Saturday, November 06, 2021

Santa Fe's Founding Mothers


We are pleased to report that El Rancho de las Golondrinas – our volunteer gig – was voted 2nd Best Museum in the Santa Fe Reporter’s “Best of Santa Fe 2021” reader’s poll. Not bad in a city that hypes such institutions as a main part of its tourist appeal. The Museum of International Folk Art (MoIFA) was 1st and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum 3rd in the voting.

Each of the three was established by one of Santa Fe’s “founding mothers,” women who came to New Mexico, fell in love with the place, saw a need, had the will and wherewithal to act on it, and did. That seems to be the way things happen out here – especially culture, art and history – but not always without controversy.

One of the town’s current hot button issues is the construction of the Vladem Contemporary in the city’s Railyard District – the epicenter of Santa Fe’s gentrification over the past few decades. Named in honor of the $4 million gift from Ellen and Robert Vladem, the building will be an addition to the downtown Museum of Art – “physically and ideologically [bringing] the museum into dialogue with the cultural scene in the Santa Fe Railyard district,” according to the State Historical Preservation Office. More arts entertainment for residents and tourists.
It also means the destruction of a 40-year-old mural created by one of Santa Fe’s “Living Treasures” Gilberto Guzman, which is located on the side of the building to which the Vladem will be added. “The work is supportive of the folks and the native peoples, and the mix of cultures,” according to El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe. Ironically the mural’s site also bears a sign that reads “a nation that forgets its past has no future.” Efforts to have the painting integrated into the new building, or saved in some other way have thus been futile.

Such acts of largesse usually receive respectful recognition rather than rancor. Less contentious e.g. was the founding of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in November 1995 by Fort Worth Texans and part-time Santa Feans Anne Windfohr Marion (heiress, rancher, horse breeder, business executive, philanthropist and art collector) and her husband John (Chair of Sotheby’s Auction House.)

“I’ve always loved [O’Keeffe’s] work. I grew up with it in my home – my mother had two of her paintings,” Anne Marion said. The Museum of Art in Santa Fe, having dissed the artist as a mere “bone painter,” had but one of her works. The O’Keeffe opened in 1997 with fifty paintings (many from Anne Marion’s personal collection) at the former site of an art gallery that had been carved from a Spanish Baptist mission church. It now includes around 3,000 items – some at O’Keefe’s former home and studio in Abiquiú  “An idea waiting to happen, the inevitable brought to life by spontaneous combustion of a longtime dream, perfect timing and Texas money galore,” said the Washington Post.

In 1996 while vacationing here we came upon a spin-off event of the upcoming opening. The U.S. Post Office had issued a Georgia O’Keeffe stamp and was selling First Day of Issue commemorative envelopes and a postmarked poster of the artist’s “Red Poppy” painting. After spending twenty-one years in the family room of our former Wethersfield, CT home our copies now hang on the wall adjacent to the spot at which this is being written.

2021’s “Best of Santa Fe” Museum (MOIFA) was founded in 1953 by Florence Dibell Bartlett (1881-1954) – a Chicago heiress and folk art collector who began visiting New Mexico in the 1920s. Soon she built a winter home, “El Mirador,” in Alcalde, New Mexico, near that of anthropologist Mary Cabot Wheelwright, herself the founder of Santa Fe’s Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian.

Like her father Adophus (wealthy partner in a large wholesale hardware business that became part of True Value Hardware,) and sister Maie Heard (co-founder of the Heard Museum in Phoenix, AZ,) Ms. Bartlett was a generous philanthropist with a strong sense of civic responsibility. She traveled the world on her own learning about local women and their customs – and buying stuff. Lots of stuff. 

The MOIFA website says Bartlett “envisioned and funded the original building...donated the museum’s founding collection of more than 2,500 objects including textiles, costumes, ceramics, wood carvings, paintings, and jewelry [and] established a foundation dedicated to supporting the mission of the museum.” She gave her Alcalde house and property to the State of New Mexico, as part of her gift that founded MOIFA. (The museum is state-run.) Part of the land is now the site of New Mexico State University's Sustainable Agriculture Science Center (SASC.)

Bartlett plunged to her death in 1954, from the patio of her seventeenth-floor penthouse apartment in Chicago. Her cook, told police she saw Bartlett make three attempts to climb over the three-foot brick wall of the porch which overlooks Lake Michigan, but did not see her leap.

Our own volunteer casa-away-from-casa, El Rancho de las Golondrinas, owes its existence to the work of three remarkable women: Eva Scott Fényes, (1849-1930) and her daughter and granddaughter, Leonora Scott Muse Curtin (1879-1972) and Leonora Francis Curtin Paloheimo (1903-1999) – aka Eva and the Leonoras.

