I wanted to explore something spooky for October, my favorite month, but it’s getting harder to find haunted houses these days. So, let’s take a look back at the Werner-Gilchrist house, long the oldest structure east of Yale Blvd and, as of almost exactly two years ago, just a ghost. By the end, the place was in terrible shape, shingles falling off the roof and countless holes covered by plywood. With the wrecking ball nigh, I put a hand on the then-103-year-old house, gave it a pat, and said goodbye. Later, on a whim, I stopped by one final time and saw that I could easily get inside. The house was dark due to the boarded-up windows and the sun was setting fast, so there wasn’t much time. As darkness fell, I took some photos and imagined what had gone on within those shattered walls besides that scene in Breaking Bad where the place was a drug den. Here’s its story (photos are clickable):
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 early 1900's, Sellers began to offer commercial lots in Albuquerque. He also petitioned to give Railroad Ave., which he believed was poorly named for a street running beyond the rail line, a new moniker. Quickly successful in his name-change bid--the street was re-named Central Ave.--the Colonel continued developing, moving into what is now the University Heights Addition. In Nob Hill, he would go on to build a rather nice log cabin and a gravity-based water tank that is now someone’s home. In 1912, the Colonel was even elected mayor. But a few years before that, in lieu of financial compensation, he’d given his secretary, Laura Werner, 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 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 just 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 was essentially vacant from then on. In 1982, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places, a designation which doesn’t necessarily confer any actual protection. In 2006, in response to a blocked attempt at demolition the previous year, the house was officially named an Albuquerque landmark, a title which also could not save it.
No one ever said they wanted the Werner-Gilchrist house torn down. Efforts at preservation and restoration spanned 30 years, but continued neglect caused extensive damage. The last owner, Jim Trump, executive director of Build New Mexico, was eventually cited for code violations, but stated that he'd always hoped to restore the place. However, times are tough and money is tight and things were too far gone. Thus, the Werner-Gilchrist house is no more.
The Alibi published an excellent piece shortly before the house was demolished, from which I grabbed some info for this post. They also published the best historical photo I’ve seen. Then, in spring 2012, the UNM School of Architecture and Planning salvaged some material and used it in an exhibit. Hopefully, those few beams and bricks have been transplanted into other structures so that the Werner-Gilchrist house can live on.
So, some night this month, if you walk past the vacant lot where the Werner-Gilchrist house once stood, you might see its pale outline and, in a shadowy window, perhaps the mournful visage of Nora Werner will gaze sternly back at you for a moment before the oldest building east of Yale disappears back into the mists of time.