over the last four centuries.



OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe town of Chimayó is also on the High Road to Taos and is famous for its pilgrimage site, El Santuario de Chimayó, officially named El Santuario de Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas. This church originated as a family chapel belonging to the Abeyta family, a fairly common practice of the region. The origin is shrouded in mystery and legend but it is revered as a site of miracles due to the healing properties of the “Holy dirt” found in a side room of the church. In general, Don Bernardo Abeyta, a member of Los Penitentes, a lay religious brotherhood, had a religious experience on the site and was healed by the dirt. He constructed a small chapel for people to come for healing and replaced it in 1816 with the current larger church structure. The church remained in the family until 1929 when it became part of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. About 300,000 pilgrims come to the site each year with 30,000 coming during Holy Week.

At first glance the Santuario looks somewhat different from the other parish churches and missions. It has a peaked roof rather than a more common flat roof and there is more exposed wood, either for structural purposes or for decoration.

The interior largely conforms to the layout of other churches with religious art and multiple carved and painted altarpieces. The grounds have been substantially changed to accommodate the large number of pilgrims. There is an outdoor area for performing large masses because the church nave will not accommodate anywhere close to the number. A side room inside the church contains crutches and other medical aids that were left behind by pilgrims seeking a cure or healing from some sort of physical affliction.


Chimayó has a second interesting chapel, the Oratorio de San Buenaventura. This is a very small family chapel built as part of the old defensive plaza, Plaza del Cerro (1749). Plaza del Cerro is the last remaining fortified plaza in New Mexico and, though seriously is in need of some restorative attention, it is still occupied as family residences.

The Oratorio makes up one of the attached structures forming what was a defensive wall around the plaza. It appears to be a simple vernacular adobe structure from the outside except that there is a small wooden belfry or steeple perched on the roof.

The interior is plain with a small altar and some religious art. The dirt floor is probably similar to what most of the early churches were like and the ceiling is made of rough vigas and planks. A primitive wooden candle chandelier and a single window provide light. There are family burials in the floor of the chapel.

Pecos and the other missions

Several old Spanish mission churches exist only as ruins. Most of these, as at the Jemez Mission and the Salt Missions southeast of Albuquerque, are not adobe but are constructed of stone which was abundant in the area and possibly less work than constructing thousands of adobe bricks. These missions were established early but were mostly abandoned around the time of the Pueblo Revolt (1680) or due to declining populations and attacks from Plains Indian raiders.

The exception is Pecos Mission, a short distance southeast of Santa Fe. Pecos Mission was made of adobe and has been melting away on its hilltop site for almost 200 years. The pueblo, originally names Cicuye, was on the eastern fringe of pueblo communities and an important trade center with the plains tribes. The Spanish arrived and the Franciscans built a large mission church in the 1620s, of course with coerced Indian labor. The relations with the local people deteriorated over the decades and finally the priest was killed and the mission church destroyed during the Pueblo Revolt.


A new smaller mission church was constructed after the Spanish returned and, with better community relations, the church functioned for several generations. By the time of the opening of the Santa Fe Trail the Pecos pueblo was seriously depopulated. Loss of trading partners, disease and dwindling population led to the eventual abandonment of the pueblo in the 1830s and the mission church fell into ruin. This second church is what is visible today although the massive original church foundation can still be seen. Today the church and adjoining pueblo site is preserved by the National Park Service.

If this was the smaller of the two Pecos mission churches you can imagine how large the original structure must have been.

As I mentioned, there are probably dozens more of these adobe churches beyond what I’ve shown here. I know of a couple others within 10 or 15 miles of my house. The mission church at Isleta Pueblo (San Agustin de la Isletas – 1629) was recently restored. There is also a small adobe church (San Ysidro – 1868) maintained by the historical society in Corrales.


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Discovering Places — El Rancho de los Golondrinas


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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEl Rancho de los Golindrinas  (Ranch of the Swallows) is a living history preserve just outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. It recreates life in New Mexico back 150 years ago…or maybe more. Structures at El Rancho are original to the site or were moved there from other places in northern New Mexico. In some instances the buildings are replicas of existing or former structures…you can’t easily move an adobe building.

