SANTA FE, N.M. — Over the span of more than a century, three generations of active, accomplished and adventuresome women made their mark on Santa Fe and beyond from a home they designed themselves on Acequia Madre. Now their legacy is being extended into the future with the birth of the Women’s International Study Center, a retreat where scholars can work on books or other projects while soaking up the ambiance of the City Different. It will launch on June 23 with an invitation-only event featuring the presentation of a Founder’s Award to author Gail Sheehy.
“These really were independent women … . They weren’t militant activists, but they were women who got things done… . Their lives resonate with women today,” said J. Revell Carr of the women of Acequia Madre House. Carr moved to Santa Fe and got involved in planning for the center after more than 31 years as chief curator, president and director of Mystic Seaport, a maritime museum in Connecticut.
“I realized this was not just a Santa Fe story, but something that had universal appeal,” said Bunny Huffman, who was hired by the family to review the contents of the estate and serve as executive director of Acequia Madre House. She ended up burrowing deeply into the trove of paperwork that documented the women’s lives and is being organized into an archive for others to research.
“This is a family of individuals who were always bumping into things. They were at the opening of the Suez Canal. They saw the funeral cortege of Archduke Ferdinand,” whose assassination triggered the start of World War I, she said.
They also had connections to a range of artists and others who have gone down in history. For example, walking through the Acequia Madre House’s front room recently, Carr pointed to an ornately decorated instrument and said, “Ansel Adams played that piano.”
One of the women’s portraits had been taken by Mathew Brady, known for his photographs from Civil War battlefields.
The founders want that international, eclectic appeal to carry over to the study center, whose research areas will reflect the interests of the three women themselves.
Eva Scott Fényes (1849-1930) was an artist who came to Santa Fe in 1889, where she lived in a house on Hillside Avenue, Huffman said. An early advocate of Native American and Hispanic art, she produced a number of drawings and paintings that documented her travels, along with old buildings and cultural artifacts, such as a Native American shield and headdress.
She was also adept at buying property and securities at a time when women were not often considered suited for such ventures, Huffman noted.
Her daughter, Leonora Scott Muse Curtin (1879-1972), “was interested in plants and herbs, and how they were used by the indigenous cultures,” Huffman said. Carr called Curtin a “serious ethnobotanist,” noting that she wrote a couple of books on the subject.
And the third generation, Leonora Frances Curtin Paloheimo (1903-1999), was interested in linguistics and spoke a number of languages, doing some work with the Smithsonian Institution on Native American languages. One old photo shows her sitting with another researcher and a Native speaker in a humble home on Zuni Pueblo, while an old device records the speaker on a wax cylinder.
Those cylinders still exist, Carr said, but no one plays them for fear of destroying them. Instead, work is underway to find a laser that can read the grooves while preserving them.
Together, the two Leonoras bought and preserved the La Cienega property that became El Rancho de las Golondrinas. They also were founding members of the Spanish Colonial Arts Society in Santa Fe. In the Depression years of the 1930s, Paloheimo created the Native Market near the current Palace Restaurant to both preserve Hispanic arts and crafts and provide income for local families. About 300 Hispanic families sold wares through that shop, and many of those crafted items, from bedspreads with colcha embroidery to chests painted with colorful flowers to carved wooden furniture, furnish the Acequia Madre House.
As a matter of fact, that adobe house, built in 1926 with wooden vigas crossing the ceilings and generous banks of windows (sleeping porches that later were enclosed), is furnished pretty much as the women left it, according to Carr.
The family also had a history in Pasadena, Calif., where the matriarch and her husband, Dr. Adalbert Fényes, had their primary residence. When granddaughter Leonora was living there, her husband, George Paloheimo, was the consul to Finland, so that home was the Finnish Consulate for 17 years. It now is part of the Pasadena Museum of History.
Back in Santa Fe, the Acequia Madre House, at 614 Acequia Madre, is not open to the public, but select groups have been able to tour it. When it becomes part of the Women’s International Study Center, resident scholars will likely use it for meetings and events.
Scholars will be selected for their work in interests pursued by the three women who lived there: the arts, sciences, cultural preservation and business, Carr said. And men whose studies focus on women in those fields will also be eligible for consideration, he added.
Two adjacent houses on San Antonio Street will accommodate six scholars. Initially, fellows-in-residence will be invited through an academic advisory committee, while scholars-in-residence can apply for consideration, Carr said. Both will get small stipends and housing for stays that are anticipated to be a week to a month. Each will be expected to give a public program in Santa Fe on his or her work.
Down the road, symposia and similar activities might be planned for the Acequia Madre House.
A website is being prepared, Huffman said, and is expected to be up by the June 23 opening at www.wisc-amh.org .
Until now, the house has been maintained by the family’s Paloheimo Foundation but, as the Women’s International Study Center develops, it will be expected to sustain itself through donations, Carr said. A founding gift from Santa Fe resident Sallie Bingham, an author, philanthropist and activist on feminist issues, has helped establish the center, Carr said, while others have followed.
The center will also present awards to women of achievement, with the first going to Sheehy. Awards will recognize women of the “past, present and future” – the first one posthumous, the second considered a lifetime achievement award for women of today and the final one geared toward young women who already have made their mark and show great promise for more.