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Santa Fe Secrets

Little-Known Historical Sites in the City Different

Date December 31, 2009 at 11:00 PM


Categories Community


In a popular tourist destination like Santa Fe, there’s more than enough information on the hot spots. Everyone knows they should visit the O’Keeffe museum, the Plaza, and Canyon Road. But if you’re like me, when traveling you’re drawn to the offbeat and little-known—the slightly bizarre sights that really define a place. Here’s the scoop on a few of the more esoteric spots in town and the lesser-known local history they illuminate.

The Well at Santacafé

One of the most popular restaurants in town, Santacafé also happens to house one of the more interesting design elements I’ve ever seen in a dining establishment: an indoor well you can walk on. Set into the floor of the cantina, the 40-foot-deep well is lit from inside and covered with thick Plexiglas. I count myself as one of the brave folks who always makes myself step squarely into the middle of the Plexiglas, defying common sense that tells me to walk around it. (An informal poll of friends and family revealed that many people can’t bring themselves to step on it.) Owner Robert Morean revealed that only once has the well posed any danger—when a very drunk 250-lb. man got the brilliant idea to jump off a nearby banco onto it, causing the Plexiglas to crack. Other well trivia: one Halloween, Morean lowered a busboy and a dog into the well, where they peered up creepily at passing patrons.

But the well is more than a fun party accessory; it is the legacy of illustrious and controversial Santa Fean José Manuel Gallegos. Gallegos built the house, now home to Santacafé and other businesses, between 1857 and 1862. The well was his “safe water,” placed snugly indoors so the public couldn’t help themselves to it. A priest, politician, and opportunist, Gallegos held church services in the front of his building while running a thriving brothel in the rear. He was later defrocked by Bishop Lamy; perhaps a better politician than priest, in 1865 he became the first New Mexican delegate to Congress. Until his death in 1875, Gallegos was one of the most well-known figures in the territory of New Mexico.

Monument to the Department of Justice Santa Fe Internment Camp

Did you know that the Casa Solana development, one of Santa Fe’s most popular family neighborhoods, was built on the site of a World War II internment camp? I’d heard that this was the case—but still, when I first came across the commemorative monument, I was filled with awe and sadness. As the child of Holocaust survivors, merely the words “internment camp” are enough to send shivers down my spine. It’s hard to imagine that for several years in the 1940s, thousands of regular folks were held against their will and without due process, just outside downtown Santa Fe. It’s not one of our proudest moments in history, but an important one to acknowledge. And the monument, located on a ridge just beyond the entrance to the Frank S. Ortiz Dog Park, does that beautifully.

The marker is made of a huge, gorgeous boulder, placed on a round slate terrace with rock benches overlooking the Sangre de Cristos. The plaque on the boulder honors the 4,555 men who were held at the camp between 1942 and 1946. (When looking for more information online, I found some discrepancies; the monument mentions only “men of Japanese ancestry,” but the Department of Justice website states that the camp also housed German and Italian nationals.) The plaque makes it clear that these men were not actually a threat to national security. Though their loyalty was questioned, most of them were longtime residents of the U.S., including religious leaders, businessmen, teachers, fishermen, and farmers. The sensitively written blurb ends with a reminder that we would do well to heed today: “History is a valuable teacher only if we do not forget our past.” See Department of Justice website:

La Capilla de San Ysidro Labrador

Take a leisurely walk up historic Cerro Gordo Road (just off Palace Avenue) and you will come upon one of the Eastside’s best-kept secrets: the tiny and perfectly proportioned Chapel of Dan Ysidro Labrador. Now one of the most coveted Santa Fe addresses, Cerro Gordo was originally a rural road, sparsely occupied by farming families who raised livestock and grew crops like wheat and squash. It is fitting, then, that the street is home to the chapel honoring the patron saint of farmers. San Ysidro, known as the “Laborer,” was born in Madrid in the early twelfth century. Though an uneducated farm laborer, he was deeply devout, and legend has it he dressed in hermit’s clothing and gave all he had to the poor. His insistence on working every day, including the Sabbath, prompted God to send him angel helpers. San Ysidro is often depicted plowing a field accompanied by a tiny angel with his own set of miniature oxen. He is invoked for concerns affecting livestock, agriculture, good weather—and picnics.

Nestled into the hillside above the delightfully rural-feeling street, the handmade stone and adobe chapel is a true piece of Santa Fe history that’s easy to miss if you’re speeding past in your SUV. According to a 2004 article in the New Mexican, the chapel was built in 1928 by the grandfather of local resident Ramón José López, who has since restored the building. Every year on the feast day of San Ysidro (March 22), there is a procession to the chapel from Cristo Rey Church on West Alameda Street. When I visited, fresh flowers and candles on the cliffside altar below the chapel suggested that site is still attended regularly by the faithful. Walking up the steep, winding stone path to the chapel really does feel like a pilgrimage; the spot has a palpable holy energy, even to a pagan like me. Located at about 1175 Cerro Gordo Road.

Thomas Macaione Park

Speaking of picnics and pilgrimages, one of the most charming—and probably least known—spots to eat a bag lunch al fresco, or just soak up a little local color, is in Thomas Macaione Park (at Paseo de Peralta and Marcy Street). It’s not just that the pleasingly triangular-shaped park is shaded by huge old trees, sprinkled liberally with benches, and lined with green (yes, green!) grass. What really makes it fun is the nearly life-sized sculpture of artist Thomas Macaione that adorns the north edge of the park. Smiling and brandishing a paintbrush, the bearded Macaione’s benevolent presence seems to grace the park with good vibes. A small dog lies at his feet, and his canvas sits on an easel beside him. The sculpture is so lifelike that it has taken me by surprise a few times as I jogged past the park.

A stone monument explains that the sculpture, executed by Mac Vaughan and dedicated in 1995, is called “El Diferente”—a fitting tribute to the City Different. Macaione does seem to embody the Santa Fe dream: Born in 1907 to Sicilian immigrants, he grew up in Boston and earned a living as a barber before arriving here in 1952 to pursue his passion, painting. The plaque describes Macaione as “an eccentric, a humanitarian and a delightful spirit known and loved by many.” Indeed, it’s hard not to fall in love with him even rendered in bronze, especially after spotting the “World Peace” pin he wears on his suspenders. His light-filled paintings capture the best of Santa Fe spirit; check some out at