Life was simple. People farmed, raised livestock, were religious, were largely self sufficient, were law-abiding, and they understood their role in the larger community. They were also isolated and took care of one another.

I visited El Rancho de los Golondrinas in early October during their Harvest Festival, one of several events…and the last one of the year. This is one of the top-rated Harvest Festivals in the country and there were a lot of other visitors as well as people in period dress performing various tasks or offering information. I recommend visiting the place any time it is open but during these special events there will be more activity and more to see. There will also be artisans and craft people offering items for sale and some good food as well. There is a very reasonable admission fee….they do have livestock to feed and it is a large area to maintain.

There are several clusters of buildings. Those that you will encounter near the entrance will mostly be original adobe structures. There will be a few log structures that are preserved in their original place or were dismantled and relocated. The Mora House, for example, is a full replica building based on one in Mora, New Mexico. Everything you will see is folk vernacular construction with emphasis on durability and function but with an ample supply of artistic carving and decorative touches where possible.


There is a noticeable separation in the design and layout of the residential and work areas. Certain tasks were performed close to the residential structures…or within these structures…and other tasks were centered at some distance. In the case of the grist mill there had to be a reliable water source to turn the water wheel.


Some structures were clustered together with common walls and surround a central plaza area. While far from being opulent, the living spaces were airy and reasonably comfortable.

There were specialized spaces set aside for cooking, weaving, food preservation or processing, storage and, of course, the family chapel.

Religion played an important role in everyday life. Family chapels were common. Priests were not always available. The group known as Los Hermanos Penitentes was a men’s lay religious society, a brotherhood,  that originated in Europe. The members would step in and provide religious leadership for the isolated communities and farmsteads in the absence of ordained priests.  The brotherhood maintained their own private meeting places, or moradas, which served as chapels for their ceremonies.

Working areas such as the tanning shed, blacksmith shop, and threshing floor were located a short distance from the residential areas. Livestock were kept close at hand when penned up. There is a system of acequias, dating back to the 1700s, delivering irrigation water to the fields.

Not everything was made of adobe. This was an forested area and log workshops and primitive residences were built of logs.  There are a number of corrals and livestock pens. a large variety of Nubian goats were raised for meat. Sheep were raised for wool. There are several underground cellars used for storage and preservation.


The Mora House represents the home of a well-off sheep rancher, based on an existing home in northern New Mexico.

The mill is particularly interesting and offers an example of how ingenious and enterprising the water powered milling operation could be. The mill operated from a large water wheel and ground the grain, wheat or corn, on stone millstones. There was a grain and flour storage area and a sorting area where the ground flour was sorted according to the grind — fine to coarse. The mill was substantially built — there was a lot going on with wheels, pulleys, and grinding stones turning and considerable vibration when it was operating.


The upper floor was  for grain and flour storage. A lever operated a chute that delivered the flour to the sifting bins.

Transportation of produce would be by mule, burro  or ox cart. Some exotic items were available in the area due to the close proximity of Santa Fe and the Santa Fe Trail. There also were horses for everyday ranching and transportation purposes.

Life was hard with few comforts but there were opportunities for celebration, music and dancing. There were plenty of grapes for winemaking. There were roving musicians during my visit and a number of people performing traditional New Mexican country dances.

I recommend a visit if you are in the area and have a day to spend walking over the 200 acres of the ranch. The place has an informative web site with other photos and a calendar of events.

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meow_wolfWhat happened to the family that lived in this Victorian house? They’re gone… Find out if you can. This is the House of Eternal Return. Actually, this is the Meow Wolf experience; and you will have quite a memorable experience, indeed. Just go with it…and crawl through the fireplace.

