It's seen better days, the Historic Taos County Courthouse. And as U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, D-NM, toured the iconic building on the Taos Plaza on Wednesday (June 2), she saw first-hand the need for a planned rehabilitation of this long-standing piece of town history.
Town of Taos Mayor Daniel Barrone, Taos County Manager Brent Jaramillo and Taos County Commissioners Darlene Vigil, AnJanette Brush and Candyce O'Donnell presented their proposal to Leger Fernández with the hope she would deliver nearly $1.3 million in support of it.
"It's a little bit disheveled because we are in the midst of demolition, and organizing things and exploring,"said Richard Sanchez, construction manager for Taos County. "There's a lot of things that have been done over the years that nobody knows."
"It's a history mystery tour," joked Leger Fernández.
The funds would go toward stabilizing the building, providing ADA-compliant access (including an elevator), installing energy efficient equipment and upgrading public restrooms. The plan also includes the preservation of historic murals painted during the Great Depression as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
The courthouse renovation is one of 10 projects being pushed by Leger Fernández to receive federal funding in FY2022 under the newly created Community Project Funding (CPF) program in Congress. Final approval for the project would come from the Appropriations Committee.
The first Taos County Courthouse, built around 1830 near the Plaza, was destroyed in a fire. A second courthouse, built in 1880 on the north end of the Plaza, was also destroyed in a fire -- the county records, stored in a vault, were miraculously saved.
The current Historic Taos County Courthouse, built in 1932 on the same site as the second courthouse, was designed by Albuquerque architect Louis Hesselden.
It was constructed using adobe bricks, and combines aspects of Spanish Colonial, Indian Pueblo and Mission styles of architecture, a reflection of the unique mix of Northern New Mexican communities.
Morals in murals
In 1934, the WPA Public Works of Art Project commissioned four artists from Taos to paint murals on the courtroom walls. Known as the 'Taos Quartet,' the artists included Emil Bisttram, Ward Lockwood, Bert Phillips and Victor Higgins.
Painted in the style of social realism, the murals depicted allegorical themes rooted in morality and law, and included titles in both English and Spanish.
'Aspiration,' 'Reconciliation' and 'Transgression' were painted by Bisttram. 'Justice Begets Content,' 'Avarice Breeds Crime' and 'Superfluous Laws Oppress' were painted by Lockwood. 'Moses the Law Giver' was painted by Higgins, and serves as the room's centerpiece.
The murals, or frescoes, were made from tempera pigment mixed with distilled water and applied to wet lime plaster.
A New Mexican fresco artist, Frederico Vigil, restored the 10 murals in the 1990s, and created an additional mural.
"You had visitors in here looking at them -- amazed. They continue to enlighten," said Leger Fernández "So, yes, the fact that you are working to preserve the historic nature of these is a very compelling reason [to receive the funding]."
Leaving the Plaza
In 1968, plans were developed for a modern courthouse and jail complex located on Paseo del Pueblo Sur about a mile south of the Plaza, and in 1970, the Taos County Government moved its operations there. The Historic County Courthouse was repurposed for offices, shops and an arts center.
"Though it's been 50 years since the Courthouse building served as a government building, its place in people's minds is still primary," said Jaramillo in a statement. "Making it viable once again to house a variety of enterprises will reinforce that sense of Taos identity."
The courthouse rehabilitation will occur over several phases. Phase 1 is currently out to bid, with work expected to begin in July 2021. The estimated budget is $1.5 million, to come from a Community Development Block Grant and the General Fund.
Phase 1 will include demolition of the west infill, a new sewer line and storm sewer, a two-story elevator, an interior and exterior ADA-compliant ramp to the north alley, and a new second-story staircase on the west side of the building.
A rough-in sprinkler system, a rough-in fire alarm system, new electrical service and transformer, and courtyard grading and sidewalks are also included in Phase 1.
Phase 1A, for which Rep. Leger Fernández was asked to secure nearly $1.3 million through the CPF, would include a new fire alarm system, a replacement staircase from the Mural Room, ADA-compliant restrooms on both floors, electrical and mechanical work, and a rebuilt south portal with Torreón Towers.
Phase 2, with an estimated budget of $2.9 million, would include upgrades for mechanical, HVAC and electrical systems, new basement stairs, new roofing, new windows and doors, demolition of the east infill, site grading and landscape work.
It would also include replacing the building's wood floors and resurfacing the exterior with stucco.
"What are you going to be using the building for?" asked Leger Fernández at a sit-down discussion in the Mural Room following the building tour.
"We've talked about an economic development maker-space. We also have a proposal from the Taos County Historical Society to do a museum," said Jaramillo.
"We're also working with Main Street and the Chamber of Commerce, who might want to put an office in here. Or it might function as a visitor's center. Taos Pueblo would like to use this building as a visitor's center as well," said Jaramillo. "So we're still vetting all these different options."