New Visitor Center and Museum at Chaco Culture National Historical Park Come With Challenges

Time, and insufficient maintenance, doomed the visitor center at Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Today a yurt serves as a temporary visitor center while a new facility is being constructed. Top photo copyright Jane Schneider, bottom photo NPS.

Still standing centuries after they were built, the ruins at Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northern New Mexico have weathered centuries of storms, winds, and tortuous sun.

More recent structures have struggled to stand such a test of time. Indeed, the park's visitor center, built in 1957, is in the process of being razed to make way for a new facility after engineers determined there was so much to repair that it'd be wiser to start anew.

True, the ruins at Chaco are in varying states of decay. But after more than 1,000 years that's to be expected. Still, in building their great houses these ancestral Puebloans left behind exquisite masonry, intricate petroglyphs, and rich ethnographic remains still studied by archaeologists eager to gain insight about their mysterious culture.

Although surrounded by that richness, the visitor center's significant structural problems have made working here a challenge for National Park Service employees who call Chaco home. When Superintendent Barbara West arrived in 2005, she soon learned how the elements, and less than routine maintenance, had taken their toll on the center that was built in 1957. Heavy downpours brought water into the building and erosion beneath the foundation left walls cracked, and doors uneven.

“Small parks have expertise deficiencies,” Superintendent West acknowledges. “There's no engineer on staff, so when we have problems, we have to go to the regional office in Santa Fe. For a long time, there wasn't an understanding of the building and the issues it had. Plus, we're so far from professional services that a call to an electrician is a major thing. So you learn in small parks to get by and after awhile, all that starts to cascade.”

The issues surrounding the visitor center finally came to a head last year, when the decision was made to close it for major renovations. This spring, a yurt was erected a short distance away in the parking lot and tasked with provided a jumping off point for the 45,000 to 50,000 visitors who explore Chaco Canyon each year.

Before the dire condition of the visitor center was fully known, work had begun in April on renovations. That quickly came to a halt one month later as the original plans, which called for repairing the center's leaky roof, windows, doors, HVAC, lighting, and flooring, were deemed futile.

“We found more wrong than we knew. Places where there was no footings under walls or walls were compromised with venting put through,” says Superintendent West. “We thought the museum area could remain, but when they started working, they realized there were voids under it as well, so the question became, 'What makes more sense, to rehabilitate the building or reconstruct it?'”

Because of the building's serious structural issues, it should have been an easy call. But its architectural significance complicated matters. The design was a prototype for Mission 66, a federally-sponsored program that, in response to an American public increasingly keen on heading out on the road for vacations, sought to prepare the National Park System for greater visitation and the accompanying demands. Part of that ambitious 10-year-program gave rise to modern visitor centers during the 1950s and 1960s, including the one at Chaco.

Despite that history, New Mexico's state historic preservation officer (interim), Jan Biella, whose department participated in design meetings, agreed with the consensus to build a new visitor center.

“The existing building had been modified so significantly it was no longer considered a historical resource,” recalls Ms. Biella.

As a result, the plan moved from renovation to rebuilding.

Finding funds

But small units of the National Park System such as Chaco don't have the funding largess enjoyed by larger, more visited sites such as Mesa Verde National Park, just three hours north of here. Because of its stature and visitor numbers (roughly 550,000 visitors annually), Mesa Verde qualified for federal stimulus money to fund a $22 million visitor center, which breaks ground later this month. Replacing Chaco's center was considered a “lower priority” for NPS officials, despite the building's disrepair.

But to help fund projects that go beyond a park's annual maintenance and upkeep budget, the NPS holds aside 20 percent of entrance fees accrued from the larger parks. Park administrators can then compete nationally for the funds. Because Chaco's center was an emergency situation, they were successful in receiving funds. The new visitors center is currently projected to cost $3 million, monies that will largely come from the 20 percent pot, in addition to Chaco's own entry fees.

Beyond the financial concerns, an important construction consideration will be building within the original architectural footprint.

“Any change in the footprint of the building would almost certainly enter into a different world of issues,” observes Steve Speth, president of Friends of Chaco, a non-profit that works to assist and support the park. “The unavoidable disturbance of archaeological sites would change everything in terms of the time needed to complete the project.”

Not to mention the creating additional expense, adds Superintendent West.

Such an issue arose just last year. The park was making infrastructure improvements at its pumping station when a backhoe unearthed an Indian pot. Further investigation by archaeologists indicated they'd stumbled upon a new site dating to 500-600 A.D. The pot was attributed to the Basketmakers, a Southwestern people who predate the Puebloan culture that eventually populated Chaco. What made the discovery of particular significance, says Superintendent West, was that the site had no subsequent occupation. That unexpected detour bumped up the cost of the project to $160,000.

Rethinking the museum

Despite all the twists and turns, the new visitors center — a more energy-efficient, steel-framed structure — remains on schedule to be completed by the spring or summer of 2011. The museum, which (in part) highlighted the masonry work of Chaco, is also being reconsidered.

Ironically, none of the artifacts on display in the museum actually comes from the Pueblo Bonito site, one of Chaco's great house ruins. Instead, they were unearthed elsewhere in the park. “We only have two vessels that came from [Pueblo Bonito] and they're on loan from the Smithsonian,” notes the superintendent.

“There are hundreds of thousands of artifacts from Chaco,” adds Mr. Speth, “located everywhere except the park.”

That's because Chaco Canyon was heavily excavated during the 20th century. Pueblo Bonito was largely uncovered during a joint venture between the Smithsonian Institution and the National Geographic Society during the 1920s. Chacoan pots, turquoise, pendants, copper bells, and thousands of other artifacts eventually wound up in museum collections, including the Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of Natural History and the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

There, Superintendent West says, you find significant, beautiful objects, such as “drawer after drawer of turquoise beads. In fact, there were more turquoise beads and material found in one room at Pueblo Bonito than all the sites in the Southwest combined.”

Park officials are currently in the planning phase for determining what Chaco's new museum will look like. “We may try to get stuff from the Smithsonian,” says Superintendent West. While the the department of anthropology at Smithsonian's NMNH had a moratorium on loans, it was lifted September 1.

“We've wanted to develop an exhibit on Chaco for a long time,” says Dan Rogers, NMNH's anthropology department chairman. “We have more ideas than capacity. We had some momentum, but everything around here is expensive and we didn't have the money.”

Mr. Rogers says Chaco's administrators could “possibly open an exhibit, but the NPS would have to make a proposal.”

Chaco would also have to foot the bill to cover packing, shipment, and exhibit set up. Also to be answered, says Mr. Rogers, is the question, “Does the Smithsonian have a shared interest in the project.” Curators would have to weigh in “on what they'd want to do. They may or may not want to partner. We'd have to have that conversation.”

In the meantime, boxes of material sit in storage, high and dry for now, as construction on the visitors center gets under way. The public can expect a new and improved experience at the park once the project is completed.

Comments

This bit of construction should not deter visitors. Chaco is a spectacular spot and the fact that it is a "small park" adds to the pleasure of visiting. I volunteered there for five months and directed tours for photographers. Even at the peak of the visitor season, we could find spots to photograph classic structures without other visitors stepping into our shots.