Okay… This is supposed to be a blog about architecture and preservation so the hook and handle on this post is about adaptive reuse of a vacant 20,000 square foot bowling alley in Santa Fe, New Mexico. That’s the connection to architecture… repurposing a large vacant space and turning it into an interactive and experiential art and performance space. This is very hard to describe without being a spoiler. It’s not a Halloween funhouse – it’s a journey through imagination and parallel realities. I’ll post a few pictures below but I really don’t want to give away too much information. You have to go there and see it…or, do it.

The brains behind Meow Wolf, the company and the collection of people, came together a few years ago and started making….what(?)…an experiential art and performance space. They kept at it and they found someone to help them along. Santa Fe resident George R.R. Martin purchased the old bowling alley building and then leased it to Meow Wolf. Martin, author of the Game of Thrones and all that that entails, is a local presence and theater owner in Santa Fe. The new Meow Wolf facility opened in late spring and has already had over 250,000 visitors.

Many years ago, In St. Louis, an old shoe factory was repurposed into an interactive play-space museum of sorts called City Museum. City Museum unleashes a person’s inhibitions to some extent and lets them experience a sort of warped childhood. Much of it is created from repurposed “stuff” and a visitor can crawl in and out of windows and slide five stories down a spiral chute in the atrium of the building. It is a participatory experience.

Now I only point that out because some of my readers might be familiar with City Museum and think this is the same thing. It’s not. There are a few similarities but a whole range of differences between City Museum and Meow Wolf. A visitor can experience Meow Wolf on several different levels. It can just be a whimsical hour-long visit or it can take up most of the day as the mystery of the missing people unfolds. There is a story here…have they gone off to a resort or some alternative universe. There are clues and relics scattered everywhere and strange portals into different realities. If you go, keep your eyes open, pick up loose papers and notebooks and read them, watch laptop videos sitting in the abandoned office and various bedrooms. Climb up into the elevated spaces. Find yourself back where you started…somehow. I was there for the better part of an afternoon and barely scratched the surface. If you get lost or hopelessly confused the Meow Wolf staff members are there, wearing white lab coats, and they can be of help. There’s no map – you just have to find your way.

This is also a performance space. There are various performances scheduled of various types. On the day of our visit there was a modern dance group (I guess that’s what it was) doing various movements and poses in the shadows and recesses. The technology angle is also a huge presence and performer in its own right. Take time to explore the technology. On the day we visited there was a short line of maybe six or eight people in front of us…not a huge crowd. Admission is reasonable and you can stay until 8 PM or leave, eat, and come back.


There is an interesting short article on Meow Wolf on the October-November 2016 issue of Western Art & Architecture magazine that provides some additional background.

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The Brick City – Benton Park


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Let’s start this blog post with a catastrophe!

On May 17, 1849, a fire broke out on the steamboat “The White Cloud” docked at the St. Louis levee. The city was crowded with residents and hopeful travelers on the way to the California goldfields. Steamboats were moored in tiers several deep at the levee and the fire spread rapidly to the dozens of riverboats moored alongside and up and down the landing. Before long it spread to the buildings and warehouses along the riverfront and then worked its way inland into the city. Within a few hours the fire had engulfed most of the central core of the city and fire fighters were blowing up businesses in the fire’s path to create a fire break. One of the firefighters was blown to bits in the attempt to save the city, the first recorded fireman’s death in service for the city and in the nation. After eleven hours there were over 400 buildings destroyed and over twenty steamboats burned at the docks. St. Louis was a substantial city in 1849 and was largely built of brick but there was a significant number of wood frame buildings, workshops, blacksmith shops, stables and barns that provided fuel for the flames. Loss of life was only three deaths, quite small considering the extent of the property destruction. A cholera epidemic was raging in the city at the same time which would claim about 6,000 lives. A reasonably good daguerreotype from that week in 1849 shows the extent of the damage. The view seems to be toward the river and the old church still stands, as it does today as the Basilica of Saint Louis, King of France. The Gateway Arch would now probably be to the right of the steeple.


