On The Scene: Renaissance Of Resilience

Occidental Life Building At 100

Jessica Cassyle Carr
6 min read
Renaissance of Resilience
The Occidental Life Building, circa 1917 (Albuquerque Museum photo archive)
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Nothing is particularly mystical about the story of the Occidental Life Building. To behold it though, with its turret-adorned fairy tale silhouette, you might imagine there is.

The form on the northwest corner of Gold Avenue and Third Street is an impressive pastiche—a hybridized, 1917 reinterpretation of designs extending back into the Middle Ages. It is nationally unique due to its Venetian Gothic Revival style, and a local rarity because it’s one of Downtown’s few ’70s urban renewal survivors.

The building was devised when Albuquerque and Old Albuquerque were both places on a map, when the dubious machinations of manifest destiny were readily evident in that culture. Yet optimism, a conception of this place as wellness elixir, and will to create new, evolving economies were also omnipresent during that era.

The Occidental Life Building was modeled after the Palazzo Ducale, or the Doge’s Palace, a classic exemplar of the Venetian Gothic idiom. Built between the 14th and 15th centuries in Italy, it embodied elements taken not only from medieval cathedrals, but also from bits of Byzantine and Moorish styles—and their Islamic underpinnings.

The Palazzo was the economic nucleus of a powerful commercial center, a city-state functioning as a gateway between east and west. Its collection of styles from the ends of the known world implied territorial dominion—a metropolis extending beyond its physical boundaries, overflowing into international realms, lending importance to the city and its people.

Albuquerque’s 1917 reiteration of that nearly mythic palace was created as home base for an insurance company, founded in Albuquerque 11 years earlier, in 1906. Occidental Life, which relocated to North Carolina in 1927, had become a successful, nationwide enterprise. By 1917 the firm’s only founder still at work or alive was A.B. McMillan. As local lore has it, McMillan admired the Doge’s Palace during a trip abroad; he suggested his new headquarters in Albuquerque be built as an homage.

Luckily, architect Henry C. Trost had a vast stylistic repertoire—and a particular fondness for imitating Italian buildings all over the Southwest. Typically, Trost intertwined style with function; in this case he strove to recreate a symbol of economic prowess that would project his client’s local prestige.

The New Occidental Life Building, which opened at a summer evening celebration, was advertised as “the most artistic office building in the Southwest.” The building’s striking lancet arches, leafy spandrels (displaying the same classic acanthus motif found on Corinthian capitals at the Doge’s Palace), and quatrefoil windows were encased in glazed white terra cotta tile, and tied together with Beaux-Arts proportions.

At the time of the building’s unveiling, the city, like much of the rest of the world, was experiencing dramatic changes. New buildings were rapidly going up to support an abundance of economic activity taking place amidst the political backdrop of both World War I and the Mexican Revolution.

In 1917 New Mexico had been a state only five years; it had been less than four decades since the boom of New Town, when the city began interacting with the outside world via the railroad and growth east of the river began in earnest.

For Albuquerque’s McMillan types, architecture was a show of economic capability and hegemony. As modern buildings went up, Albuquerque’s “old town” status quo was upended. The transformation was intensified by the thousands migrating here in search of healing mountain air and a cure for tuberculosis.

In April 1933, the Occidental Life Building was the victim of a string of arsons, making its survival into the present day only more remarkable. The building was gutted, and its plain overhanging cornice destroyed. The architecture firm of Britelle and Ginner resurrected the structure, replacing that cornice with the ornate, castle-like parapet we see today.

As much as the Occidental Life Building is an emblem of another era in Albuquerque, new developments inside provide some foreshadowing into Downtown’s next stage as a high tech innovation hub.

Jared Tarbell—a developer and visual artist who co-founded Etsy, and his wife Laurie Tarbell, an architect focused on ecological design—purchased the building in 2013. Jared was particularly fond of the building because it had housed some of the state’s first computers, while Laurie liked its good bones.

This year they began scraping away on the second floor. In February, RS21—an interdisciplinary data science and visualization company focused on innovative problem-solving—will move into an upstairs space. The enterprise, which in three years’ time founder and CEO Charles Rath has grown into a company with 25 full-time employees and 10 contractors, works with clients internationally and domestically on issues like public health, poverty, crime, urban planning and infrastructure resilience.

Meanwhile, New Mexico Legal Aid, the state’s largest provider of free civil legal assistance for low-income residents, resides on the first floor. The building, it seems, has become a nucleus for the pursuit of equity and the evolving consciousness, despite its ostentatious form.

Whether it’s out of parochial ideology or a need for immediate gratification, our city’s decision makers have often been reckless with urban artifacts. Despite this, downtown Albuquerque is gradually emerging from its mid-century decline amid the city’s horizontal expansion. The trappings of urban renewal, like the failed Fourth Street Mall are slowly being scrubbed away.

One hundred years later this enchanting, offbeat desert town is still defining its character and redefining its economy. Though it faces untold challenges, hope is brewing Downtown and rising up on the horizon as symbolized by an edifice that has itself evolved over time.

The public celebration of the Occidental Life Building’s 100th birthday takes place outside the structure, at 301 Gold Avenue SW, on Friday, Dec. 15th at 1pm. (Entry to the building will not be permitted.) There will be music and birthday cake. This event is free and open to the public.
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