To some family-run businesses, two murals by local Albuquerque artists are indicative of new creative energy in Old Town. To city officials, they’re out of character for the historic district and must go.
ALBUQUERQUE, NM—During a recent visit to Albuquerque’s Old Town, artist Reyes Padilla, who painted a contemporary mural in Plaza Don Luis in September 2021, crossed paths with two pedestrians walking along Rio Grande Boulevard, which flanks the plaza located off Romero Street NW. Over the past year, the plaza, located on the west end of Old Town, has experienced a modernization with the opening of two wineries, restaurants, and contemporary art spaces and shops.
“They stopped and said, ‘Aren’t there murals in there?’ Let’s go check them out.’ It’s awesome that people are hearing about the energy that’s taking place in Old Town,” says Padilla.
The encounter happened a day prior to a hearing before the City of Albuquerque Landmarks Commission, which placed Padilla’s artwork, as well as a mural by Albuquerque artist Jodie Herrera, under “critical review.” During the January 12, 2022 meeting, the Landmarks Commission, which oversees design standards and guidelines for Albuquerque’s historic districts and landmarks, denied the murals, which means they need to be removed or painted over.
The owners of Plaza Don Luis and allies are appealing the decision, arguing that the Landmarks Commission, which is in the process of revising Old Town’s design standards, is retroactively attempting to enforce rules that weren’t in place when the murals were painted. At press time, a change.org petition had garnered more than 1,100 signatures; the Landmarks Commission plans to vote on its amended guidelines, which were last updated in May 2018, during a public meeting next week on February 9. Meanwhile, the Albuquerque City Council may ultimately decide whether the murals can stay or go.
“The murals are painted on non-historic structures, and were carefully considered to fit the historic aesthetic while effectively elevating contemporary small business,” says Laura Houghton, co-owner of Lapis Room, a contemporary art gallery and gift shop that helped commission the art pieces with the community of Plaza Don Luis merchants. “The murals are not only profoundly beautiful, but they represent the future of a vibrant creative economy.”
The two-story building, which houses Lapis Room, Luna and Luz, and contains Padilla’s Lyrical Landscape mural, was constructed in 1993, according to a Landmarks Commission document. “It’s in a historic district, but it’s not a historic building,” says Houghton.
That doesn’t matter according to the Landmarks Commission, which contends that Plaza Don Luis owners didn’t submit a certificate of appropriateness. According to a KRQE News 13 report, plaza owners previously consulted with state officials, who said that they didn’t need prior permission because the murals would be painted on private property.
“The Landmarks Commission’s stance is based in the wall mural art form not being consistent with the historic time period of Old Town,” says Leslie Naji, senior planner at the City of Albuquerque’s Landmarks Commission.
Founded in 1706, Albuquerque’s Old Town contains several historic adobe buildings, including the San Felipe de Neri Church that dates to 1793. Today, it’s a tourist destination similar to the Santa Fe (New Mexico) Plaza and Old Town Scottsdale (Arizona) with more traditional galleries, tchotchke shops, and vanity businesses—for instance, The Breaking Bad Store ABQ, inspired by the hit Breaking Bad AMC television series, stocks items such as Walter White tighty-whities underwear and “blue sky methamphetamine” candy.
According to city documents, the Old Town Historic Protection Overlay Zone—which incorporates an area between Mountain Road and Central Avenue on the north and south, and Rio Grande Boulevard and 19th Street on the west and east—was enacted with the adoption of the city’s first zoning code in 1959, and protects Old Town from development or renovations that may be out of character for the area.
The ownership of Plaza Don Luis changed hands a few years ago to a group that includes Jasper Riddle of Noisy Water Winery, according to the Albuquerque Journal. Since then, a number of new tenants, many of which have ties to Ruidoso, New Mexico, have galvanized an area that’s been largely unattractive to locals for years.
Naji of the Landmarks Commission says that the owners of Plaza Don Luis are going through a land use appeal process, which may eventually trickle down to the Albuquerque City Council for a final decision. “The murals can, of course, remain until after the hearing,” says Naji.
The Landmarks Commission also ruled that new railings in front of the Old Town Basket Shop on the east side of Plaza Don Luis must be removed. Houghton says the wood rails were replaced with wrought iron to remain compliant with COVID-19 restrictions and New Mexico alcohol laws.
The design standards and guidelines revisions were first proposed during an October 13, 2021 meeting. The Landmarks Commission was set to vote on the new proposal on January 12, 2022; however, they tabled the vote until this month after the meeting ran long due to community input on Plaza Don Luis.
Santa Fe-raised Padilla, who lives on the edge of Albuquerque’s Old Town, says that the murals are representative of the contemporary moment currently happening in New Mexico, which is often pigeonholed into traditional Southwestern renderings of mountains and desert landscapes.
“It’s hard to not get out of a box in New Mexico,” says Padilla. “We’re finally seeing some opportunities and to see them get shut down or scrutinized is pretty disheartening.”
Update 5/17/2022: On May 11, 2022, the City of Albuquerque Landmarks Commission voted to allow Reyes Padilla’s and Jodie Herrera’s murals to stay at Plaza Don Luis.