After the fire, the city fathers passed an ordinance that required all future buildings to be built of brick or stone and much of St. Louis, today, is almost entirely made of brick. The fact that there were brick and fire clay mines just west of the city worked in its favor as building materials were readily at hand and reasonably cheap. Even streets were paved with brick. So the city rebuilt and eventually became the fourth largest city in the nation around the turn of the century. The rise of the suburbs and commuter expressways brought massive population loss over the next eighty years but that is a different story. The old 19th century city, and its infrastructure, is still there in many respects.

There were other catastrophes that came and went. Tornadoes, yellow fever, smallpox, typhoid, cholera and other diseases took a heavy toll at times, just like in other cities. St. Louis buried its dead in a tract of land a short distance to the west. By the 1860s the city was growing in that direction and in 1866 a decision was made to exhume the burials and move them elsewhere and convert the cemetery into one of the first city parks. City Park, as it was known then, was constructed and landscaped (by Edward F. Krausnick) and was soon the focus of new residential construction. The park was renamed to Benton Park in honor of Missouri’s first senator, Thomas Hart Benton. It remains as a scenic and restorative refuge for city residents.

The homes built around Benton Park belonged to the city’s upper-mobile business and professional class. These were people who were “well off” but not the richest families in the city. That being said, the homes that exist there today are certainly impressive. The Park and neighborhood are located where Arsenal Street meets Jefferson Avenue. The area is underlain by a series of limestone caverns which were useful in the making of German-style lager beer prior to refrigeration. The gargantuan Anheuser-Busch brewery and the old Lemp brewery are only blocks away. Both were constructed of brick, of course.


I have visited the park a number of times as I have relatives about a block away. It is always an enjoyable stroll but on this last occasion, after watching a bicycle race (Gateway Cup) through the city’s streets, I took some pictures of the neighborhood. Like other parts of the city, the neighborhood has become popular with families interested in rehabbing and restoring the old 19th century homes.










St. Louis has a hot and humid summer climate and the brick walls and shady streets helped in a small way to mitigate the heat. It was once common for residents all over the city to sleep outdoors in the neighborhood parks on very warm nights and I imagine the same was true for Benton Park.  The park gets a good deal of use and is popular with south St. Louis residents.

St. Louis has a number of similar old neighborhoods, Lafayette Square might be the most famous but Compton Heights, Soulard and Fox Park are other examples. The northern part of the city has suffered considerable deterioration and similar old neighborhoods have largely been demolished or have fallen victim to brick rustlers who pull down vacant structures for recycling of the old bricks for McMansion construction elsewhere.


These old brick neighborhoods were once given very little respect and many homes were chopped up for apartments. Some were sold at dirt cheap prices until they became fashionable again and were restored.  Now you can pick up a house at Lafayette Square for $500,000 to $700,000. While Lafayette Square has something of a French Second Empire and Victorian style, Benton Park has a more Germanic feel with some Richardsonian Romanesque features.


Lafayette Square


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Demolition by Neglect – Now You Have It/Now You Don’t


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Capitol Avenue


This is not a unique story — it happens in other places. This is the place I know something about… I lived there thirty-seven years and watched the problem develop.

Once upon a time Jefferson City’s Capitol Avenue neighborhood was a showplace of nice homes with mixed architectural styles. This was where the Barons of (prison) Industry built their homes…within walking distance of the Missouri State Penitentiary where the inmates worked in their factories making shoes and other products of the late 19th century. This was an era when prisons were considered commercial enterprises with a large cost free, or nearly free, labor force. It was not unusual for inmates to be rented out for construction work in the city. Sometimes this was public work, like heavy-duty road building or excavation, but sometimes for private projects. Having a large inmate labor force was beneficial to Jefferson City and a number of people and families got rich off of inmate labor. They built impressive homes along Capitol Avenue…in full view of the Capitol Building a few blocks west. In 1893, future Governor Lon Stephens built Ivy Terrace, a large shingle-style Queen Anne home on Capitol Avenue. This area was the place for “movers and shakers” in Missouri politics and business.


Ivy Terrace (1893)


It was not all stately mansions. There are a few side-hall Italianate homes, some without any set-back distance from the sidewalk. The Parsons House had pioneer roots and the home was well known before the Civil War. This was the home of Gustavus Parsons, Thomas Jefferson’s private secretary.


