SANTA FE, N.M. — Oh, those White sisters were a hoot.
If they weren’t posing as sacrificial virgins to inaugurate Santa Fe’s first-and-only aboveground swimming pool in a mock Mayan ceremony, they were hosting costume parties for artists, socialites and their fellow Bryn Mawrters – graduates of Bryn Mawr College who had developed “a taste for pageantry.”
But it wasn’t all fun and games – Amelia Elizabeth White worked in Belgian and French hospitals during World War I with the Red Cross, and became regional director with Dogs for Defense during World War II. She and sister Martha White also pursued interests in archaeology and Native American arts, supporting a number of ventures with their inheritance that helped make Santa Fe what it is today.
Members of the public will be able to get a glimpse into their lifestyle – they had a separate building to house the billiard table and their Afghan hounds and Irish wolfhounds were kenneled not in cages, but in their own rooms – with a tour 1-4 p.m. Sunday of the grounds of their home, now the headquarters of the School for Advanced Research and its many visiting scholars at 660 Garcia St.
Sponsored by the Historic Santa Fe Foundation, tickets are $5 per person.
That billiard house, by the way, includes a full-length portrait of Martha “dressed as Queen Penthesilea, an Amazon queen from Greek mythology,” according to tour materials gathered from a SAR history put together for its centennial in 2007 by Nancy Owen Lewis and Kay Leigh Hagan.
The sisters called their estate “El Delirio” (The Madness) after a bar near where they were staying during a visit in Seville, Spain, said Jean Schaumberg, SAR membership associate for institutional advancement. When they saw the bar, they knew they were near their hotel and could find it again, she said.
They liked the bar’s floor so much that they imported the same tile from Spain to create the floor of their dining room, Schaumberg added.
“They were partiers,” she observed.
Costume parties and bones
Old photos, which will line the now-enclosed portal of the home for the tour, give testament to that, showing costumed revelers, often beneath a band playing in a “choir loft” of their living room.
And they had a lot of friends, many of whom came to visit and stayed in a row of guesthouses that grace the seven-plus-acre estate, which was fully built by 1927, Schaumberg said.
The adobe home itself, now the SAR administration building, was designed by architect William Penhallow Henderson and was inspired by the mission church at Laguna Pueblo. Wooden double doors beneath a rooftop bell give entry from the outdoors into the living room, which is lined with small, high windows to the west, Native American artworks, lamps with bases of Native pottery, and heavy carved or painted wooden furniture, much of it from South America and all original with the house, according to Schaumberg.
One of the chests, she mentioned casually, once held the bones of Adolph Bandelier.
The Swiss archaeologist, who did a lot of work on the Pajarito Plateau and was employed by SAR, was buried in Spain. One day, SAR Director Doug Schwartz got a letter with a key to Bandelier’s crypt informing him that the bones were going to be moved to an ossuary, Schaumberg explained. Schwartz decided it would be great to “bring him home” and bury Bandelier’s bones at the national monument named in his honor – but didn’t realize the U.S. Park Service might have rules about such things, she said.
The bones sat in the chest for some years while they worked through the impasse, eventually having the bones cremated and the ashes scattered in the monument’s Frijoles Canyon.
Angels replace crucifixion scenes
Other touches in the home give a clue to the social circles in which the ladies moved.
Artist Gustave Baumann, at their request, painted floating angels playing lutes to cover crucifixion scenes on an altar screen. Apparently the sisters didn’t think the death scenes did much to enhance meals in the dining room, where the altar screen, obtained from a church in Guatemala after it was damaged in an earthquake, was erected at one end.
Baumann also drew a playful map of the White estate, marking terrier Sandy’s favorite digging spots, as well as the tennis court where “Lindbergh’s ghost” played. Schaumberg explained that aviator Charles Lindbergh once flew his plane overhead, casting a shadow on the tennis court.
A dog cemetery with neat rows of nameplates marks the resting places of the bred-and-shown Afghan and Irish hounds, with names reflecting their ethnic origin – plus a few outliers, like Sammy and Kitten. “Most of the Afghan hounds in the U.S. are descended from the ones they bred,” Schaumberg said.
A gazebo that serves as a memorial to the sisters and oversees the burial site of their ashes was designed by John Gaw Meem, Schaumberg said. It includes an Egyptian-style bust of Martha, a copy of an original over the entrance to the New York Public Library.
Martha died of cancer in 1937 at age 57, sending her sister into an emotional tailspin, Schaumberg said. But Amelia Elizabeth – the nearby Amelia White Park was named for her – persevered and continued with many of her interests until she died in 1972 on her 94th birthday.
“Martinis and soda crackers”
According to the SAR centennial history book, SAR Director Schwartz often called on Amelia Elizabeth in her very late years for “afternoon ‘chats’ in her living room, with martinis and soda crackers served by her butler.”
She willed her lands and holdings to SAR, which included other sites such as Sena Plaza, according to Schaumberg, upon her death. The sale of Sena Plaza to Gerald Peters, she said, helped create an endowment that has funded many of SAR’s operations since then. When SAR was founded in 1907, it remodeled the Palace of the Governors and was located there until 1959, when it moved nearby to what is now called the Hewett House.
The sisters also had donated land for the construction of the Laboratory of Anthropology, the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, and the Santa Fe Animal Shelter.
While the sisters did not get along with Edgar Lee Hewett, the somewhat bombastic and controlling 1907 founding director of SAR (then called the School of American Archaeology), Amelia Elizabeth joined its board in 1947, after his departure.
Their fortune was amassed by their father, once a reporter and then owner of the Chicago Tribune and the New York Evening Post, whose money came partly from investments in railroads and other ventures. Amelia Elizabeth first came to New Mexico in 1913 to visit friends at a ranch near Wagon Mound, with part of the journey taking her to Santa Fe. Before World War I disrupted travel, she took trips to a number of archaeological sites in the Americas.
But it was on a trip to Mount Palomar in California to view a solar eclipse when the sisters “stopped in Santa Fe to get their hair done and ended up buying land – or so the story goes,” according to the book by Owen Lewis and Leigh Hagan.