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Frances Abeyta’s Fire

Roundhouse wall art

As I sat this afternoon in a meeting at the Roundhouse listening to Frances Abeyta’s tearful plea to the state’s experts on historical preservation, I wished it were 2008 when the old Santa Fe Indian School was still standing. The web page Ms. Abeyta started has brought the imminent destruction of the Paolo Soleri amphitheater to the world’s attention. Now the young woman, who grew up at the school, was asking the Cultural Properties Review Committee for help. If only she, or someone with her spirit, had learned two years ago of the secret plans that crushed the old John Gaw Meem buildings. Today’s hearing might have been about trying to save not just the Paolo Soleri but the whole campus. Its destruction, she said, has been heartbreaking.

As it turned out the committee didn’t need much persuading. “We’ve really worked hard with the American Indian community over the last couple of years in preserving what they thought were important cultural properties,” said Tim Maxwell, a prominent archaeologist. “I would like to receive the favor in return of their listening to us.” A resolution drafted on the spot by archaeologist Phil Shelley and passed unanimously called on the All Indian Pueblo Council to work with the New Mexico Historic Preservation Office, the city of Santa Fe, and the rest of the interested universe to find an alternative to demolition. Failing that, the committee asked that details of the unique structure be thoroughly documented before it is pulverized.

Like the City Council resolution passed Wednesday night, this is mostly a symbolic act. But maybe the tide is turning. Finally after all these weeks, the spark Ms. Abeyta lit seems on the verge of going national. Just this afternoon Paolo Soleri himself (through his Cosanti Foundation) promised to do what he could to preserve his creation, including raising money to keep it alive.

The antagonists in this story, school superintendent Everett Chavez and the Pueblo Council, are accustomed to ruling in darkness, deciding for themselves what is best for their people and tolerating no dissent. Maybe that won’t be so easy this time.

George Johnson
The Santa Fe Review