The Gustavus Parsons House, c. 1830


There are a few apartment buildings and a few smaller homes of vernacular style or with eclectic traces of Tudor or Craftsman styles.

Nothing lasts forever and the prison industry era eventually was reformed out of business. The stately homes remained…and still remain…as a memorial to that economic boom time enjoyed by a few well-positioned folks. Over the years the neighborhood transitioned into a mixed commercial area with some homes converted to office space for lawyers or lobbyists. This being the seat of government, a few of these stately residences offered an impressive spot for those influencing or tracking government business. The movers and shakers still had (and perhaps still have) a toe-hold in the neighborhood.


McIntyre House


Many of the occupied homes and multi-family residences in the neighborhood were acquired by one person over the years who rented the properties out – more or less as a herd of cash-cows. Things began to go down hill but it was still a striking and desirable neighborhood on the whole. Many properties, especially those in commercial hands were well maintained. A few were not. The area was designated as the Capitol Avenue Historic District and placed on the National Historic Register in 2005. Some individual properties, like Ivy Terrace, were also placed on the register.

Around that time, I was working in the city Planning Office on a part-time basis and was tasked with photographing all of the buildings along Capitol Avenue from about Adams Street east to Cherry Street or beyond. Most of the buildings were still occupied and there was an expected rediscovery and renaissance coming to the area due to the redevelopment of the old prison site and the construction of a new Federal Court House a few blocks away. There was an interest in retaining the character of the neighborhood and avoiding inappropriate new construction or renovation.

Over the course of a few months I had amassed a collection of over 1,000 photographs of buildings and architectural details for the city’s use. I remember that a few structures were beginning to fall into serious disrepair. Most of these, but not all, were owned by one person who seemed to have no interest in maintaining the properties. Some of the buildings were sitting vacant and appeared to be hazardous if entered. Her ownership and neglect of Ivy Terrace was particularly destructive because, unlike the many other brick structures, Ivy Terrace is primarily a wooden structure. Finally the city moved in and applied a fresh coat of paint and made minor exterior repairs to Ivy Terrace in spite of the owner’s continuing refusal to maintain it. Now, almost ten years later, it is beginning to show signs that it needs more paint. Apparently the city made repairs to a few other of the buildings and then took the owner to court to get reimbursed for the expense. The city won but I’d be surprised if she makes any reimbursement payments. As recently as 2014, she owed $40,000 in delinquent real estate taxes for her properties.

On a recent visit to Jefferson City, after being away for three years, I took a walk along Capitol Avenue and around a couple blocks to see how things have fared. It is a very sad sight, indeed. The buildings have seriously deteriorated. Some that were occupied when I moved away were now vacant and boarded up. The city has posted no-entry signs on a few. Those that were in bad shape ten years ago are much worse now. I suppose the city is lucky that a fire hasn’t destroyed the buildings. There is really nothing left but to somehow take over the properties.

The city finally took action in the summer of 2016 and commissioned a private firm to conduct a blight study of the neighborhood. The study confirmed the blighted conditions and declared the area as a threat to public health and safety as well as an economic liability to the city.  The city now must declare the area as “blighted” and direct the  Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority (LCRA) to include the area in the city’s urban renewal plan. A determination will be made on which properties are salvagable and if some need to be demolished. The city will need to acquire the salvagable properties and offer them for resale or rehabilitation.

This is a lengthy process and some important properties have been allowed to slip away…maybe to the point of no return. That is regretable and probably could have been avoided by earlier action. Of course, the blight designation hurts those faithful property owners and properties that are well maintained. Allowing a designated historic district to disolve into a neighborhood of deteriorated and condemned buildings is pretty much inexcusable and also hurts those faithful property owners.


