Sustains More Than Just Old Buildings
Written by Bud Russo
History has always been more than stuff we read in textbooks.
More than Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo or the sinking of Titanic. In reality, history is our yesterday, and it’s right here in front of our eyes. The questions we have to ask are: do we recognize it, do we appreciate it, and are we willing to preserve it for our children and their children?
Architect Greg Smith, who is a City Councilor and a member of the current historic preservation ad hoc committee, says, “Historic preservation connects us to the time when the building was constructed. It raises questions of what was going on at that time and why the building has survived over the years. It’s like a time machine into our past.”
“It’s who we are,” says Dolores Archuleta, former City Councilor and also a member of the committee. A community’s history defines it, establishes its cultural legacy. “Everybody tells me Las Cruces is such a friendly community. Our history is part of why we are.”
Until now, Las Cruces has not had a historic preservation code and ordinance. As you might expect, Albuquerque has had one for years. But, says Beth O’Leary, archaeology professor emeritus at NMSU and a committee member, “So have a lot of smaller communities — Deming, Columbus, Santa Fe. Remember, Las Cruces is New Mexico’s second largest city.”
David Weir, Las Cruces chief planning administrator, says, “Preserving Las Cruces history has always been important to many residents. Individuals could apply to the state and federal government to have their historic buildings listed on cultural resource registers. But such efforts were independent from the city.” Others, however, found the land on which historic structures sat far more valuable to them than the buildings themselves. They had them demolished and sites prepared for more modern buildings. Other buildings simply died from neglect. What history was lost is gone forever. Case in point is St. Genevieve’s Church on Main Street.
In the 1990s, the city began neighborhood planning. The first neighborhood was around NMSU. The city wanted to ensure the university and university-related commercial land use didn’t impact too greatly or encroach on residential areas. “We wanted development to compliment existing structures and residential areas,” Weir says. That resulted in design requirements. New buildings along University Avenue had to duplicate Southwestern architectural design. “This included Pueblo, Spanish Colonial, Territorial, Mission, and Southwest vernacular styles.”
That effort led to examinations of Las Cruces’ first to historic neighborhoods: the Alameda Depot District and the Mesquite District, which encompasses the city’s original townsite, established in 1849. None of the existing Mesquite buildings is quite that old, but a few are close. Many were in various states of neglect and decay, some because owners didn’t have resources to maintain them, others because of absentee landlords whose interests lay elsewhere.
A community’s history defines it & establishes its cultural legacy.
Enter Consuelo Lerma. Mesquite was her home, and she was watching it slowly vanish. In 1999, she founded Las Esperanzas, an educational and social organization “established to advocate for the renaissance of the Mesquite Historic District.” That’s from Las Esperanzas’ mission statement, and it was the result of repeated attempts to get assistance from the city to stop the deterioration.
The city responded by hiring a consultant to prepare a neighborhood plan, which divided the district into two areas. Mesquite residents south of Picacho/Spruce streets wanted a design review board assess renovation efforts similar to those in the university area. Residents to the north approached historic preservation from a traditional land use and zoning perspective. Both methods were accommodated.
This was when Archuleta got involved, having retired from her career at White Sands Missile Range. She says, “I was born in an adobe in the Mesquite district. Until I married, I never knew any other kind of home. Adobes are beautiful, comfortable.” She adds, the efforts of Las Espernazas resulted in residents obtaining 37 state and national historic preservation certificates for homes and businesses.
At the same time, the city established a neighborhood plan for the Alameda Depot District, west of water Street. Residents there did not want a design review board but did want zoning requirements. For instance, if an owner wanted to demolish a historic building, he or she had to post a sign and provide a waiting period to give someone the chance to offer to buy and rehabilitate the building.
Mesilla Park, named the city’s third historic district, is now in the process of deciding what kind of approach residents want for historic preservation.
All of these activities were well and good, but they didn’t address historic preservation from a community-wide standpoint. Last year, the city established the historic preservation ad hoc committee, comprised of 16 volunteer members. (There are four vacancies on the committee.) It was charged with developing a historic preservation code and a city-wide ordinance. Their efforts have taken longer and the challenge more complicated than they had anticipated. They expect to present their final report to the city in the next few months.
Additionally, Weir says, the city is in the process of hiring a historic preservation specialist. “That person will become the city’s in-house expert,” he adds. “He or she will have stewardship responsibility for the historic preservation ordinance.”
“If we don’t make people aware of and value our history, it often is too late to save it.”
– Dolores Archuleta
Weir assures property owners the ordinance will balance preservation with property rights. “That’s important,” Smith says, “because no one wants to live in a historic building they think, because of the ordinance, they don’t own.”
Weir adds, “We hope everyone appreciates and maintains their structures and, if they’re in need of TLC or renovation, they’ll take care of it.” The ordinance will provide processes to guide appropriate renovations and rehabilitation of historical and culturally significant buildings. “And it will provide due process for owners who still desire to change or remove structures — a process giving someone else interested in the building a chance to acquire and preserve it,” he says.
“People like to visit areas that have history,” O’Leary says, “And we have tons of history here, but it amounts to nothing if we don’t preserve it.”
Archuleta adds, “If we don’t make people aware of and value our history, it often is too late to save it.”
Weir explains, some people, who’ve lived in these neighborhoods for generations, want to be in historic homes. It’s a particular niche that strengthens the community, gives people a broader choice in housing. The Historic Preservation Ordinance also will provide opportunity for a city-wide process to support and preserve vibrant neighborhoods that anchor the community.
“Historic preservation assures us a sense of place that reflects our community, “ Weir adds. “It conserves the uniqueness to the neighborhoods and areas throughout the community … provides a source of pride … and creates a sense of stability. It says, ‘This is Las Cruces. This is who we are.’”