This year the New Mexico Architectural Foundation’s annual tour featured the unique history and architecture of the city of Truth or Consequences, approximately two hours south of Albuquerque in the Rio Grande Valley. TorC, as it is known to most New Mexicans, has a long history thanks to the thermal springs that provide beneficial hot mineral water for the areas’ popular bath houses. The town was called Hot Springs until 1950 when the name was changed through participation in a contest sponsored by a popular radio quiz show. As the town of Hot Springs, it developed into a widely recognized health spa destination from what was once a rustic cowboy and pioneer rest stop along the Rio Grande River.
Like most states in America, New Mexico was hit hard by the Great Depression and small towns suffered from dwindling employment and insufficient cash to maintain and build much needed infrastructure. As part of the government’s recovery effort, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) provided employment and direction for thousands of infrastructure programs and provided employment for millions of American workers.
The WPA was enacted as part of the 1935 Federal Emergency Relief Appropriations Act and operated until 1943, well into WW-II. Among other things, the WPA built 40,000 new buildings including thousands of schools and libraries, dormitories, hospitals, firehouses, courthouses, city halls, public recreation sites and miles of roads and bridges. At its peak in 1938 the WPA employed 3.3 million unemployed Americans and served to keep the country working through the Great Depression. The projects completed by the WPA are still providing benefits today 70 years after the program was terminated.
The city of TorC, then known as Hot Springs, was a participant and beneficiary of several WPA public works projects. Many of these WPA buildings are still in use including the Community/Senior Recreation Center, the Sierra County Office Building (former Hot Springs Public School), the Sierra County Courthouse, the US Post Office, and the Carrie Tingley Hospital for Crippled Children (now the NM Veterans’ Center).
While the focus of the foundation’s tour was not specifically directed toward the WPA buildings, a visitor to TorC really can’t fail to notice some of these impressive buildings. Our tour visited the Senior Recreation Center, the Post Office and the New Mexico Veterans’ Center.
Senior Recreation Center (the Lee Bell Center)
Our tour started at the Lee Bell Center, the town’s senior recreation facility. The building was constructed in 1935 and provides recreational and meeting space for the town’s senior citizens. The structure is constructed in a Pueblo Revival style and most of the building is intact with only minor and periodic changes.
At the time of construction the WPA spent a little over $19,000 on the building with some other funds likely contributed by the state or local community. The building was originally constructed as the city hall and library and it served that purpose until the 1950s.
The interior shows classic Pueblo Revival features – vigas and exposed wood ceilings. The exterior is plain, unadorned stucco with canales and exposed viga beam ends.
The large recreation space includes a stage for theater performances and ample space for multiple shuffleboard games.
At one time there was a newer annex constructed at the rear of the building but that has been removed.
US Post Office
The main post office was constructed as a WPA project in 1939 and opened in 1940. The building is in the distinctive WPA Classic style with elements of Art Deco. It is plain concrete with a high degree of symmetry, recessed windows and stepped pilasters flanking the door. There is a horizontal raised band highlighting the upper section of the building. The building was constructed as a concrete poured-in-place structure and was apparently based on a stock WPA design. There are few other similar poured-in-place structures but the classic design is fairly similar to other post office examples built in other western towns at the time. The entry lamp posts are distinctive and appear to be of the same era.
The WPA employed hundreds of talented, but unemployed, writers and artists during the Great Depression. The artists were often engaged in designing art work for some of the public buildings under construction by the WPA. The interior lobby of the post office features a 5 by 12 foot mural by Boris Deutsch entitled “The Indian Bear Dance”. The painting depicts a group of Indians participating in a traditional dance (see detail). Deutsch, born in Russia and briefly trained as a Rabbi, had a brooding modernist style of painting. He completed other WPA mural projects including one at the Terminal Annex Post Office in Los Angeles.
The Veterans’ Center – formerly The Carrie Tingley Hospital for Crippled Children
The current Veterans’ Center was originally constructed by the WPA in 1936-37 as the Carrie Tingley Hospital for Crippled Children. The hospital site covered 150 acres on a hill overlooking the town and cost over $800,000 to build. The project to construct a children’s hospital with access to the warm therapeutic spring water had the specific endorsement of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, himself a polio victim who was familiar with the benefits of thermal spa treatment. Warm water is provided through a hot water well system rather than the springs located down by the river.
The project, originally named for the wife of Governor Clyde Tingley, was constructed with bricks manufactured at the state penitentiary and employed over two hundred WPA workers. The architect, Willard C. Kruger of Santa Fe, had the benefit of consultation with Henry Tombs, the architect at Georgia Rehabilitation Center in Warm Springs, Georgia, where President Roosevelt spent time in polio rehabilitation therapy.
Based on old photos, the hospital buildings have been changed somewhat over time but still retain the original style and design. The main building is built around a large courtyard and is in an embellished New Mexico Territorial Style.
Approaching the building the most notable feature is the large, two-story colonnaded porch running almost the full with of the front façade.
The shaded face of the building façade is fairly unadorned except for the recessed panels between the first and second floor windows. The ceiling of the front porch shows exposed beams and provides a pleasing repetitive pattern that corresponds to the territorial style. The columns supporting the porch roof are square with planed corner edge flutes and a simple carpenter’s top molding instead of a capital.
A distinctive feature is the brickwork cornice that encircles the building at the roof line. Instead of the usual single or double course of brick, the architect embellished the New Mexico Territorial style by adding the multiple courses of brick with a dentil course of headers. The vertical repetition of a single (soldier) brick at about a one-foot interval creates a more frieze-like impression. This is probably the one fancy decoration to the otherwise elegantly simple building design.
The brickwork cornice on the single story portion of the building is somewhat simpler and is more in keeping with a traditional territorial style. The nicely formed copper (?) downspouts that carry water from roof appear to be original or at least of a period style appropriate to the era.
The central courtyard provided light and ventilation to the main hospital building when it was constructed. There are large expanses of multi-paned doors and windows that open into the grassy courtyard.
The courtyard provided a protected area for the young patients to come out and enjoy the bright sunlight. The fountain, known as the Turtle Pond (or Turtle Fountain), is carved from stone and constructed with a tile base.
Each of the four stone turtles is positioned with their heads turned looking left in a counter clockwise direction. There are at least two Box turtles living in the courtyard, left over from the childrens’ hospital days.
There are four chubby, stylized ducks sitting on the second level of the fountain. The central column looks as if it is encased in lily leaves and conceals four reptilian/snake heads peering out over the fountain.
The fountain was created by Eugenie Shonnard, another WPA artist sculptor.
Shonnard studied with Auguste Rodin in Paris and resided in Santa Fe.
Other WPA artwork created for the hospital has been moved to the hospital’s new location in Albuquerque.
The Carrie Tingley Hospital project was the most elaborate WPA project in the area and it served in its original purpose until finally moving to Albuquerque and the UNM Hospital System in the 1980s. The hospital structure was vacant for several years and then reopened as the New Mexico Veterans’ Center.
Note – Most of the information supplied on the WPA projects is taken from personal observation and photos and the Sierra County Tourism council’s publication “WPA Projects Sierra County New Mexico” (2005)
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NOTE -The city and architectural features of Truth or Consequences were featured on one of the New Mexico Architectural Foundation’s annual field trips. For more information on the foundation or this or other annual trips go to the foundation’s web page at: http://newmexicoarchitecturalfoundation.org/