As a pre-schooler living in the village of Agua Fria many, many years ago, I was taught to read from two books, Pussy Willow and Cocky Cactus. I still have my original, tattered copies of both with my margin notes in blue crayon and the occasional stain from, as Shakespeare put it, mewling and puking.
I never really connected with Pussy Willow, though I have an abiding love of cats. But Cocky Cactus was a real-life character to me. The house in Agua Fria Village, you see, was made of mud and looked rather remarkably like author and illustrator Carolyn Ten Eyck Appleton's rendition of a humble and venerable place to live, right down to the cactus in the yard.
Cocky Cactus was brought to life in a lovely house on a large South Capital lot that Carolyn and Norman Appleton built out of penitentiary tile and adobe in 1938. I didn't know that until recently. Alas, I got to know it too late.
The Appleton home was kept in the family until 2005 when it was bought by a local investor. By then the house was turning derelict and the purchaser likely saw an opportunity to restore or upgrade the house into something marketable on a large, downtown tract. From that moment, Cocky Cactus's birthplace became a vortex of questionable judgment reflecting badly on everyone who was involved including the purchaser, the City of Santa Fe, and the Historic Design Review Board. A significant and charming property, with some arguably valid associative value, was sent to purgatory.
I believe I have these facts correctly: that once the property was sold, city planning staff initiated a Historic Cultural Property inventory with an eye toward conferring landmark status on the house because it is not in a designated historic district; that the reason the process began was to protect the property and to prevent additional development on the lot; that staff made no recommendations pro or con, but deferred to the Historic Design Review Board as to findings of fact regarding eligibility; that throughout the process neither the city nor the H-Board seem to have known (or grasped the significance imbued by the fact) that the Appleton property was comprised of two, separately platted tracts. And that was what made this so sticky as evidenced by the result.
The Appleton house sat abandoned and neglected for nearly 5 years while two brand new, two-storey condos were built that isolate the historic property from its neighborhood and completely block both its aspect and its prospect. The house was abandoned because no one wanted to buy it in its then-current state and with the restrictions imposed by the new status. By way of full disclosure, I looked seriously at buying the house and there is no way in the world that I could make the numbers work.
What happened on the Appleton property was the result of using landmarking as a zoning weapon and I cannot sufficiently emphasize how badly that erodes the significance of the status. The H-board's finding of facts led to the city council approving the nomination. But they don't seem to have found, or contemplated, all of the facts. Was it really only after that action that anyone noticed that two tracts existed, and that the purchaser would be completely within his rights to develop the vacant lot (without H-board review) and thus detract immeasurably from a newly landmarked structure? Did landmarking protect the building when the city issued permits for two condos that are stylistically at odds with the Appleton house, to say nothing of being severely out of scale for both the lot and the neighborhood? And wasn't it a bit of a blindside to landmark the property immediately after the new owner bought it, thus severely restricting if not reversing the intent upon which he made the purchase? Smacks of an illegal taking.
In Carolyn Ten Eyck Appleton's story, Cocky Cactus is dressed up by two children using their father's best clothes and Cocky, falsely blamed, gets hauled to the dump. A resurrection of sorts occurs as the unlikely cactus and his friend, a roadrunner that comes alive from a painting on a pot, strike out for something new. There's an allegory here that the author could not have predicted. Cocky's birthplace suffered a similar indignity; as the nomination for landmark status notes, the building is little changed from the time it was built and its integrity is essentially untarnished: Nevertheless, the actions of others have led to its diminishment. In my view, five years ago, the only way forward was to remove the landmarking, acknowledge that the process violated the purpose of the statute, and let the house begin a life anew -- in whatever form that may have taken.
Today I am happy to report that the owner did a fine job of restoring Cocky Cactus's home, and splitting it into two very comfortable units in which the new owners are quite content.