Loss of School’s Murals Lamented

1930s Paintings In Razed Buildings

Date July 30, 2008 at 10:00 PM

Categories Local News & Sports


When local New Deal expert Kathryn Flynn asked to visit 1930s murals housed in historic buildings at the Santa Fe Indian School a couple of weeks ago, she says, officials there told her the structures were to be demolished to make way for a museum and retail space.

The 19 New Mexico pueblos that own the school have been tight-lipped about their plans for the area fronting Cerrillos Road, where last weekend bulldozers began razing scores of old homes and other structures, much to the dismay of historic preservationists.

Flynn said she was told by Gil Vigil, governmental liaison for the school, that the deserted buildings contained asbestos and lead that needed to be knocked down for the new museum and commercial development.

€œThey indicated that they hoped to do some commercial things in order to make money to help cover the costs of educational programs,€ said Flynn, the executive director of the National New Deal Preservation Association. The group this year is celebrating the 75th anniversary of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt€™s inauguration and launch of Great Depression relief programs.

Vigil did not return calls for comment Wednesday. But on Tuesday he released a statement saying the school had exercised its sovereign authority and due diligence by demolishing the buildings in order to remove health, safety and security threats to those on campus and the public. Many of the buildings were in ramshackle condition.

The old buildings, built around the turn of the 20th century, have sat mostly deserted for several years, ever since students and staff moved into modern facilities completed in 2006 along the backside of the property.

Any new development at the site apparently would have to comply with a law passed by Congress in 2000 that placed the Indian School property in a trust and required that it be €œused solely for the educational, health, or cultural purposes of the Santa Fe Indian School.€

At least one of the Indian School€™s old structures €” the former middle school €” isn€™t being torn down and will continue to be leased out by Charter School 37 until new facilities are built for the fledgling program, said Jay Selnick, president of the charter school€™s governing board.

Flynn said some of the buildings thought to have been demolished contained a treasure trove of murals depicting pueblo scenes painted by students, some of whom became renowned artists.

Flynn said her meeting a couple of weeks ago was the first time she heard the buildings would be leveled.

€œI felt like if we had known about it sooner that there might have been some things that could€™ve been done,€ Flynn said. Flynn says she suggested the murals be cut out of the wall and saved but she was told work had already begun on the buildings, making them unsafe.

Cultural pride

The campus earned a reputation as an Indian arts school in the 1930s and early 1940s. A New Deal Indian arts project was headquartered on the campus in 1934, with some 30 painters and artisans creating murals, watercolors, rugs and pottery, according to €œOne House, One Voice, One Heart: Native American Education at the Santa Fe Indian School.€

Moreover, the students participated in native arts and crafts and lent a hand in painting the colorful murals adorning many classrooms.

In 1932, the school hired Dorothy Dunn, a young woman from Kansas, to lead the art curriculum, according to a 1989 petition nominating school buildings for the National Register of Historic Places written by historian Sally Hyer.

€œDunn wanted students to feel pride in their cultural heritage and urged them to bring their community life into the education process,€ Hyer wrote. €œShe asked her students questions about home life and insisted that she was not a €˜teacher€™ but a €˜guide.€™ €

Student artwork was exhibited in 37 locations across the United States and Europe, according to Hyer. Among her students was Pablita Velarde, the renowned Santa Clara Pueblo painter who is the subject of a current yearlong exhibition at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture on Museum Hill.

The artwork at SFIS reflected a movement in Indian education away from military-like schools meant to €œAmericanize€ students, toward campuses and curriculum that emphasized sensitivity to their heritages, Hyer writes.

The acclaimed Santa Fe architect John Gaw Meem played a major role in transforming more than a dozen of the school€™s red-brick dormitories, academic buildings, employee cottages and other buildings into Spanish Pueblo Revival Style using Public Works Administration funds between 1933 and 1938.

Meem€™s vision called for changing pitched roofs to flat roofs and stuccoing the brick walls.

€œThere is the unquestioned cultural benefit to the Indians themselves in recognizing a style that is their own and surrounding the pupils with a congenial and accustomed architecture, rather than the gloomy barracks-like structures they are now in,€ Meem wrote.

Some 60 years later, in 1994, a Bureau of Indian Affairs survey determined that 24 of the campus€™ structures were eligible for placement in the historic places list.

While it€™s unclear how many of those have been razed, at least some of the demolished buildings are known to have been significant and eligible for the register, according to the state Historic Preservation Division.

State Cultural Affairs Secretary Stuart Ashman said his office has no jurisdiction over the campus. €œThe historic preservation division wasn€™t consulted on it, which is neither here nor there,€ he said.