Future of Historic Soleri Amphitheater Locked in Limbo

By VIVIAN CARROLL

Fifty years ago, IAIA commissioned noted Italian architect Paolo Soleri to design a theatre for their shining performing arts program.   The 650-seat amphitheater opened in 1970 on the Cerrillos Road campus where IAIA was then housed.   The theatre closed down after a final July 2010 concert, and was marked for demolition by the All Indian Pueblo Council.  

Ryan Flahive, IAIA archivist, wants to see the Amphitheater become protected as a historic building because it was “built and designed for our program.”   It’s a beautiful theatre, he said, with wide staircases for teams of horses and trap doors.

PAOLO SOLERI AMPHITHEATER Santa Fe, NM. (Photo by Raffaele Elba, courtesy of the Cosanti Foundation)
PAOLO SOLERI AMPHITHEATER Santa Fe, NM. (Photo by Raffaele Elba)

The theatre, however, is on Santa Fe Indian School property.   The Bureau of Indian Affairs turned over the SFIS campus to the 19 Pueblos of New Mexico in 2000.   According to statements by the AIPC, they have sovereignty over the SFIS campus because it is trust land; therefore, they are not bound by state or local preservation laws.

Path of Destruction

In June 2010, former SFIS superintendent Everett Chavez announced on the   “Morning Show” 94 FM, that the Amphitheater would be destroyed that August.   A Facebook protest to Save the Soleri resulted in 6,000 petition signatures from community members and SFIS alumni, demanding the theatre be preserved.     The theatre is still standing but is deteriorating.

Before he died in 2013, Paolo Soleri told the Santa Fe New Mexican, “I would do anything to support preservation of the theater.”   Soleri’s design, inspired by the desert landscape, featured a “concrete bowl with wings” above the stage area.   IAIA’s student performers used the bowl as an upper-level playing space.

PAOLO SOLERI AMPHITHEATER Santa Fe, NM. The "Paolo Soleri open-air Theater of the Indian Arts", in Santa Fe, New Mexico, was commissioned in 1964 by Lloyd Kiva New, president of the Institute of American Arts. The theater was constructed using earth-casting technique. (Photo by Raffaele Elba, reprinted courtesy of Cosanti Foundation)
PAOLO SOLERI AMPHITHEATER Santa Fe, NM. The “Paolo Soleri open-air Theater of the Indian Arts”, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, was commissioned in 1964 by Lloyd Kiva New, president of the Institute of American Arts. The theater was constructed using earth-casting technique.
(Photo by Raffaele Elba)

In 2008, the AIPC succeeded in demolishing 15 buildings on the old campus over one weekend.   The old dining hall and the former social sciences classroom contained murals, many painted in the 1930’s as part of the Work Progress Administration.   Studio School founder Dorothy Dunn directed the mural painting.

Joe Garcia, then chairman of the All Indian Pueblo Council, said the buildings were demolished because “they might contain asbestos.”

IAIA Foundation Board of Directors member and former IAIA employee, Robert Harcourt, wrote at the time in the Santa Fe New Mexican that he spent 15 years working in the razed SFIS buildings.

He described the old buildings as “magnificently well-built and well-maintained structures.”   Inside, he said were beautiful interior woodworking and the WPA murals.

Soleri’s High Cost

The new SFIS campus, equipped with the latest technology to prepare students for college, sits behind the empty land where the former United States Indian School began in 1890.   It is there among the new buildings that the historical Soleri Amphitheatre languishes.

In a December 2010 interview with Alibi, Edward Calabaza, spokesperson for SFIS, said the deteriorating theatre was “soaking up resources that could go to the students.”   It would cost $4 million to refurbish and put a roof over the Soleri, he said.   In addition, $900,000 would be needed for labor and yearly maintenance.

Calabaza said representatives from the offices of Senators Tom Udall and Jeff Bingaman had met with SFIS and offered to find federal resources.

The Amphitheater was only used twice a year for graduations, Calabaza said.   According to Flahive, after IAIA moved to the College of Santa Fe in 1980, students returned to the Soleri for their graduation ceremonies until 2004.

Yesterday and Today

The Soleri stage hosted the Native Roots & Rhythm concerts until the festival moved to the Buffalo Thunder Resort & Casino.   Poet N. Scott Momaday and Elizabeth Taylor were featured in a D.H. Lawrence Festival in 1980.   Memorial services for former Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, were held there in 2010.

Lyle Lovett played the last concert on July 29, 2010.     The theatre was then roped off and marked for destruction, Flahive said.   “No one has access to it.”

Fifty years have passed since IAIA first commissioned the historic but now largely forgotten Paolo Soleri Amphitheater.   The future will soon see a new theatre being constructed on IAIA’s campus.

Gary Lujan, Director of Trust Land for SFIS, and Chandler Sanchez, chairman of AIPC, were both asked to comment on the Soleri Amphitheater’ status.   They had not responded by press time.

(Featured Photo: IAIA Archivist Ryan Flahive with photo of Soleri Amphitheater.  Photo by Vivian Carroll.)

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