Architect Gerald Lundeen reveals his plans for — and gives a peek inside — the massive renovation project that will give new life to Las Cruces' historic courthouse.
Story and photos by Donna Clayton Lawder
In order to implement the design for his latest project — the massive renovation of the historic former Doa Ana County Courthouse on South Alameda — Las Cruces architect Gerald Lundeen is in the unusual position of having his very first professional building project knocked down. Well, he admits, it was bound to happen.
"I've been here a long time, I've worked here a long time," Lundeen says. He and his wife still live in the same house he bought her as a wedding present 43 years ago, a 100-year-old restored territorial inn that houses both his architecture practice and, for the past dozen years, the Lundeen Inn of the Arts, their bed-and-breakfast business.
"My license number is a really low one," Lundeen says. "If you check the records, I'm sure my license number is among the lowest there is here in town. And it (architecture) is all I've done here."
Lundeen speaks with pride, and no small amount of affection, for the tan stucco building he started with and whose days are now numbered. He describes its eye-catching angled doors and windows. He recalls how the mason on the project couldn't fathom what he meant from the plans, how he rolled up his sleeves and gave the mason a demonstration.
"I took the trowel out of his hands and showed him what I wanted. When I got to about the third layer of brick, his eyes lit up and he smiled this great smile. Then he took over," Lundeen recalls. "It was a great little building in its day."
But the great little building, Lundeen's first commercial triumph, now stands waiting for the wrecking ball, waiting to make room for this latest chapter in his long architectural career.
The morning has been drizzly, but Lundeen insists on walking the short distance from his office to the old courthouse. Walking briskly, he relays some of the details and history of how the ambitious new project came to be.
"I engineered the deal," Lundeen says. "I knew John Hoffman for only about eight months. I'd redesigned a shopping center for him." Hoffman is the Texas businessman who bought the courthouse and its annex, on the same city block, for $1.5 million last year.
"He (Hoffman) was in town, on other business, looking at another project, and we drove past the old courthouse. I said something like, 'Hey, how about this building?' He looked at me and said, 'It's for sale?' I told him it was and we explored it. Things happened very fast," Lundeen says. Hoffman received the deed for the property in January 2008, and the grungiest of the gutting and clean-up commenced immediately.
Lundeen says he knew Hoffman had "the capital resources and the reach to tackle such an ambitious project, and also the vision" to see the historic old building's potential. "I wanted to have a chance to do this project. I'd had my eye on this property for a while. I loved the building, and I knew he'd be able to see the things I saw in it."
The Spanish-revival-style courthouse, at 180 W. Amador Ave., was constructed in 1937 and served as a headquarters for county operations. Over time, new construction was added on. A hodge-podge of wiring was strung throughout to accommodate phones and, later, computers. Heating and cooling systems were added, along with dropped ceilings to conceal the wiring and the ductwork.
Around 1970, the county constructed a jail on the west side of the courthouse. Several county offices still were housed in the building until May 2006, when government operations moved to the new courthouse building at 845 Motel Blvd.
Arriving at the entry, Lundeen pauses for just a moment to take in the stately old building. After a jingle of keys in the lock, he throws open the door with a comical flourish and reveals, well, a pretty dark, featureless entryway. The dreary day does little to add illumination or charm to the space, and Lundeen flips an electric switch here and there before finding one that's hooked up to juice, sparking one of the retro fluorescent fixtures above into action.
An optimist skilled at spotting diamonds in the rough, he points out the massive white concrete ceiling beams well above his head, running between dark wooden vigas.
"Look at the ornate ends on those monsters! They look beefy, they look nice," Lundeen says of the white concrete beams. "In my design, I plan to use them," he adds with a wistful smile. "I mean, wouldn't it be a shame to lose those?"
He leads the way down a hallway and gestures to the frosted glass door of a small office. "Here's where people got their marriage licenses," he says.
Lundeen notes that there used to be asbestos tiles in the floor here and throughout much of the building. "We've just gone through a whole round of asbestos remediation. We thought the remediation was going to cost around $50,000." With a grimacing smile he adds that the actual bill came in at a whopping $127,000. He manages a laugh: "I like to say that, well, at least the worst is over now."
A little farther down the hall, Lundeen points out another frosted-glass door — the former tax office. "I came right through that door over there," he says with a gesture of his arm, "and paid my taxes right here in this office."
Lundeen says this bottom floor could hold retail establishments and offices. "If we turn it (the building) into a hotel, there could be gift shops down here, administrative offices for that, for the hotel."
He stops by a bathroom to point out the step-up needed to get in. "That'll be another expense, making the bathrooms ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act)-approved," he acknowledges. "Those and the elevators. Oh, the elevators. You see, all this construction here, in this part of the building, was done so long ago, before we had ADA standards."
The era in which the building was designed, Lundeen says, bequeathed it both grandeur and unfortunate features. "It's got a really old design, and there are some really big spaces that are underutilized, and then this rat warren of tiny offices that were so dark!" He leads the way down a hall. "You'll see. It must have been horrible to work in."
Lundeen explains that the older bathroom floors are raised so plumbing could be run through the space. "It also gave access for any future work that had to be done. But it doesn't give access to the people (with disabilities), and that's the issue we have to address now."
He notes the massive door of a room-sized safe. "There are five safes in the building," he says, pausing to fix in his mind the location of each and counting them off on his fingers. The safes were once used to house official records — Las Cruces school system files, criminal records and other official files for the county.
Lundeen pauses again at a massive archway that looks to be made of concrete and plaster. "This is where the original building stops. From here on, it's sort of modern stuff — sheetrock and steel trusses instead of solid concrete. With all that concrete, this probably would have been a good place to come in a nuclear blast," he says with a wry laugh.
He gestures from the midpoint of the archway, back in the direction he has just traversed and to the floors overhead. "On this side is all the jail, all old stuff." With a sweep of his arm in the other direction, he says, "From this side over, it's all so-called 'new' construction."
But don't think that means there's less work needed on that side of the building. "Oh, wait 'til you see the way they went about some of this stuff. Sure, county budget and all that, but some of the things they did as they went along just fly in the face of reason, let alone esthetics!"
At the end of another long expanse of hallway, Lundeen leads the way into an old office space, littered with abandoned desks, chairs, light fixtures, you name it. On a far wall, black burn marks in regular intervals mar the white painted steel beams in the ceiling, as if someone took an acetylene torch to them.
"That's exactly what happened," Lundeen says. "This used to be a bunch of jail cells and the county removed them so they could use the space for offices. Pleasant, don't you think?" he asks jokingly. "At first, the plan was to renovate this courthouse building, so they started adding and expanding office space, but then they decided to just build the new one instead."