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SANTA FE — Most New Mexicans outside of Santa Fe know that some pretty weird things happen in our capital city. And most of what you’ve heard is true. Here’s another one to add to your list.
The city of Santa Fe has a number of committees and boards designed to protect our 400-year heritage. It’s a good idea. No other communities in the nation have buildings that truly are 400 years old. But Santa Fe gets carried away protecting every other building in town.
Last week, the Historic Districts Review Board declared four Depression-Era houses across the street west of the capitol as too precious to be torn down to make way for a state executive office building.
One can certainly ask why the state needs another executive office building, especially in a time of austerity when the governor is said to be trimming staff.
But that wasn’t the board’s decision to make. Its task was to decide whether the four houses were essential to the historic district that includes the main capitol complex. The decision, predictably, was that the houses should remain.
They were the last remaining examples of home construction during the 1930-33 era, said one committee member. Another member countered that they are not unique and, in fact, are vestigial.
It may be that the other committee members did not know what that meant because they ignored him and voted 5-2 to not allow the demolition.
I happen to have a long history with those houses, For 30 years, beginning in the mid-1960s, I worked in a private office building just beyond those houses west of the capitol. The houses were only a little over 30 years old at that time — and they were dumps then.
Everyone looked forward to the state buying the cheaply constructed houses and tearing them down. Nearly 50 years later, they aren’t in any better shape.
In the early 1960s, the Capitol Buildings Improvement Commission, under Gov. Jack Campbell, had drawn a capitol complex master plan that called for those houses to be purchased and torn down to make room for an executive office building.
A cafeteria would occupy the basement and be connected to the legislative chambers by a tunnel under Don Gaspar Street.
The best opportunity to do that came in the late 1960s, when Rep. Bill O’Donnell, of Las Cruces, vice-chairman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee introduced legislation to purchase the houses. O’Donnell was highly respected by lawmakers but he couldn’t allay suspicions about who would benefit from the purchase.
Republicans worried that the New Mexico Education Association, which O’Donnell had once headed, would benefit. Democrats said the houses were owned by the Prince estate and would benefit House Republican Whip, Brad Prince. So a bipartisan contingent soundly trounced the bill.
The capitol building itself displaced many residential houses and had the City Council’s support. But fast-forward to today and preservationists reign.
The legislature helped this along a year ago by passing legislation directing that the state work with local authorities on zoning decisions.
The legislation was prompted by neighborhood complaints about the massiveness of a large parking garage on the opposite corner of the same large lot containing the four houses. The Legislature was sensitive to those complaints and scaled back the structure.
Such was not the case back in the early 1980s, when state Land Commissioner Alex Armijo installed an oil field pump jack in front of the Land Office Building near downtown Santa Fe.
Many locals complained loudly that the pump jack did not fit in with Santa Fe decor. Armijo countered that the pump jack was a tribute to the positive impact of the oil industry on our state’s economy.
And besides, Armijo replied, the city can’t tell the state what to do with its property. That has now changed.
To top off last week, the Santa Fe City Council voted to forbid conflict with Iran.
Jay Miller is a syndicated columnist based in Santa Fe.