BELEN—With its pueblo-style charm and historic significance to the area, the old Belen City Hall has been formally recognized and placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
City officials, members from the Belen MainStreet Partnership, members of the Belen Historic Properties Review Board, city staff and citizens attended a meeting in February with the State Historic Preservation Office, detailing why the building at 503 Becker Ave. should be placed on the registry.
That same day, the New Mexico Cultural Properties Review Committee announced the building was approved for placement on the state registry. The state recommended placement on the National Register of Historic Places, and last week, the city was informed it was accepted and placed on the federal registry.
To be considered for the designation, the property must meet certain criteria, including the age of the building and it has to still look much like it did in the past. Since the building as been placed on the National Register of Historic Places, the city could now apply for preservation incentives, including grants for planning and rehabilitation.
“Old (Belen) City Hall, with its pueblo-revival architecture, built during the Great Depression, is significant for Belen and New Mexico,” said Belen Mayor Jerah Cordova. “I don’t want us to lose our history, so a designation like this gives old City Hall national recognition and access to grants for its preservation.”
Having the building on the national registry means it’s protected, it can’t be torn down, plus it could be a tourist attraction.
The city’s Belen Historic Properties Review Board also recommended to the city council that the building also be placed on the city’s own list of historic landmarks. With a unanimous vote, the council approved the recommendation earlier this year.
“We want to maintain and preserve the integrity and the character of Belen,” said Joan Artiaga, chairwoman of the Belen Historic Properties Review Board. “We’re so distinct and so special. You drive down our different streets and neighborhoods and we’re so different.”
Artiaga remembers going into the old City Hall the first time with her grandfather when she was a teenager.
“My grandfather took us to city hall and we sat in the police chief’s office,” she remembers. “There were a lot of WPA buildings in Chicago, where I came from, and I thought it was so wonderful. They were built so solidly, so austere. It felt like a real city hall in the Wild Wild West.”
In the following years, Artiaga trained city employees with purchasing policy procedures at the old City Hall, as well as attended lots of meetings when she was the county clerk.
“It reminded me of an old library, stepping on the old, hardwood floors,” she said. “It’s cool, and it’s quite and it’s strong. I always feel so safe there, surrounded and protected.”
Jim Sloan, a local historian and another member of the Belen Historic Properties Review Board, also remembers when the old City Hall was in full swing.
“I never had to go to jail there,” Sloan laughed. “I’d go in the old City Hall and I thought it was dark and dank. The vigas in the ceilings were painted a dark brown and it was also so dark in there.
“The floors squeaked, which was cool, but I didn’t think much about it — until I started researching history in the past 20 years that I came to appreciate it,” he said. “It’s really the center part of Belen. It’s really the heart of Belen. That’s the second village hall. The first one was torn down.”
Kathy Pickering, the city’s library and museum director and a member of the Belen Historic Properties Review Board, said now that the building is on the national register, there are two requirements the city must abide by — they can’t change the boundaries of the property and they can’t move the physical building itself.
“Beyond that, the restrictions are not that great,” Pickering said. “If you get federal funding to improve the structure in anyway, then you have to comply with … guidelines, such as redoing the roof or brickwork.”
From doing the legal research, Pickering said she needs and is in search of additional clarification on restrictions of what they can and cannot do to the building.
“It’s the heart of what becomes the economy of Belen,” Pickering said of the historic building. “This building is one of the city’s greatest assets — its history and its culture.
“Also by maintaining and using that fundemental asset, we can help grow the city’s economy,” she added. “The people are connected to its history and it becomes unique to the character of Belen rather than just the same as every other town in New Mexico.”
Old Belen City Hall was built in 1937 by the Works Progress Administration at the time when the Great Depression was finally coming to an end. It was constructed using local labor and adobe made from soil here in the Hub City.
The building was the center of activity for many years. When the doors first opened, the village of Belen administrative offices moved from the first village hall, located about a block west, into the new building.
The fourth mayor of Belen, Malvern Tate, was the first mayor to use the new facility. The police and fire departments and municipal court were also housed in the building.
The old Belen City Hall was in use until the city’s administrative offices moved into the newer and larger First National Bank of Belen building, located at the corner of Main Street and Becker Avenue, in 1995. The Belen Police Department was the last city department to use the facility and moved out in 1997.
The old City Hall building was one of several buildings built by the WPA in Belen. The junior high school building and the welfare building, which have been gone for several years, were also built by the WPA during this time.
The historic building has remained basically the same since it was built more than 80 years ago. There was an addition added onto the rear section and a pitched composition roof was added over the original flat pueblo-style roof.
One of the unique features includes its ceiling with its exposed vigas. Another feature is the holding cells that were used to hold prisoners until they saw a judge.
The old building has been a historic landmark on Becker Avenue for more than 10 decades, and it was also used as the sheriff’s office of Sommerton Junction Arizona in the 2013 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, “The Last Stand.”
As for the future of the old Belen City Hall, the mayor said the city is continuing working with the Belen MainStreet Partnership to preserve the building, and will now work with The Hub Community Theatre to create space for art and theater in the building.
The early cost estimate to get the building renovated and functional for such an endeavor, according to the mayor, is about $250,000. The complete project could cost the city about $1.2 million.
There is only one other Belen city-owned building — the Belen Harvey House Museum — on the National Register of Historic Places. Other properties in Belen on the list are the Belen Hotel, owned by Judy Chicago and Donald Woodman; and the Felipe “El Millionaro” Chavez Hacienda.
Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.