Santa Fe Living Treasures ‚Äď Elder Stories
On a visit to Santa Fe in 1958, master gardener Charlotte White and her partner, noted sculptor Boris Gilbertson, bought a very old, very run-down adobe house at 518 Alto Street, not far from the downtown Plaza. A year later they returned from their home in Illinois to spend a month “camping out” in the house and starting the task of lovingly renovating the place with their own hands. The work continued for more than 20 years.
From the start, Charlotte kept a daily journal of the project, and when the couple moved to Santa permanently in 1960, many hundreds of entries began accumulating in her notebook. Strapped for cash, Charlotte and Boris did most of the work themselves, including backbreaking labor such as re-roofing, laying adobe walls, plastering, digging trenches, pouring foundations, building a patio and a studio for Boris, jackhammering concrete, planting flowers and trees. They slept and ate in corners not under construction.
With Boris selling an occasional sculpture and Charlotte working in floral shops, they somehow financed the never-ending renovation. As they slowly progressed, they began wondering about the history of their house. Because of its three-foot-thick walls and 12-foot ceilings, they knew it was quite old, but they had no details. Then Charlotte took a property abstract to the state historian, who researched the site and structure.
The results were surprising and even amazing. No precise date of construction was recorded, but the house clearly was built in the late 1700s or very early 1800s. It belonged to a man named Juan Cristóbal Vigil, and upon his death in 1832, it passed into the hands of a soldier son named Donaciano Vigil. In the Mexican era of Santa Fe history, 1821-1846, Donaciano was military secretary to New Mexico’s last governor before it became a U.S. territory. When the Americans came, he was appointed first territorial secretary, then became governor when his predecessor was assassinated. He finished his distinguished career as registrar of land titles. Vigil was a major historical figure. After its heritage became known, the house was placed on the State Register of Historic Places in 1969, and on the National Register in 1972. And the work went on.
As much a chronicle of the times in Santa Fe as a record of a renovation project, Charlotte’s journal is replete with references to mariachi concerts on the Plaza, Spanish-speaking neighborhood children befriended by the couple, day-laborers who did not show up for work, or who showed up drunk, miserable attacks by vicious bedbugs embedded in the walls, periods of deep discouragement with finances and the work, friendships with notable Santa Feans: Olive Rush, Vivian Fiske, Ann and Alan Vedder, Chuzo Tamotzu.
Under Boris and Charlotte’s hands, the property blossomed from “a shambles” into a marvelous hacienda with a stunning courtyard garden. Only when Boris became too ill to work in 1980 did the restoration cease. After Boris died in 1982, Charlotte stayed on in the house, and wrote a book titled Greatness in the Commonplace, in tribute to his work.
Devoted to historic preservation because of her monumental project, Charlotte served 12 years on the board of the Historic Santa Fe Foundation. As her age advanced, she began to worry about the future of the Donaciano Vigil house after her death. She dreaded the idea of it being divided into condominiums or otherwise losing its character. With no children and few other heirs, she wanted the house to be preserved forever. So in 1997 she willed it to the historic foundation, for perpetual protection after her death. In 2001 the foundation excerpted her journal into a book titled Within Adobe Walls. She died a year later, after committing her body for medical-school training. “Charlotte had a remarkable capacity to give,” summed up one of many farewells.
Story by Richard McCord
Photo © 2000 by Steve Northrup