The Standish House


Jefferson City, being the state capital, has lost much of it’s original core to government offices and associated parking lots. State government is the economic engine that runs the city. The state had big plans for redevelopment of the vacated prison site but very little has happened. This was the oldest major prison west of the Mississippi River. The prison site will probably follow the usual pattern of neglect followed by demolition and some sort of redevelopment. While the city shows an interest in salvaging and restoring the central business/commercial district, there doesn’t seem to be an ability or willingness to preserve the little that remains in the architectural history of residential properties.


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Pluto’s Birthplace – Lowell Observatory


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Sadly, on August 24th 2006, just ten years ago, the planet Pluto was demoted to the status of “dwarf planet”. How sad. I remember learning about the little guy in grade school and we were all particularly happy about the name – Pluto – because of our enjoyment of Pluto cartoons and comics. Both Plutos…the planet and the cartoon character debuted in 1930 but Pluto, the name, goes back into antiquity.

First, he lost his status as the ninth planet when he crossed inside of planet Neptune’s orbit…so then he was the eighth planet. But that lasted only for twenty years when he snuck back beyond Neptune in 1999. Pluto is something of a wanderer and it takes 248 years to make one orbit of the sun. Twenty of those years the orbit lies inside the orbit of Neptune. Image of Pluto from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) aboard NASA's New Horizons spacecraft

Pluto tries harder to get our attention than any other planet. Sure, the other planets might have fancy rings or spots or might be close enough that we can see them from the porch. But Pluto, bless his heart, gave us a big valentine when we finally got close enough to get decent pictures.

The demotion was sad and some of us still secretly consider Pluto a planet no matter what those cranky astronomers think. We like his eccentricity and his goofy cock-eyed orbit. Pluto is on a tilt-a-whirl ride compared to the other planets…a non-conformist.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWell, one way to celebrate Pluto is to visit the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. The observatory was founded by Percival Lowell in 1894 on Mars Hill in the small town of Flagstaff. His first large telescope, the Clark Refractor,  is still there and still in use. The Pluto telescope (1929)  used to discover Pluto in 1930 is there also. Lowell was a little eccentric himself and was mostly interested in the “canals” that were seen by some astronomers on the planet Mars. He was also convinced that there was an undiscovered “Planet X” somewhere far out in the solar system. There is evidence that Lowell might have glimpsed Pluto before he died in 1916 but didn’t realize what he was seeing. The planet’s discoverer, Clyde Tombaugh, joined the staff at Lowell Observatory specifically for the task of finding that elusive outer planet. He found the planet (or dwarf planet if you insist) in 1930 and named it Pluto. The common astronomical notation for Pluto, (♇), happens to be the initials of Percival Lowell.

Another major discovery at Lowell Observatory is the early evidence that the universe is expanding and that galaxies are moving away from each other.

The observatory is open to the public and there are scheduled tours. There are regularly scheduled star gazing events. A museum on site contains some of the early equipment used for the expanding universe discovery as well as Lowell’s 1911 Stevens-Duryea automobile. During my visit a telescope was set up to view sun spots and solar flare eruptions from the sun’s surface. I took a number of pictures while on the tour. Architecturally, the observatory buildings are interesting. Mrs. Lowell’s favorite planet was Saturn so there are a few references to the ringed planet on the grounds, including the library.

The observatory on the left houses the original 1895 Clark Refractor telescope used by Percival Lowell.

The old telescope — in use for over 100 years — looks as new as the day it was installed. Yes, the astronomer peers through that little eyepiece….but there is a photo attachment as well. The observatory dome rotates on automobile tires.

Percival Lowell’s library and some housing and office space for resident astronomers are located at the observatory. Lowell’s mausoleum  sits at the crest of Mars Hill near his original observatory. Lowell died 100 years ago, in 1916 at the age of 61. He was convinced that there were navigable canals on Mars — something that was widely believed at the time. We know now that that is not the case but it made for some interesting science fiction speculation back in the day. Lowell was very widely travelled and wrote a number of books on the orient that were widely read and well received at the time. One book, “Chosön: The Land of the Morning Calm ; a Sketch of Korea” (1886) offers an early, 1883, description of Korea and is viewable at Google online books.

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