The art, the women and the ghosts of the Luna Mansion

(Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part series on the historic Luna Mansion in Los Lunas. This week, we explore the changes Josefita Manderfield made to the mansion, as well as the influence of other Luna-Otero women. In the upcoming article next week, we will report on the future of the building now that the restaurant that operated there has closed.)

LOS LUNAS — It is said every good home shows a woman’s touch.

In the case of the Luna Mansion, one woman’s touch brought not only exterior, architectural changes but additions of artwork throughout the building.

After Eduardo M. Otero inherited the mansion, he and his wife, Josefita Salazar de Manderfield, affectionately known as Pepe, introduced architectural elements that would make the Luna Mansion iconic — the large pillars supporting the two-story portico and the sunroom on the east side of the home.

Julia M. Dendinger | News-Bulletin photos
The mural in the sunroom at the Luna Mansion depicts musicians under palm trees. The room was added by Josefita Manderfield-Otero and her husband Eduardo Otero. Josefita painted the mural.

Cynthia Shetter, the Los Lunas Public Library director and local historian, said Josefita, as the daughter of William R. Manderfield, publisher of the Santa Fe New Mexican, had a certain touch of class to her.

“All of them had a touch of class,” Shetter said. “When you read about Eloisa’s wedding, they brought in orange blossoms and it was a very lavish affair.” Eloisa Luna was Eduardo’s mother, the daughter of Antonio Jose Luna and Isabella Luna.

“I think all of them had it but (Josefita) did put her touch on the mansion, you know.”

A walk through the mansion reveals many of Josefita’s touches, usually made by her own hand. An artist in her own right, Pepe created several of the large oil paintings that grace one of the main downstairs rooms — the grand salon.

One depicts her as a shepherdess with her flock near a stream, campfire smoke in the distance.

An oil painting by Josefita Manderfield-Otero depicts her as a shepherdess. The painting, along with many others by her, hang in the Luna Mansion in Los Lunas.

Raising and selling sheep was a mainstay for the family, but most likely not something Josefita would not have participated in regularly.

“She painted herself into the picture, but that’s the last thing she’d ever be doing,” said author, historian and retired history professor Richard Melzer with a laugh.

What Josefita would most likely have been doing is painting in the sunroom. In addition to the paintings in the front of the house, she created murals of musicians and palm trees on the walls of the light and bright sunroom.

“It’s always nice to come into this room and it’s just these old, antique windows and it’s bright and airy,” said Johnna Torres, one of the owners of the mansion. “I always envision her with her easels back here, painting with lots of plants and birds.”

Courtesy of the Los Lunas Museum of Heritage and Arts
In this undated picture, Josefita Manderfield-Otero holds her on-month-old son, Theodore Roosevelt Armijo Manderfield-Otero.

The room would have been a natural place to nurture hard-to-grow plants and flowers, and the birds, parrots actually, would perch on the frame above the multi-paned transom above the door and pick at the woodwork. The damage was preserved when the Torreses renovated the home in 2009.

There are different stories about just whose parrots they were — some say they belonged to Josefita, while others say they were brought by the president of Mexico when he’d visit.

Josefita also painted flowers on at least one of the single-pane transoms above the many doors in the home. When former owner Earl Whittemore bought the building in the late 1970s, he asked artists with the Belen Art League to paint the remaining pieces of glass, to create a cohesive, floral theme throughout.

“We are so blessed we still have so many of these treasurers,” Torres said.

A painting at the Luna Mansion depicts the late Josefita Manderfield-Otero with the angels of the two children she lost to miscarriages.

One of the large oil paintings in the grand salon is said to have very personal significance to Josefita, Shetter said.

Dressed in a diaphanous gown and holding flowers, Josefita is depicted with two angels, whispering in her ears. According to Shetter, the angels represent the two children she miscarried.

Josefita made bold changes to the mansion itself and expressed herself through art and decor. It could be argued she was free to undertake such projects because of the Luna and Otero women who came before her.

