Tuesday, November 22, 2011

This Old, Dead House: The Sad End of the Werner-Gilchrist Home

Last month the Alibi, Albuquerque's free weekly paper, did a story on the Werner-Gilchrist house, the oldest structure east of Yale Boulevard. They showed a vintage photograph alongside a contemporary one and it was clear the house was badly deteriorated. So, I made a visit as soon as I got a chance and was dismayed to find the place in even worse shape than it had been in the Alibi photo, which turned out to be a year old. I'd hoped to get inside but the house was boarded up tight. Apparently it had often been wide open, but when I got there thick plywood covered every entrance. All I could do was walk around the outside and take in some of the remaining architectural features. The back shed was accessible but uninteresting and a homeless person had recently taken up residence. After awhile I laid a hand on the 103-year-old house to pay my last respects and then headed home. On Monday, following a whim, I decided to stop by once again and saw that there would now be no problem getting inside. The house was already dark due to the boarded-up windows and the sun was setting, so I didn't have much time, but I tried to get a few decent shots. By the time you read this, the Werner-Gilchrist house will be no more, living on in a few photos and, of course, that episode of Breaking Bad in which it appeared as a drug den. So, here's its story.

The tale of the Werner-Gilchrist house begins with Colonel D.K.B. Sellers. Apparently a bit of a character, he was not actually a colonel. In the very early 1900's, it was Colonel Sellers that petitioned to give Railroad Avenue, which he believed to be a poor name for a street that extended beyond the rail line, a new name, Central, as he began to sell commercial lots in Albuquerque. Quickly successful in his name-change bid, the Colonel continued developing, moving into what is now the University Heights Addition, a square-shaped collection of streets just south of the University of New Mexico campus. In Nob Hill, he would go on to build a rather nice log cabin and a gravity-based water tank that is now a house. In 1912, the Colonel was even elected Mayor of Albuquerque, but, a few years earlier, in lieu of financial compensation, Colonel Sellers had paid his secretary, Laura Werner, by giving her half of an undeveloped block on what is now Cornell Drive.

Ms. Werner and Ralph Gilchrist, her son-in-law, built the house in 1908 on the corner of what is now Cornell and Silver. Based on a layout used for officer's homes in Territorial forts following the Civil War, the design, known as "hipped box," incorporated a wood-framed hip roof with dormer windows on each side. The load-bearing walls were made of 16" thick adobe bricks and the foundation was stacked stone. The doors, window frames, and trim were all wood and a wide entrance hall ran the full length of the first floor. The second floor was a single large room. At the time, this style of construction was in favor among the upper classes. I was impressed to see that every room aside from the kitchen had a fireplace.

Ms. Werner's reclusive daughter, Nora, occupied the house until she died in 1981, having lived into her nineties. The house had been vacant since about that time. In 1982, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places, but, as we've seen, that designation does not necessarily confer any real protection. In 2006, in response to a blocked attempt at demolition the year before, the house was officially named an Albuquerque landmark, a title which also could not save it.

Much as with the recently demolished Aztec Motel (it's been a tough year for historic buildings in ABQ), no one ever said they wanted the Werner-Gilchrist house torn down. There was an effort to preserve and restore the house which spanned 30 years, but continued neglect caused extensive damage and the current owner of the property was eventually cited for housing code violations. That owner, Jim Trump, executive director of Build New Mexico, stated that he had initially hoped to restore the home. But times are tough and money is tight and the house was too far gone. Thus, the Werner-Gilchrist house is no more.

Meanwhile, across town, Albuquerque is finally getting a Chipotle Grill.

I grabbed the information for this post from the aforementioned Alibi article and the house’s short Wikipedia entry. The photo of the house just after construction in 1908 comes courtesy of the City of Albuquerque, although they don’t know it.

I've got a ton of stuff lined-up for the future, from Billy the Kid's (controversial) grave to the haunted Shaffer Hotel and beyond. There’s plenty to keep busy for awhile.


Adsila said...

It's great you were able to find a picture of the house when it was first built. It is sad to see lots of landmarks getting torn down. It happens here (AZ) lots. I am looking forward to reading your future posts.

Anonymous said...

Sad to see the old ones go like this. Good post though.

mohd hafifi said...

come here from Malaysia =)

jmhouse said...

I'd love to visit Malaysia! I'd be sure to bring my camera. Maybe someday...

SusanO said...

Wow - just today we drove by the site, saw stacks of adobe and stone. Recalled an article in the Journal about the home and it's history. Thanks for all this and for providing some pics, it's very sad the house went away. About your City of Dust pic of highway 55, down towards Gran Quivira. Do you have any stories on that old school house? I just stopped and photographed it recently.

jmhouse said...

Yes, it was very sad to see the Werner-Gilchrist house leveled. I wish that someone would've restored the place, but that ship probably sailed 15 years ago. It had deteriorated very badly.

As for that school house, I really don't know anything about it. I think it's a great little building. Maybe someone will read this and provide some info.

Thanks for your comment, Susan. It's much appreciated. JM

jmhouse said...

I forgot to mention that I have several other shots of the school house. In
THIS SHOT you can see graffiti from 1947, so its been empty or abandoned for a long time.

If you scroll forward or back through the photostream you'll see a few more photos of the place.

Doug Sterling said...

Several of the places I discovered when I first got into urban exploring have been demolished since then, so this brought back those same memories of coming across an empty lot where what was once a bustling factory/business/home - and then became a playground for people like me - once stood.

You mentioned its role in 'Breaking Bad', but I wondered if you also knew that the owner of the house offered to let the producers blow it up for an episode, as well as offered it to the fire department for training exercises (both offers declined, obviously).


jmhouse said...

Believe it or not, Doug, I *did* know that the house was offered to Breaking Bad as something to be blown up. Kind of a weird idea.

I hadn't seen that news piece before, so thanks for that. I can report that, as of today, the site where the Werner-Gilchrist House once stood remains an empty lot.

Thanks for the info!