A child of privilege, educated at a formal all-girls school and recipient of an arts education in New York, Europe, and Egypt Eva Scott Fényes created her own path in life. In 1878 she married U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant William Muse, then gave birth to Leonora Scott Muse in 1879. On a trip to Florida she met imprisoned Native artists Zo-Tom and Howling Wolf and was inspired to commission notebooks of their work and provide them with art supplies – the beginning of her arts philanthropy.

Finding her married life “unsatisfying,” she obtained a divorce in 1890 and moved to Santa Fe where she continued her support of artists and began collecting Native American crafts. In Cairo, Egypt Eva met Hungarian physician and entomologist Adalbert Fényes. They married in 1896 and together they moved to Pasadena, California to reside in the “Feynes Mansion.”

In 1898, author and preservationist Charles Lummis suggested that Eva document California’s remaining Spanish missions and other historic buildings. Her 300 watercolors and more than 3,000 sketches are held at the Pasadena Museum of History.

Meanwhile Leonora(1) met her husband, Thomas E. Curtin, a lawyer in the Santa Fe District Attorney’s office, married in 1903, gave birth to Leonora(2) and moved to Colorado Springs where Thomas developed railroads and resorts. He died in 1911 and the two Leonoras went to live with Eva in Pasadena.

Adalbert’s career and wealth expanded, to the delight of Eva who wanted to ensure that her daughter and granddaughter had the same financial independence and security that she had. The Leonoras fell in love with Santa Fe, became familiar with its needs and opportunities, and were taught “how to” by Eva’s and other women’s examples.

It worked. Leonora(1) studied the local herbs and plants used for healing by both the Native American and Spanish American cultures interviewing local native healers. This research resulted in two widely respected ethno-botancial works, “By the Prophet of the Earth” and “Healing Herbs of the Upper Rio Grande.” Leonora(1) also served on the Executive Board of the School of American Research and the Board of Directors of the Southwest Museum of Los Angeles, California. Leonora(2) established Santa Fe’s Native (now Indian) Market. Together they were founding members of the Spanish Colonial Arts Society..

“Returning often to New Mexico, where they nurtured friendships with a building colony of artists, writers, and archaeologists, they soon determined to build a house of their own in Santa Fe,” (“The House of the Three Wise Women: A Family Legacy in the American Southwest.”) The adobe house was built in 1926 and now holds the Women’s International Study Center. Much of the information herein comes from the WISC website.

While Eva returned often to Pasadena, the Lenoras began to see Santa Fe as their primary home.

In 1932 they purchased El Rancho de las Golondrinas (The Ranch of the Swallows) – an historic rancho strategically located on the Camino Real, the trade route from Mexico City to Santa Fe. The ranch provided goods for trade and was a paraje – an official rest stop – the first when leaving Santa Fe and the last when coming to it.

While much of the land in northern New Mexico was given as land grants from the King of Spain, La Cienega where Golondrinas is located had no such formal “deed.” The land was instead acquired by “royal purchase” with the first owner of record being Miguel Vega y Coca in the early 1700s. The family raised livestock including sheep the wool from which was used to weave cloth for clothing and household items; grew and ground their own wheat grain in water powered mills; and made tools from iron imported from Mexico. The ranch remained in the Vega y Coca family until sold to the Leonoras by the heirs at the time, the Bacas.

The new owners leased part of the property to a dairy, but kept the other portion as a country retreat. After Leonora(2)’s marriage to Finnish Consul to the United States Yrjö Alfred (Y.A.) Paloheimo in 1946, she and her husband saw the potential in the old ranch as a site for an outdoor living history museum – and devoted themselves to transforming the property into a place where visitors could physically immerse themselves in the history, heritage and culture of 18th and 19th century New Mexico. Existing buildings were restored, a few period structures were replicated and others were brought in from sites around New Mexico. (The parts were numbered with metal tags, disassembled and reconstructed on site.) The museum opened in 1972.

Leonora and Yrjö were parents to four adopted children: Eric, Eva, George and Christine. Some family members now reside in houses on parts of the property not devoted to the museum. Another portion of the original ranch is set aside as the Leonora Curtin Wetland Preserve, part of the Santa Fe Botanical Garden. (La Cieniga where the property is located translates to “the swamp” – a wetland system unique to the American Southwest in otherwise arid landscapes. A main reason that the original ranch was built there.) 

In 1973 Leonora and Yrjö created the Paloheimo Foundation to support and benefit those charitable and educational endeavors and organizations the couple supported during their lifetimes. Their former home in Pasadena is now part of the Pasadena History Museum along with a house that Yrjö purchased as the Finnish Consulate in 1949, now the Finnish Folk Art Museum. Eva passed on in 1930, Leonora(1) in 1972, Yrjö in 1986 and Leonora(2) in 1999.

As docents we are frequently asked how the museum came to be. We are glad to talk about it. After all, the stories of those who worked to preserve Santa Fe’s history are themselves an important part of that history.

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