By Charlotte Jusinski with Jeff Pappas
Now in its third season, the Department of Cultural Affairs’s podcast, Encounter Culture, explores the exhibitions, stories, and personalities of the largest governmental department in New Mexico. Whether focusing on an art exhibition, Indigenous history, or ghostly experiences, Encounter Culture offers a unique look into what makes our state’s cultural institutions tick—and this episode with State Historic Preservation Officer Dr. Jeff Pappas, transcribed here, is no exception.
Pappas’s background includes time as a legislative assistant in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and two decades with the National Park Service at Yosemite National Park, in addition to degrees from Brigham Young University, Baylor University, and Arizona State University. He now brings his extensive experience and training as an historian to the Historic Preservation Division, where his big-picture thinking is enacted in policies, studies, and assessments concerning New Mexico’s 17,000 years of history.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity; listen to the whole episode at podcast.nmculture.org, or on your favorite podcast app.
Charlotte Jusinski: One of my things I like to do in the beginning of these episodes is to ask for an elevator pitch. And I mean, we can be on a 500-story building; it’s fine if the elevator has to go for a long time. But what do you do?
Jeff Pappas: The state historic preservation officer position was actually established in federal law. In 1966, it was established through the National Historic Preservation Act. Every state, in fact, has what they call an SHPO, or affectionately known as ‘Shippo.’ Essentially, the federal government felt that there needed to be a public presence when any federal agency in any state was doing projects that could potentially impact historic properties on federal lands, and that the state actually had a stake in that matter. … And so I’m basically the eyes and ears for the governor’s office. It’s a gubernatorial-appointed position when it comes to historic preservation matters on federal lands.
CJ: It seems to me like New Mexico would have an exponentially higher number of these kinds of properties to protect. Is that accurate?
JP: That’s absolutely accurate. I think if I added it up, my office consults with probably about a hundred agencies, both federal and state. Most of our work is with the Bureau of Land Management, because they’re a massive landholder in the state. The Forest Service, of course, the National Park Service, and a variety of other federal agencies. Anywhere where the federal government is investing monies and projects that have the potential to impact historic properties, the state has to… be a consulting party to those decisions. I think last year we reviewed a little over 2,000 undertakings across the state.
CJ: And so what would an ‘undertaking’ look like? Does it mean we need new bathrooms? Does it mean we need new siding? What does that mean?
JP: Well, it could be from some of the most obvious issues, like oil and gas leasing here in the state. … And of course that takes up a lot of land. They dig quite a bit. And so we have to make sure that the archeological sites near these oil and gas use are protected. And so that would be one example.
Let’s say White Sands Missile Range. They have… many historic properties; they’ve got enormous resources there anywhere from the early V2 rocket sites that go back to 1946 and 1947 at the beginning of the Cold War. These sites are still there. And if they propose to do any kind of modifications to these sites, it has the potential to impact its historic characteristics. Then we have to be there to make sure that what they do is consistent with the standards in historic preservation. And those standards are issued by the federal government, by the Department of the Interior.
CJ: What does ‘preservation’ mean in this context?
JP: The standards are the responsibility of the National Park Service through the Department of the Interior; that is the agency that we look toward for any guidance when it comes to modifications of historic properties. And typically they’re far more interested in what things look like than how things function. In fact, the federal government and the Park Service understand that buildings change out consistently over time, their use changes out consistently… let’s say at military installations, where technologies change constantly. So the interior of the buildings have to be modified in order to accommodate for a variety of these changes. The standards aren’t particular when it comes to interiors of properties, but exterior of properties, what people are actually looking at when they drive past these buildings, is what matters the most to the federal standards.
CJ: I can get a little cynical and say, ‘The intrinsic value of a historic building—oh, that wouldn’t matter to the powers that be.’ But clearly it does. And to the point where they have these agencies and officers to preserve these kinds of things.
Are you as struck as I am by how nice that is? They care what we’re looking at and they care what we see! And maybe they care how we feel about it!
JP: Yeah, I think it’s inherent. I think if you take a look at the preamble of the National Historic Preservation Act, they feel that a democratic society, in this case, has a right to understand its history. And that’s written right into the preamble of the federal legislation.
And how do you do that? You study the buildings, you collect data on the buildings, you take wonderful photographs of buildings, and then you try at least to keep them looking relatively historic.
Is it esoteric? I think the word that I’m challenged with repeatedly by federal agencies is ‘subjective.’ That it’s my subjectivity or that it’s the SHPO’s subjectivity. I bring a certain sensibility to the jobs that will inform how I consult on these particular projects. And I have been challenged by federal agencies that may not appreciate my particular approach to preservation, but that’s why we have staffs, and that’s why we consult with a variety of people to make sure that what’s rendered ultimately is a reflection of the people who do this work. And we hope that it’s an honest, or at least an authentic expression of what the regulations say.
CJ: So, speaking of subjective, what is it about you that makes you an authority on historic preservation?
JP: … I think that as a director, it seems to be beneficial to have someone with an historical background, because I bring a broader perspective to resources. So it’s just not about the architecture or about, let’s say, the empirical building itself. It’s really about the story that building tells over time.
