What do Judge Roy Bean, William Randolph Hearst and good friend Chris have in common?
Here’s a clue:
Bean, you might recall, was the famed justice of the peace in Val Verde County, Texas who liked to call himself “The Law West of the Pecos.” Of lesser repute is the fact that years earlier he owned a saloon on Main Street in Pinos Altos in what is now Grant County, New Mexico.
Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst’s ancestors had mining interests in the early 19th century throughout the West, including California, Nevada, Utah, South Dakota, Montana – and the Pacific mine in Pinos Altos, New Mexico.
Good friend Chris – the first woman partner at Arthur Anderson Arizona – sold her data-processing firm years ago and has enjoyed refurbishing and traveling in single-axle vintage Airstreams since retiring at age 50. A graduate of Arizona State University, her heart has never left her native Silver City, New Mexico – just eight miles south of Pinos Altos.
But it’s not just New Mexico that ties these three together.
It’s the historic Grant County Courthouse.
Chris bought it last year.
Folks were sure she’d lost her mind. Maybe retirement had turned her brain to mush.
But she has a vision for turning the long-abandoned structure into a home for her and her husband, Tom, still working in Phoenix as a home builder, to retire to in a few years.
Among the previous owners of the Grant County Courthouse, according to Chris’ research? Judge Roy Bean and William Randolph Hearst’s grandmother.
Here’s what inside of the courthouse looked like when she bought it.
Here’s what the exterior looks like today.
You have to use your imagination to see what it will look like when Chris is done. She’s in the midst of a major re-do of the historic adobe structure. It has great bones.
It took nearly four months just to remove all the trash and bats from inside the crumbling building, which is, after all, a century-and-a-half old and has sat vacant for eons. Where others see faltering foundations and sagging porticals, Chris sees grand rooms and classic consonance.
The preservation and reconstruction has begun.
To see all this, Georges and I detoured inland a bit from our Year on the Edges of America route earlier this week. It was great fun to see the building as it is and try to envision – through Chris’ eyes – what it could become.
We expected to spend several nights in our Casita near the property on Main Street in Pinos Altos, just a half-dozen miles from where Chris was born. But plummeting temperatures forced us south just 24 hours after our arrival.
Still, it was a great 24 hours.
Here’s Georges consulting with Chris’ contractor, Larry, who, to hear Chris tell it, is to historic adobe buildings what Giotto was to Italian frescos.
This is the main room of the courthouse. The center wall dividing this space into two rooms was crumbling and nearly destroyed. Larry and his team preserved what was left of the wall; this will be the main living area of the warm and cozy home.
This is what will be the bedroom. The boarded-up door leads into a large master bathroom that Chris is adding onto one end of the rectangular 1,200-square-foot courthouse.
Below is a photo looking up at the ceiling of the master. The contractors took some of the original wood from the exterior of the house and moved it inside to vertically line the high ceiling. Those spruce beams are original.
Below is my favorite door. It leads from outside into the main kitchen area at the other end of the courthouse. (Chris is adding a dining room here.) Note how the original builders in the early 19th century stuffed the upper-left corner to even out and reinforce the construction.
The windows are new, but the lintels are original.
Here’s the ceiling in the kitchen.
This is a fireplace mantel Chris had specially carved for the living room.
This is the copper tub that Chris purchased online to install in the master bath. If you look carefully behind it, you can see the vintage copper stove that will go in the kitchen.
The courthouse comes with its own hanging tree. Apparently, it took only three people to say bad things about you back in the day to get you hanged.
Restoring and refurbishing this courthouse has become Chris’ obsession. And she does nothing in a small way.
Once, years ago, when a bunch of us vacationed in Cholla Bay in Sonora, Mexico, Chris hired a masseuse to come to the compound rather than have each of us troop into town for desired massages. She drives a huge two-ton truck. When we meet at campsites, Chris arrives with wooden rocking chairs, a portable washing machine, rugs, blankets, hanging plants and footlocker-size ice chests packed with food and drink.
Oh yeah, and four dogs – one of them a taller-than-I-am-on-his-hind-legs Irish wolfhound. (This shot is from about five years ago, when Alvin was only a few months old.)
Chris is uncanny. Her kids know it. Now grown and on their own, they still visit Chris and Tom in Phoenix regularly. Here’s a plaque they gave her as a gift a few years ago.
Chris’ roots run deep in New Mexico. Her great-grandfather was the Pinos Altos postmaster a century ago and owned the general store there.
Neighboring Silver City is more recently famous for its role in solving a decades-old, international art heist mystery. The owners of Manzanita Ridge Furniture and Antique – friends Chris has known for years – stumbled a few years ago upon a de Kooning painting valued at $100 million. The painting, which had been stolen in broad daylight in 1985 from the University of Arizona in Tucson, was part of an estate they’d purchased….
It’s a great story, worthy of a whodunit best-seller and spinoff movie thriller. You can read about the original heist here.
You can read the “rest of the story” here; the role of the Manzanita Ridge owners becomes clear in the latter half.
We stopped with Chris at Manzanita Ridge before heading south to warmer climes and met all three owner-principals in the discovery – Dave, Buck and Rick.
They’re a smart, personable, engaging – and scrupulously honest – trio. I snapped a shot of Dave describing their latest communication with the FBI and speculation about the plans to make the whole escapade into a movie.
Silver City and Pinos Altos are just a few miles from the Gila Wilderness, which in 1924 became the world’s first designated wilderness. It is the largest designated wilderness area in New Mexico.
Summers here are exquisite. At 7,000-feet elevation and with some 300 days of sunshine each year, dry summer days rarely top 90 degrees. The forest is green, the flowers bright.
Chris (pictured below with husband Tom three years ago on our camping trip together to Colorado) expects the courthouse-to-house conversion to be complete this summer. That seems optimistic to me.
But I’ve learned never to bet against Chris when her mind is made up. And so has everybody else I know.