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D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e    May 2008

Brick-and-Mortar Memories

Growing up in Silver City in the Forties and Fifties, you remembered certain special buildings. Now memories are all that remain.

By Phillip Parotti



Recently, while out for what our Australian friends call "a walkabout," I was forced to realize that a number of "my" Silver City buildings — and, along with them, my youth — have utterly disappeared. I do not mean to imply that the buildings now missing were ever structures that I actually owned or in which I had the least financial interest. (In so far as I know, I have never owned anything other than a house, and judging from the cost of its upkeep, the house owns me). So physical possession is not my subject; what I refer to instead is the psychological or emotional investment one makes in a place by the mere accident of having been born into it and then grown to some degree of maturity within the environment. When one is young, by their very nature, things seem good, right and permanent. But then, like it or not, things change, and there are times, one finds, when the changes seem. . . well, almost . . . almost momentous.

Building under construction
The Murray Hotel, another icon of the author's youth,
rises in downtown Silver City.

When I was a lad, for example, James Stadium — the old James Stadium, the James Stadium surrounded by the quarried rock wall into which the Brancheau P.E. Complex now extends — marked the western edge of Silver City. Out behind it, one found country virtually open all the way to Cliff. Later, much later, the university built Muir Heights, Eckles Hall and Regent's Row, the Fine Arts Complex, the Juan Chacon Building and the Ben Altamirano Memorial Stadium on land immediately to the west.

But those investments, none of them going up before the late Sixties, seem almost brand-new because, following World War II and for two decades thereafter, the site was occupied by "The Campus Village." This assemblage of more than 20 war-surplus barracks had been trucked to Silver City and mildly renovated in order to provide married housing for veterans who came here on the GI Bill. Three more barracks were installed in what is now the parking lot behind Harlan Hall; above them, perched on the side of the hill, two more functioned as the college cafeteria. Four more were situated near what is now the east end of the Administration Building, and for a time, those housed the lion's share of the Art Department. At the north end of D Street, where Ada Brewer's home once stood, where the old Student Memorial Center now stands, the same block also contained the Drama Department and the Village Dorm. Enloe Hall was directly across the street in what is currently the parking lot behind the Administration Building. All three structures had been constructed by joining yet more barracks together into a variety of imaginative configurations. Clearly, someone had made a very good deal on war-surplus barracks. While the facts remain elusive, one imagines that a number of them were trucked up from Fort Bliss, the Lordsburg prison camp or Deming's WWII air base.

Looks aside, living in "The Campus Village" must really have been interesting. From what the students told us, walls and ceilings in those apartments were so thin that any discussion held at one end of one of a converted barracks automatically involved everyone else who lived in the building. All of those structures, all of them once vibrant with college life during the Forties, Fifties and early Sixties, are now gone, replaced by newer, better buildings, several of which are themselves beginning to age. But those were the temporary structures of my youth.

If one takes a second look at the campus, people of my generation also find a considerable amount of brick to be missing. Red brick, to be sure. Because originally — prior to the construction of the old Miller Library, the first building to use white brick (requiring all of the other buildings to be artificially coated with white paint) — all of the older buildings, Old Main, Ritch Hall, the Training School, the Infirmary, Light Hall, Fleming Hall, Bowden Hall, the heating plant (even Graham Gym and Western High School retained some of the color scheme), the whole campus was built of the same Silver City red brick that went into the buildings and houses in what we presently call "the Historic District."

Old Main (built 1896) was the first of those structures to go down. At the time, the building housed the Music Department. Because my father was the head of the Music Department, it was the one building on campus that I had directly associated with my family, so when the wrecking ball struck, I felt a little like my world had collapsed around me. The foundations in that building were so thick that it could have stood for centuries, but by the time it came down, pigeons had taken over most of the third floor, the site of New Mexico State Normal School's first library.

As I remember it, the next building to go was the Training School. In those days, the university owned and operated a public, nine-year grade school. I had done five happy years in the Training School until, one early September morning, all eight grades and the kindergarten were forced to pack up school supplies and march over the hill to the new school (now Sechler Hall on 12th Street), to something the authorities tried to call The Elementary Laboratory School. No kid in his right mind was going to fall victim to a euphemism like that; those of us who went there called the new place the Training School and will continue to do so until the day we go into the ground. The old Training School (built 1904), with its magnificent front window, its grand staircases, its educational odor of discipline and well-oiled wood, and its wonderful circular fire escape, became for a time the "Department of Commerce" (euphemism was much in vogue) and was eventually torn down to become the parking lot behind Bowden Hall.

The Infirmary was the next building to be destroyed, a quantity of skunks that had been living in the steam trunks being displaced during the work. And the last of those buildings to go was Western High School. As I remember, it took almost as long to remove the WPA-constructed Western High School building as it recently took to dispatch the WPA-constructed Hillcrest General Hospital. The college dormitory that replaced the high school, Centennial Hall, put much less than its best front forward to face the community. When the time finally arrives for Centennial Hall to come down, one can only hope that the Board of Regents then reigning will consider the aesthetics of whatever they put in its place. Frankly, a little red brick wouldn't be a bad substitute — with, I can only hope, the front of the building facing West Street and the town.



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