Land of Enchantment: Funky and historic Santa Fe

The Miraculous Staircase inside the Loretto Chapel is a mystery to this day, from the materials used, the unique construction and the carpenter himself. Photo by Vickie Brantley.

The Miraculous Staircase inside the Loretto Chapel is a mystery to this day, from the materials used, the unique construction and the carpenter himself. Photo by Vickie Brantley.

By Mike Brantley, Fort Bliss Garrison Public Affairs:

(El Paso, Texas, Nov. 2, 2017)

About 45 minutes south of Taos, our travels took us to Santa Fe, the capital of New Mexico, and the oldest capital city in the U.S.

From everything I had heard or read about Santa Fe, I knew we were in for a treat: a little history, a little culture and a little weirdness.

And Santa Fe did not disappoint.

Our first stop was the state capitol building, the Roundhouse, which is the only round capitol building in the country. From above, the Roundhouse resembles the Zia sun symbol, which is emblazoned on the New Mexico state flag. The symbol has four sides: the four times of day, the four directions, the four seasons and the four phases of life. The state seal is above each of the four doors into the Roundhouse, and a large Zia sun symbol is on the floor in the center of the Roundhouse.

This greets you before you ever set foot into the wondrous and wacky world of Meow Wolf. Photos by Mike Brantley, Fort Bliss Garrison Public Affairs.

The most interesting aspect of the Roundhouse is the Capitol Art Collection, created in 1991, consisting of almost 600 individual pieces of art. From paintings to carpets, carvings and watercolors, the art makes the beige-colored building spring to life right in front of you.

One of the more interesting parts of the collection is The Buffalo, created in 1992 by Holly Hughes from Kansas City, Mo. Her focus is community-related art projects that touch on recycling and environmental awareness.

The Buffalo is made up of old paint brushes, woven fiber, magnetic tape, film, wire, newspapers, quilting applique, plastic spoons, leather belts, a fishing reel, a lantern and shards of pottery. From afar, it looks like the head of a buffalo, but once you get up close, you begin to see the individual items of what some would call trash come to life before your very eyes.

Arachnophobia anyone? Outside Meow Wolf, an Immersive Art Installation located inside an old bowling alley in Santa Fe.

The collection is valued at more than $5 million.

After soaking in some New Mexico artistry, our next stop was the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, commonly known as Saint Francis Cathedral.

Located not far from the Plaza, the Roman Catholic cathedral was built between 1869 and 1886 on the site of an older adobe church downtown and is the mother church of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.

This cathedral reminded my wife and I of so many we had visited in Europe, specifically in Gouda, Holland; Munich; and Strasbourg, France. We marveled at the beautiful stained glass work of the rose window and the nave windows, imported from France, and were amazed at the colors cast onto the wood floor from the sunshine. It’s a very calm environment to think and contemplate.

A short walk away is the informally deconsecrated Loretto Chapel, built by the same French architect as the Saint Francis Cathedral. Begun in 1873 by the Sisters of Loretto, access to the choir loft was unfinished due to the death of the architect. With its small size, a staircase would have taken up too much floor space in the chapel, reducing the seating capacity.

Underneath the moss-draped tree house inside Meow Wolf, an Immersive Art Installation in Santa Fe.

The story goes that the Sisters prayed for nine days to St. Joseph, the Patron Saint of Carpenters. On the final day of prayers, a carpenter appeared with only a hammer and a carpenter’s square. He built what is now known as the Miraculous Staircase with simple tools and wooden pegs. The rare wood is not native to the American Southwest.

Once the staircase was complete, it is said that the carpenter disappeared without receiving thanks or payment. The Sisters tried to find the carpenter, and tried all local lumber stores but could not find any accounts open for supplies for their stairs.

The wild, weird and wacky world of Meow Wolf, Santa Fe’s newest tourist attraction. Be prepared to have your mind blown.

Some believe the carpenter was St. Joseph, himself while others believe it was someone sent by St. Joseph.

The staircase has two 360-degree turns with no center pole for support and the entire weight of the staircase rests on the bottom stair. It appears to be an engineering marvel for its time and still fascinates visitors to the Chapel today.

Our last stop on our Santa Fe tour took us to a rather new tourist attraction called Meow Wolf.

It’s listed as an Immersive Art Installation and was formed in February 2008. In 2016, Meow Wolf opened their first permanent space, The Meow Wolf Art Complex, in an old bowling alley and it became home to the group’s first permanent installation, The House of Eternal Return.

What can I say about Meow Wolf?

It’s like walking through a multi-colored lava lamp or a snow globe filled with colorful glitter. You can feel the color and the sounds inside.

In the laundry room there is a typical dryer, but open the door and blue and white strobe light effects begin turning as you enter and slide into another room. Yes, I said you enter the dryer. I told you it was unique. The room you slide into is covered in tattered and torn clothing, secured behind clear Plexiglas walls.

In the kitchen you can step inside the refrigerator that leads you into a large, white room.

There are neon-green glowing dinosaur skeletons that are musical and you can play them like a xylophone. There are holograms and notes everywhere if you choose to follow the storyline mystery about a family that has disappeared. Clues sprinkled throughout the home lead you on the mystery if you choose. Rather than follow the storyline we just enjoyed what was around each and every corner instead.

The Buffalo, part of the Roundhouse’s Capitol Art Collection, is made up of recycled materials such as old paint brushes, woven fiber, magnetic tape, film, wire, newspapers, leather belts and pottery shards. The artist’s focus in her artwork is community-related art projects that emphasize recycling and environmental awareness. Photo by Vickie Brantley.

The room with the black and white cartoon-inspired wallpaper was one of my favorites. Much like the buffalo artwork inside the Roundhouse, I could look at the walls in that room for hours and still not see everything.

It’s more fun house than haunted house; more Andy Warhol than Freddie Krueger.

There is a tree house, a 1950s camper, a two-story house that serves as the family’s residence, and what appears to be a street scene from Chinatown.

There are tight spaces to crawl through, ladders that lead you up into other worlds, fuzzy grass made of carpet on the floor, chairs and couches, and mysterious people in white lab coats – scientists – wandering around watching the visitors to this spectacular living art exhibit.

Meow Wolf is funky, freaky and groovy, all rolled into one enormous and weird combination. It’s a definite must-see when in Santa Fe.

It’s what your dreams, or nightmares, may look like in real life.


Editor’s note: This is the second of three New Mexico travel stories.