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In Mexico, the holidays are just beginning.

Rock House Rescue
Saving Silver City's historic Waterworks building

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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e  January 2011

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Rock House Rescue

Nancy Gordon wants to save Silver City's historic Waterworks building.


Story and photos by Richard Mahler




The decrepit structure has a compelling story — as does Nancy Gordon.

"Several years ago I gave a talk to students at Jos Barrios Jr. Elementary School," explains the Silver City hydrologist. "I asked the kids if they knew what the big building next door to them was. I was surprised to learn that none of them did."

Nancy Gordon inspects equipment outside the historic Waterworks she's working to rescue.

Gordon began asking adults around town the same question, and getting the same shrugs — or, equally often, incorrect guesses.

"A lot of folks think it's a church," she tells me, as we huddle, bundled in layers, beneath leafless poplars in the pale light of a winter afternoon. "But many people really don't have any idea what it is." The imposing building on the busy street is referred to often by its nickname: "the Rock House."

Her eye-opening talk at the school set in motion this diminutive, soft-spoken woman's quest to not only educate area residents — including decision-makers in local business, government and philanthropy — but to save the Silver City Waterworks, a unique landmark that has somehow slipped into obscurity and runs a real risk of one day collapsing or being razed.

Yet as long ago as 1999, the New Mexico Heritage Preservation Alliance placed the structure on its list of the 11 most endangered historic cultural properties in the state, calling it as a rare surviving example of an historic municipal waterworks. Once common, few such facilities remain.

"The Waterworks has a long, interesting history," allows Gordon, as we stroll its fenced compound, sandwiched between the Barrios school, Silva Creek, Little Walnut Road and a supply store for rockhounds. "And it seems like whenever I learn a little more about the place, I end up with other mysteries to solve."

Let's put the prevailing mystery to rest. What the heck is this thing?

Put simply, the Waterworks complex is what allowed Victorian-era Silver City to become one of New Mexico's most sophisticated and prosperous towns, its economy supported not only by mining, but also by agriculture, retail businesses, government services and a university. For half a century the Waterworks provided townspeople and merchants with fresh, clean water. For more than a second half-century it provided supplemental water to residents who, in later years, filled containers they brought to the site themselves.

"The history of the Waterworks is really the history of Silver City," contends Gordon, who moves nimbly around its grounds, oblivious to the traffic and commotion a few steps beyond the chain-link fence that surrounds the place. Standing next to its solid antiquity, I begin to think of this as a great-grandfather of a building, a living symbol of a time when Silver City depended on entrepreneurship, creativity and hard work for its very survival.

"Preserving this property became my 'cause' about eight years ago," says Gordon, who was employed as Assistant Engineer for the Town of Silver City from 1999-2000 and now works as an independent consultant in hydrology and engineering. She labors on behalf of the Waterworks as a city-sanctioned volunteer.

"At one point, in 1984, the building barely missed being demolished," says Gordon, who moved to town in 1992. She credits the intervention of the Silver City Museum's then-director, Susan Berry, for quick action that spared the structure, owned by the city since 1925. A pivotal event, Berry told me in an interview, was the listing of the Waterworks on the National Register of Historic Places and the conclusion by inspectors from the state Historic Preservation Division that the building was structurally sound and worth preserving. (Since then, both the Museum Board and Museum Society have sought to preserve and rehabilitate the complex, which sits on a parcel that was once considered the outskirts of town.)

Gordon's recent efforts on the property's behalf include researching its history, recruiting volunteers, soliciting funds, publicizing its virtues, and negotiating with town authorities as needed. Working with Paula Geisler Productions, she plans to make a video about the Waterworks that will include a timeline of photos and interviews with knowledgeable residents. Last fall Gordon supervised a Youth Conservation Corps crew of Aldo Leopold High School students who cleaned up the overgrown and trash-cluttered grounds, took out non-native trees and installed a native plant garden, made compost piles and improved drainage away from the building's walls.

"At the time of its construction," says Gordon, "this was an impressive and expensive project." Indeed, it may have been one of the most ambitious privately funded public works projects in 19th-century New Mexico. According to territorial legal documents, former New York sewing machine mechanic George Utter incorporated the Silver City Water Company in late 1886 with $100,000 in capital stock — a fortune by today's standards. The town granted Utter a 50-year franchise, stipulating that schools, churches and city offices would get their water for free and that Utter's company would provide ample water for fire protection.

A skilled mason from Grand Rapids, Mich., John Hill, was hired to construct the building. He used hand-cut blocks of Colorado formation sandstone obtained locally, possibly at a site farther up Little Walnut Road. His careful workmanship is evident in the mortared walls, segmented arches and raised parapet. Atop a nearby hill, he built an underground reservoir, to which water was pumped in order to assure gravity-fed pressure as well as storage. An elaborate collection gallery was created 55 feet below ground, extending some 500 feet northwest of the Waterworks and angled upslope sufficiently to transport trickling water into the pump room. Today no one seems to know exactly what the gallery looks like; it's been buried for 124 years.

"At the time," reports Gordon, "there was no deep-cut channel along Silva Creek, as there is today. It was a marshy area, much like San Vicente Creek is known to have been." Local creek-beds didn't deepen significantly until torrential rains in the late 1890s and early 1900s wrought extreme flooding. Prior to that time, the ground acted like a sponge, with water traveling more below than above the surface.

Completed in the spring of 1887, Hill's sandstone building housed separate boiler and pump rooms in its flat-roofed section, with an adjacent, two-story, pitch-roofed residence where the plant engineer and his family lived. The pump room held a 60-foot well in which accumulated water was stored before its trip to the reservoir. The boiler for the steam-powered pump was fired first by wood and then, beginning in 1908, by coal. Still later, the pump was electricity-powered.

Aside from minor modifications and decay, the Midwest mason's building looks virtually the same as it did when he finished it, during the first term of President Grover Cleveland. According to Built to Last, the architectural history of Silver City co-authored by Susan Berry and Sharman Apt Russell, the Waterworks remains a "rare example of stone construction" in a community where bricks were the preferred building material and stonework was mainly incorporated into walls, facades and other details.

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