Sculptor Eugenie Shonnard is known for her diverse works in many mediums — one standout is her wood sculpture on the La Conquistadora altar screen at Rosario Chapel — but she had a special love for animal subjects.
That preference dates to her girlhood when she was a sickly child in New York. Doctors were unable to treat a chronic digestive disorder. “One time I was in bed a whole year,” she said in a 1964 interview with Sylvia Loomis for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. “Then the doctor said, ‘Throw all the medicine out and get her some birds and animals,’ and they saved my life.”
Shonnard (1886-1978) once was asked to do a portrait of a young gorilla named Dinah at the Bronx Zoo. The experience is recorded in a 1972 video interview with the sculptor. “They put me in this big room alone with Dinah. Well, I didn’t know what to make of it,” she said, laughing. “I discovered that I couldn’t do a thing with her unless I sang to her. As I entered, I’d hum to her and then she would stand up on her hind legs and she would grunt and we’d sing together. We’d hum together, and I have photos to prove it.”
The artist’s lovely Santa Fe residence at 1411 Paseo de Peralta now serves as the quarters of the Museum of New Mexico Foundation. The front porch and bay window are intact features of the Eugenie Shonnard House, dating back to its construction by master builder Philip Hesch in 1890. But the interior has seen some interesting shifts over the past century. “The Shonnard House has a Georgian floor plan; there are some wonderful spaces in there,” said architect Beverley Spears. “In some ways, it may be patterned on the old officers quarters, Georgian with a central hall and the rooms coming off both sides.”
That’s what it looked like originally and also what it looks like today, but for decades that front-to-back hallway was blocked. Sometime after the renowned sculptor Shonnard moved in after her mother bought the house in 1927, she built a bathroom and a closet there, reducing the hallway into a foyer-like space at the front.
Another significant change involved the three fireplaces. Shonnard covered the classical brick features with masses of sculpted adobe, bringing them more in line with the Spanish-Pueblo Revival (“Santa Fe Style”) architectural theme.
In 1985 — seven years after Shonnard died — those changes, and others that had been made with the same let’s-modernize-everything-Victorian motive, were reversed. At that time, all of the house’s windows, and the ornate trim around the windows and doors, were updated with replicas. Whenever possible, the historic glass was recycled into the new windows. All of the handsome interior doors retain their operable transoms.
The restoration was directed by real-estate broker Margo Cutler and tax attorney Filmore Rose.
“Margo said one of the coolest things about the renovation was when they busted through the last wall and the light was shining through,” said archaeologist Karen Wening. The hallway again runs right through the house, and the fireplaces were restored to their original brick.
Also on the museum foundation’s campus are the 1882 Romero house, which was Shonnard’s studio and is now the Robert J. Nurock Conference Center; a root cellar; and a new administration building designed by Spears.
Before the construction of the Thomas Catron III Office Building, the foundation paid for an “archaeological reconnaissance,” which involved subsurface test excavations on 2 percent of the area that would be disturbed by construction, or would be covered by the new building. Such surveys are required in advance of all significant construction projects in the city’s historic district.
The archaeology was done in late 2017 and early 2018. “We confirmed the absence of any Native American archaeology and we confirmed the absence of any significant Spanish colonial archaeology,” said Eric Blinman, director of the state’s Office of Archaeological Studies (OAS).
Blinman, Wening, and Susan Moga (also with OAS) found a cache of hundreds of pounds of melted red brick in an old well. They believe it was the result of a disastrous experiment by Shonnard. The sculptor is known for her works in Keenstone, which was a material of her own manufacture. The archaeologists think that on this occasion, she was trying a new recipe and overloaded her backyard kiln with coal, Portland cement, and other ingredients, and that it got out of control, melting the brick kiln. Apparently, the slag was broken up with a sledgehammer and the pieces were thrown in the well, which probably dates to Territorial New Mexico, they said.
This parcel of land was originally owned by a Santa Fe merchant named José Abrán Ortiz. He sold it to Rosa Gallegos de Romero and her husband, Bruno, on May 12, 1874, for $50. According to Wening’s history — much of which was based on a 1973 history researched and written by sculptor and architect Donna Quasthoff — the Romeros may have built the property’s first structure, a three-room adobe home.
The path of Shonnard to this property from her home in Yonkers, New York, began in 1911, when she and her mother, Eugenie Smythe Shonnard, moved to Paris. There she studied with sculptors Auguste Rodin and Émile-Antoine Bourdelle. In a 1969 interview with The New Mexican, Shonnard recalled Rodin’s advice: “You look at the face — what your mind sees, the hand will follow.”
With the outbreak of World War I, the Shonnards returned to New York, and then in 1925, they came to Santa Fe. Eugenie Smythe Shonnard paid $7,500 for the property in March 1927. Soon after, her daughter, who had been working in a studio in the Museum of Fine Arts, began remodeling the old Romero home for the workspace that she would use for the next half-century. It was there that she created hundreds of works in granite, marble, clay, Keenstone, bronze, and wood. Shonnard also built furniture, wove tapestries, and carved santos.
Shonnard’s historic house and studio became the property of the Museum of New Mexico Foundation upon Shonnard’s death and was long the home of Cutler’s real estate office. “We took possession in 1978 and we had a staff member live in the building to protect it, then we leased it to Margo Cutler for 30 years,” said Jamie Clements, president and CEO of the Museum of New Mexico Foundation.
The foundation is currently at work on a garden in the large area east of the main house. That plan left a triangular space at the southwest corner of the campus for the new administration building. So Spears designed a triangular building that curiously does not feel like an unusual shape when you’re inside.
It’s a practical but no-frills structure: wood-frame walls, concrete floors, operable windows, and no ceiling beams or vigas. “There are fairly high parapets to hide the solar array, but it also gives it a little more presence,” Spears said. “I wanted it to feel like a vernacular building. A lot of the great stuff in Santa Fe is just simple vernacular. So this is partly Pueblo Revival, with corbels and stuccoed parapets, and partly Territorial with the white, framed windows and square columns. It’s modest but it has a nice scale to it.”
Look at the right hallway wall when you enter the front door and you see a very cool feature. “Robin and Meade Martin gave a deteriorated fountain from their property in Nambé to the foundation when they realized the foundation was occupying this site,” Spears said, referring to a fountain created by Shonnard. Six of the eight Keenstone tiles the sculptor designed as the basin of the octagonal fountain were in fairly good shape and those now hang on the wall of the Catron building.
The building was financed by adding $1 million to the Museum of New Mexico Foundation capital campaign for the New Mexico Museum of Art’s proposed Vladem contemporary art annex on Montezuma Street.
The three buildings on the Shonnard property house the entire foundation staff, which was formerly splintered into two Santa Fe buildings a mile apart. “This has brought our staff together in one place,” Clements said. “Now we have those conversations around the water cooler that we never had before. That may lead to some new things.” ◀