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Historic Home Now on Demolition Row

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It looks like it’s finally curtains for the Werner-Gilchrist house near the University of New Mexico – and not the lacy kind that could spruce up the big sash windows that face out onto Cornell and Silver and restore the home to its original grandeur.

Ending a seven-year stay of execution, during which the Albuquerque home was sold, sat vacant, obtained historic landmark status and became a magnet for vandals, Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry has effectively signed its death warrant.

In a letter to the city’s Landmarks & Urban Conservation Commission, Berry said the city would not pony up funds to make basic renovations to the house that would protect it from further damage. That clears the way for the city’s Planning Department to approve the home’s demolition, and it means the end for a home that has become one of the most recognized in the University of New Mexico neighborhood.

When the bulldozers come in, they’ll take away some history. So let’s take a look at what will end up in the trash bin.

In 1908, Laura Werner and her son-in-law, Ralph Gilchrist, built the first home in the newly platted University Heights Addition, an open grassland that would eventually be known as the Heights.

It was a large, squat version of the Four Square, an architectural style popular all over the country at the beginning of the 20th century. Nearly square and divided into four rooms on the first floor and one large room on the second floor, the home was built of adobe on a stone foundation. It had hardwood floors and was topped by a hipped roof and four hip-roofed dormers.

Gilchrist died in 1920, followed by Werner in 1930. Nora Gilchrist, Werner’s daughter and Gilchrist’s widow, lived in the home until her death at age 98 in 1981.

By then, the house was nearly 75 years old and surrounded by a dense forest. It became a rental property and earned a reputation among university students and neighbors as being mysterious and spooky. A friend of mine calls it the “Boo Radley House.”

By 2006, it had new owners, a partnership of Build New Mexico and the Union Development Corp. It sat vacant, and its condition deteriorated. As many vacant structures do, it became the target of vandalism and a crash pad for the homeless. The trees were cut down, a chain-link fence went up around it and boards were nailed to the windows.

The home went from being a charming eyesore to just another eyesore. It was a sad state of affairs for an official city landmark.

So, what do you do with a former jewel that has become a nuisance?

Ann Carson, a member of the Albuquerque Conservation Association, says you respect history and step up and preserve it if you own it. She and others planned to hold a vigil in front of the house on Saturday, holding a simple sign that said, “This place matters.”

Whether old places matter is a question cities and neighborhoods and individual property owners will need to answer as our communities and their pioneering buildings age and begin to fail.

Weighing in favor of restoration for the house over the years has been the home’s age, its unique status as a pioneer on the east mesa, its city landmark status and the support it had from a large cheering section.

Weighing in favor of demolition was the economy, pure and simple.

The Werner-Gilchrist house, once the loneliest structure east of the railroad tracks, is now surrounded by a dense urban neighborhood. It sits on a big corner lot within sight of Central Avenue and UNM and two blocks from the Harvard Mall urban infill project.

To restore it to its single-family splendor would be an act of love; to raze it to make way for a more profitable venture is an act of business.

Jim Trump, executive director of Build New Mexico, has yet to fill out an official permit request, but city planning officials say he has previously asked for permission to tear down the building and that they will approve a permit once it is formally submitted.

Trump failed to respond to numerous phone calls and emails from me asking about his intentions. I was curious about what he intends to do with the property, which will need zone change approval to be used for a commercial venture.

The University Heights Neighborhood Association’s policy has always been that the house should be restored so that it can be an asset to Albuquerque and to the neighborhood.

“In a state that prides itself on preserving its history, just letting this house go is a tragedy,” association President Lanny Heinlen told me.

But as it has deteriorated due to neglect, it has become such an eyesore that there is also support among neighbors for demolition, said the association’s secretary-treasurer, Don Hancock. “Clearly, people have mixed feelings about the house because it has become a derelict property, and that’s not good for the neighborhood,” he told me.

When the building is torn down, it will leave an empty lot. I’ve never known of a vacant lot with a nickname or a legion of supporters. When a zone change for a more profitable use is up for discussion in a year or two, I doubt anyone will stand on the sidewalk holding a sign that says, “This lot matters.”

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Leslie Linthicum at 823-3914 or llinthicum@abqjournal.com. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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