The Architectural Undead
A 103-year-old University Heights landmark faces demolition
The ramshackle cottage on the corner of Cornell and Silver has been a source of mystery for many years. The antique Werner-Gilchrist house, the oldest known structure east of Yale, has the patina that comes with age. It's an oddball among the newer buildings in the neighborhood—presumably haunted, too.
Courtesy of the City of Albuquerque
A hip-roofed cube (square with a pyramid-shaped roof) constructed of adobe, it has a center hall floor plan—a layout introduced for officers' houses in Territorial forts following the Civil War and later adopted by well-to-do families. The house was once a dignified example of Albuquerque’s expanding place in the world. Now she’s as ragged as a moth-eaten ball gown, and, sadly, may soon be laid to rest like too many of the city’s other architectural beauties.
Col. D.K.B. Sellers is the man responsible for much of the initial movement toward Albuquerque's East Mesa. Sellers, a purportedly exuberant self-deemed colonel, began to develop the area in the early 1900s. He'd changed Railroad Avenue’s name to Central and sold commercial lots along that main thoroughfare. Sellers was elected mayor in 1912 (the same year New Mexico became a state) and during his term developed the University Heights Addition, the UNM-area subdivision that spans from Yale to Girard, and from Central to Garfield. Prior to that, though, he’d paid his secretary, Laura Werner, with half a dusty, barren block on the yet-to-be-named Cornell Drive.
Werner and her son-in-law Ralph Gilchrist built the house in 1908. It was inhabited until 1981, when Laura's reclusive daughter Nora, who lived into her late ’90s, died. The next year it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The house’s significance lies not only in its age but also in the fact that it represents the earliest suburban development in Albuquerque. This summer, after three decades of people working to block demolition—including its designation as an Albuquerque Landmark in 2006—the city gave the property's owner the go-ahead to tear it down.
"The hitch is that there is only so much the city can do in accordance with the law," says Maryellen Hennessy, senior planner with Albuquerque's Urban Design and Development Division. She says a consistent lack of maintenance and security rendered it a nuisance. (In art imitating life, the property was featured on an episode of “Breaking Bad," wherein it was portrayed as a crack house.) The owner of the derelict property was issued a notice for violating the housing code. That initiated the demolition process. You see, historic designations, such as placement on the National Register, do not entirely prevent structures from being torn down. Hennessy says the city and the neighborhood association are both disappointed.
Ideas for uses of the house have ranged from an apartment complex to a daycare. Another potential buyer wanted to simply renovate and use it as a residence, but financing fell through. She says the company has had a hard time getting the neighborhood on board with a number of proposals. Build New Mexico will decide whether to demolish the house within weeks.
The University Heights Association, meanwhile, has gone on record supporting a variety of other uses for the property, and a few years ago supported a zoning change that allows for commercial use. "It really would help that neighborhood—and the general effort to revitalize closer-in neighborhoods—to have landmarks like this preserved and revitalized," says Chris Wilson, architectural historian and professor at UNM's School of Architecture and Planning. Wilson directs the school's Historic Preservation and Regionalism graduate certificate program (disclosure: this writer is enrolled in the program). As a former Cornell resident and then-president of the neighborhood association, he was responsible for the Werner-Gilchrist House's placement on the National Register.
Wilson draws a comparison between Albuquerque and Santa Fe—the latter being one of the nation's most preserved cities and a place where history is at the heart of its cultural identity. He says the Werner-Gilchrist House would have been reused there years ago. "We're much more of a dynamic, kind of laissez-faire, developer-driven city. So, there's not as much of a constituency. There aren't as many people who have experience refurbishing and adapting historic buildings."
He cites that lack of know-how as part of the problem in this case. He says, ideally, Trump would sell the property at a fair market price—the value of the land minus the cost of demolition, which is what he’d be left with if he tears it down. "I don't think it's fair to expect that building to return more on the investment than the property is actually worth.”
The reuse of historic building stock is a more sustainable practice than building anew. Demolition, trucking away rubble and erecting another structure in its place costs more energy and dollars than working with what's already there.
Aside from environmental concerns, Albuquerque should place a higher value on buildings like these for cultural reasons. As it is now, much of the city is a modernist, car-based, homogenized sprawl of subdivisions, big-box stores and chain restaurants. Local culture is at times hard to come by, but you can find it—more readily near the center of town in its older neighborhoods. Elements that contribute to the identity of these places, such as the Werner-Gilchrist house, should be cared for, creatively reused and taken as a means to attract further energy toward revitalizing these areas.
Many of our historic buildings, ones that should have been prized, have been demolished—the Alvarado Hotel, Hotel Franciscan, Castle Huning. Untold vernacular houses (modest buildings that employ local construction methods, materials and styles) have been razed as well. These places often become parking or vacant dirt lots: Central between Sixth and Seventh Streets, the block between Fifth and Sixth Streets and Rosemont and Summer, for example. Or something similar is built in its place: Alvarado Transportation Center.
Valuing architectural history, rather than letting it languish and fade away, is symbolic of a city that possesses a strong cultural identity. In that respect, Albuquerque should try to be more like Santa Fe. Not be Santa Fe—our buildings will never match, and we can't exactly take back 50 years of unchecked horizontal sprawl. But Albuquerque should take opportunities like these to be a better version of itself. Any old building can be rehabilitated, even if it's falling down. But once it's demolished, it's gone forever.
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