LAS CRUCES, N.M. (AP) — Unoccupied for decades and left to crumble, an old house sitting on the corner of Hadley Avenue and Tornillo Street shows its age.
Gaping holes in the decomposing stucco bear adobe bricks, laid there, according to an official estimate, in 1925. A fire 85 years later damaged what was left of the roof and gutted the back of the home.
The home’s disrepair conceals its rich history.
A group of Las Crucens are hoping to save the deteriorating home in the Historic Mesquite Street neighborhood — one woman even set up a heralded, worldwide public art project in front of the house, trying to bring attention to the stressed structure. And even though the home’s owner has filed with the city of Las Cruces an application to demolish it, he said he wants to see it restored.
Clarence Fielder’s grandparents lived at the house, so, growing up, he ate many Sunday dinners inside its walls. Fielder, a longtime educator and decorated war veteran, remembers the ever-present pot of soup steaming on his grandmother’s wood-burning stove.
“She always had some food ready,” Fielder of Las Cruces said.
Daniel Hibler, Fielder’s grandfather, co-founded the city’s first African-American church, the Phillips Chapel CME Church. That building, which was used as a school during segregation according to Sun-News archives, has stood for more than a century. It’s about two blocks north of the home.
Harry Sanchez grew up near the home, playing football in what was an empty lot across Tornillo Street. A police officer, Sanchez’s family owns several properties in the old Las Cruces neighborhood. He’s in the middle of a lengthy remodel of the Sunshine Grocery building, which his family has owned for 100 years.
Owner’s special connection
That’s part of the reason Sanchez, born and raised in the neighborhood, bought the home from Fielder’s family in 2008. He wanted to revitalize it. But, he said, an arsonist set fire to the home in 2010, crushing the project.
“Not only did that damage the house,” Sanchez said. “It doused the energy I had.”
After investing more than $45,000 into restoring the home and its land, Sanchez simply can’t afford to pursue the effort further. He’s planning to build modern, single-family housing on the three lots he owns adjacent to the old home. In his heart, Sanchez wants the home to survive.
“I’m open to working with, selling, doing whatever I can if anybody else is interested,” he said.
Due to the neighborhood historic designation, the city requires a 60-day waiting period before the house can be razed. That period ends April 26, said Susana Montana, a city planner. She added that the South Mesquite Design Review Board will discuss the property in its regular meeting April 18.
Sanchez said he has yet to contract with any party to tear down the house.
Despite its run-down condition, “the building can be saved,” said David Chavez, president of the Mesquite Historic Preservation Society.
Meanwhile, the house has been drawing attention for the past weeks because it serves as the site of “Before I Die,” an interactive public art exhibit set up to invite “people to share their hopes and dreams in public space,” according to the website of its creator, Candy Chang.
Such chalkboards are set up all over the globe. Lauded as “one of the most creative community projects ever” by The Atlantic, “Before I Die” boards prompt an array of responses.
Over the past few days, the boards in Las Cruces have inspired people to share personal goals, ranging from sweet — “have a baby” — to fantastic — “sleep with tigers.”
Others have been vague but vague. Appearing repeatedly Monday morning was “save my people.” Some are political, such as “impeach Obama,” another recurring message.
Faith Hudson, an instructor at Doña Ana Community College, said she heard about the “Before I Die” project from a friend. She decided she wanted one here.
The location was not a tough decision.
“I kind of wanted attention called to that house,” she said.
Hudson said Sanchez was the first property owner she called, seeking permission to place her chalkboards. She said the “Before I Die” boards will remain standing for about a month, then Hudson plans to move them to another, undetermined location.
One of the first messages written on one of the chalkboards was directed at the old home.
Read one of the signs: “Save this house.”