She married into a family of power politicians and community movers and shakers at a time when women were expected to remain quietly in the background. The Luna-Otero women didn’t really do that.

Dolores “Lola” Chavez was the second wife of Tranquilino Luna, the second eldest son of Don Antoinio and the first Luna to occupy the mansion. Lola made history as the first person to file a sexual discrimination lawsuit against the state of New Mexico.

At the dawn of statehood, in 1912, she was serving as state librarian when Gov. William C. McDonald tried to have her replaced by court order, claiming women were unqualified to hold office under the Constitution and laws of New Mexico.

The court ultimately sided with her, using rather unflattering language in it’s decision. It found that Lola, being a woman, did not impact her job performance as state librarian since the office did not require the holder to exercise “neither judgement no discretion.”

Ironically, McDonald wanted to replace Lola with another woman.

The decision led to House Bill 150 in 1913, which allowed women in New Mexico to hold appointed office.

Courtesy of the Los Lunas Museum of Heritage and Arts
Josefita Manderfield-Otero holds a lamb in this undated photo. The Luna-Otero family made their fortune by raising and selling sheep.

Tranquilino’s granddaughter, Adelina “Nina” Otero Warren, made her mark on history as well. A noted suffragist, author and business woman, she caught the attention of suffrage leader Alice Paul, who recruited her to the cause in 1917.

Warren headed the New Mexico chapter of Congressional Union and insisted suffrage literature be published in both English and Spanish in order to reach the widest possible audience.

“She was very (invested in) education, not only education of Hispanics but also indigenous populations as well,” Shetter said.

In New Mexico, the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote was ratified by the Legislature and the fourth governor of New Mexico, Octaviano Larrazolo, on Feb. 21, 1920.

Nina and Lola’s portraits are among the plethora of photos in the mansion, most of which are displayed upstairs in the Spirit Lounge, a double play on words for the bar which is adjacent to Pepe’s favorite rocking chair.

While it wasn’t in the house while she was alive, the rocking chair at the Luna Mansion is said to be favored by the ghost of Josefita Manderfield-Otero.

As visitors reach the top of the elegant curved stairs, the rocker sits on the landing, two portraits of Josefita hanging above. The story goes that Josefita loved the chair so, she continued to use it after her death in 1951.

Not to spoil one of everyone’s favorite ghost stories, but Melzer points out the chair wasn’t ever used by the creative woman.

“It came out of the old Alvarado Motel, just like the bar downstairs,” he says. “She didn’t use it, but people say her spirit became attached to it.”

For decades, guests at the mansion have reported seeing the ghost of Josefita, and the empty rocking chair is said to have been seen swaying gently back and forth, leading some to conclude that she was still keeping an eye on the activities in her house.

Other spirit encounters have been had by Shetter, who says she has sensed a man downstairs who is hungry.

Whittemore, who died in a car crash last year, told the News-Bulletin in previous interviews about his daughter having various experiences at the mansion when she was a bartender there.

He also recounted a time when a woman stopped by the property shortly after he bought it. She wanted to go in and communicate with the spirits, Whittemore said.

When she came out, she told him she’d spoken with the spirits in the house and they said the project he was undertaking would be successful and they approved.

Johnna and Hortencia Torres, two members of the Torres family that currently owns the Luna Mansion, sit in the mansion’s sunroom talking about the artwork in the home.

The project Whittemore was working on was restoring the mansion and opening a fine dining restaurant. He was indeed successful, creating a dining experience like no other in central New Mexico for decades.

After more than 30 years, in 2009, he decided it was time to go on to other projects, so he put the property up for sale. In less than a month, the Torres family — Pete and Hortencia, and their children, Johnnah Torres, Joell Himeur and Peter Torres — bought the home and continued operating the restaurant.

With the recent closure of the restaurant, the Torres family now contemplates the future of the building and the history it contains.

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.