Three Wise Women: The life and legacy of Eva and the Leonoras
Three remarkable women, representing three generations, built and lived in one of Santa Fe’s beloved houses, at 614 Acequia Madre. Eva Scott Fényes and her daughter and granddaughter tallied remarkable achievements in the arts, science, business, and cultural preservation. Their lives are honored with the founding of the Women’s International Study Center.
“I looked at this house, which is wonderful in itself and has retained so much of its original character, but the women were even more wonderful, leaders and role models in their time,” said J. Revell Carr. “So it seemed to me that the best thing to do would be honor those women by carrying for-ward their work.” With support from the Paloheimo Foundation, Acequia Madre House was established as a nonprofit organization, with Bunny Huffman as executive director. Carr was hired to develop a strategic plan for the house and archive. Last July, the Santa Fe Board of Adjustment designated the house and outbuildings on three acres a museum.
“The house simply could not stand up to a steady flow of visitors, so in considering what to do with the house it was never an option to have it open as a historic house,” said Carr, former director and CEO of Mystic Seaport and a longtime trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A limited-use museum is certainly preferable to 24 new condominiums, which would be allowed under the property’s zoning.
The adobe Acequia Madre House was built 87 years ago by Fényes (1849-1930) and her daughter and granddaughter, Leonora Scott Muse Curtin (1879-1972) and Leonora Francis Curtin Paloheimo (1903-1999). It is filled with antique furniture and artworks from the Southwest and Finland, as well as Depression-era tinwork, textiles, and furniture made for the Native Market cooperative subsidized by Leonora Paloheimo.
When Paloheimo died, family friend Paul Halme, a director of the Paloheimo Foundation, led the effort to determine the best use of the property. He helped secure a 100-year lease from the property’s owner, El Rancho de las Golondrinas, and hired Huffman to inventory and study the papers and photographs in the family archives.
Under the museum plan, an academic advisory committee nominates fellows in residence who will stay on the property, receive small stipends, and conduct research. Others may apply for scholar-inresidence status. Each fellow and scholar will present a public program in Santa Fe during the time of residence. Acequia Madre House has also established a program of awards — the first Founders’ Award goes to author, journalist, and biographer Gail Sheehy.
Fényes was the daughter of a New York publisher. Her first husband, U.S. Marine Corps general W.S. Muse, was the father of Leonora. Her second husband was Hungarian nobleman and physician Adalbert Fényes. Their first home in Pasadena, California, is now the Pasadena Museum of History. She first visited NewMexico in the 1880s and was an enthusiast and supporter of Spanish colonial and Native American art and history. Fényes was an accomplished artist, leaving behind thousands of watercolor sketches.
“The great majority of her subjects are adobe structures in the Southwest,” Carr said, adding that the journalist, historian and poet Charles Lummis was one who encouraged her artistic inclination. “These are mostly water-colors, although she was accomplished in oils. Sanford Gifford, a most famous American painter at that time, taught her while they were on a cruise on the Nile in 1869.
“If you look at photographs of Eva, she appears to be a grand dame, but she went by stagecoach and mule wagon and muleback to get to some of these places. She was not a frail grand dame.”
Her daughter married Santa Fe lawyer Thomas E. Curtin. After his death, she and her 8-year-old daughter — also named Leonora — went to Pasadena, and accompanied Eva on her world travels. The youngest of the three gener-ations wed Finnish consul Y.A. Paloheimo.
In Santa Fe, the two Leonoras were founding members of the Spanish Colonial Arts Society and purchased the La Cienega property that became the living-history museum El Rancho de las Golondrinas. Leonora Curtin was an aficionado of Native and Spanish medicinal herbs and wrote two books on the subject. Leonora Paloheimo researched Native American languages for the Smithsonian Institution and during the 1930s started the Native Market to provide an outlet for the works of Hispanic craftsmen.
Their Santa Fe house was basically designed and built by Eva and the Leonoras, as the WISC organizers refer to them. “Eva was really the guiding hand, and she was also more experienced because she had been building homes her entire life,” Huffman said. “Most of their money came from real estate, not from publishing.”
WISC academic advisory board member Virginia Scharff said the women “pretty much fired every important architect” on their house project. “They were so confident in what they wanted and where they wanted to go, and they weren’t afraid to take risks. They relied on each other a lot, and you can see their personalities in there.”
Scharff is a University of New Mexico history professor, director of the Center for the Southwest at UNM, and chair of the Women in the West program at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles. She first saw the Acequia Madre House about seven years ago. “The Paloheimo Foundation was involved in the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, which has since merged with the Autry. They had invited Jackie Autry and others from the Autry out to see the house, and I tagged along. When we walked in, it was like an electric current. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing, this intact environment and record of this 73-year history. All of us were just gaping. I was then co-curating an exhibit called Home Lands: How Women Made the West, and we recognized instantly that we were seeing a wonderful example of that.”
Lummis dubbed the Santa Fe home “the house of the three wise women,” Carr said. Another angle in the story comes from the fact that Consul Paloheimo’s family was identified with Finnish independence and identity. “They were trying to separate their identity from Sweden and Russia,” Huffman explained. “Both Paloheimos grew up in these very rich intellectual communities, but the heart of their interest was folk culture, so this combination was why they fit so well here in Santa Fe.”
The rich archive at Acequia Madre House includes thousands of photographs, some taken in Santa Fe dating to 1889. There is a photographic portrait by Mathew Brady of Fényes, who was a teenager during the Civil War. And there is a photo of Leonora Paloheimo by Ansel Adams. Eva and the Leonoras were devoted letter writers, and the archive holds more than a century’s worth of correspondences.
One of the most interesting items is a book with two albums of self-portraits by artists including Gerald Cassidy. Fényes collected self-portraits, beginning with one by her first art teacher. “These were done fairly quickly, for the most part, and some of them, including Andrew Dasburg’s, reflect a playful attitude,” Huffman said.
In the archives is an Ediphone — an antique recording machine — and wax cylinders that may hold the long-ago voices of Navajo and other indigenous peoples. Huffman said Leonora Paloheimo researched Native American languages, working with John P. Harrington of the Smithsonian Institution. “A representative from the Library of Congress will be here in July regarding the preservation of those cylinders.”
Curtin was a student of Native American and Spanish-American herbology and wrote the books Healing Herbs of the Upper Rio Grande and By theProphet of the Earth amazing ethnobotanist, andthis was not a period in which yousee a lot of women in science,”Virginia Scharff said. “Her motherwas an accomplished painter whowent to Santa Fe with a little kidto get herself a divorce. These are amazingly adventurous and well-traveled women. One of the things I love most about their legacy in that house is that it represents a really different model of a dynasty: it’s a dynasty of three generations of women, and the men come and go.”
Carr emphasized that WISC is an institute focusing on women in the arts, cultural preservation, science, and business, but a man writing a book about a woman in one of those fields could qualify as a WISC fellow or scholar. He said the center has a founding donor in novelist and playwright Sallie Bingham. “She is really funding the first year of operation, and we’re raising money for the years beyond that.”
Paul Weideman | Posted: Friday, June 21, 2013 5:00 am