And that really is the bread and butter of the historical profession, is to be able to see that story unfold over generations of time—deep time, in fact, if we can go back in New Mexico of 12 to 15, potentially 17,000 years. And so I think the way that I’ve been trained allows me an opportunity to step back from the nitty-gritty or from the daily grind of doing this work and to set a tone for the office. Then I ultimately manage that tone by hiring certain kinds of people that can inform that decision-making.
CJ: How would you define that tone?
JP: Oh, it’s a great question; and it is so relevant today with the #MeToo movements, how politics plays into the way that we understand the past, or the way that we express our past through commitments. And these could be multimillion-dollar projects through commitments to save certain aspects of our past in order to inform a present generation to propel us into the future. So I have to vision out what that might be, but I also have to go back and take a look at the past in order to help inform that present moment so that we can tell stories that includes everyone, or at least as many people as possible. …
So when you come to a state like New Mexico, where you have all these wonderful, diverse voices, my job is to try to include as many of those voices in the public dialogue as possible. And I think that is something that this office, not that it didn’t have necessarily, but I don’t know if there was anyone directing the program who thought so overtly about that commitment to our communities.
CJ: So, these are a lot of big ideas. How does it play out in the day to day?
JP: Yeah, I’ll give you a case study. I tend to live in that bigger place, but our programs can help me focus these visions in ways that I think are meaningful to people. … It could be about ranching. It could be about mining. It could be about working with tribes or the American Indian presence in the state of New Mexico. What we’ve been focused on over the past five or six years is to bring to light the story of the African American experience in New Mexico, which was hardly known.
My staff, we were looking for opportunities to do historic context around themes, like the African American experience that could help the state understand its history, particularly its contemporary history. And this really is tied a lot to Black Lives Matter and other kinds of contemporary arguments that are happening now that I’m very concerned about.
And so we put some money together through our federal partners and we hired an historian to write the historic context of the African American experience for the state. And what that did was not only provide a narrative that goes back to 1905, essentially, right to the present, but it also identified every historic resource—buildings, structures, objects, sites, and districts—associated with the Black experience, so that we come in with our national register program—you know, how you plaque those buildings. Then what we’ll do is we’ll take that study and we’ll begin to identify buildings and structures associated with that experience and begin to list them both to the state and national registers of historic places, and to continue to build that history with the hope that it will trickle down, hopefully in our schools or in our politics or wherever. It’s a rich history. It’s a really important history. …
And so now what we’re doing is taking that data and we are hiring other historians to write national register nominations, to build the detailed history of those facilities, to list those properties to the state so they get further protection, both in state and federal law.
JP: There are programs that I would like folks to know a little bit more about. … And number one, of course, is the state and national register program. My office works with the National Park Service and with the gubernatorial-appointed committee that we have to list significant properties to the state register—and anyone, anyone could nominate a property to the state register.
That’s a deeply wonderful public process that we use to engage folks in identifying significant resources in their communities that they want to celebrate. … The way that the national register program works is that we don’t consider any resources that are fifty years of age or less.
Occasionally we will, under what we call an exceptional category, but primarily… the dial, it moves the chronology up another year. And so right now, if you take a look at what our fifty-year threshold would be, we’re looking at resources now that were built in 1972, in the lifespan of most people.
CJ: What’s an exception in Santa Fe?
JP: St. John’s College. This was a wonderful experience that we had with the president of St. John’s just before he retired back in 2016, his name was [Michael] Peters. To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of St. John’s College, he came to us and asked what would it be to list this property on the national register. The campus itself, they began construction on the campus in the early 1960s, around 1962, 1963. They opened the doors by 1966, ’65, but then some of the buildings on… that beautiful campus were built in 1973, which were clearly less than fifty years old.
And so we had to nominate that entire campus under an exceptional criteria—and the keeper of the national register in Washington, D.C., agreed. And it was a wonderful thing. We had a nice ceremony there, and the school takes it very seriously. … In fact, St. John’s is the only full college campus in the state of New Mexico listed to both the state and national register.
JP: [Another] program that we do is a preservation tax credit program. And so we work both with the state’s Tax and Rev Department and with the IRS to provide significant preservation tax credits to property owners who own historic properties to rehabilitate their properties. And we do an enormous amount of work there with residential property owners and commercial property owners. In fact, we just finished up a wonderful federal tax credit to rehabilitate the Castañeda Hotel in Las Vegas. … They did a wonderful job. So not only are we providing a tax incentive, but that’s also helping us to build an economy around historic preservation—the artisans that… work on historic properties.
And I think we generate several millions of dollars in economic development in rehabilitating historic properties. And that’s something that we’re really proud of and we do well. I think we do very well with that.
We also have a program called a certified local government program. Essentially it authorizes us to help local communities, cities, municipalities, craft their own historic preservation ordinance, which is wonderful work. What we help them with is to think about how they want to preserve their communities. And we provide federal funding for them to do that. And so we create sort of a local ethos of preservation around this certified local government program.
JP: Rulemaking can take years, and it should; the public has to be involved. We have to make sure that we have the language right. … It takes patience and it takes a long time to do that kind of work. New Mexico is unique in some ways that we don’t have sunset clauses for our regulations. In other words, they don’t sunset every five years or every ten years. … And so they just sit. And that’s problematic, because the language that’s invested in a regulation that was established maybe in 1972 needs to speak to contemporary issues. … Take the historic markers program.
You probably all know those historic markers that are out there. … And the design of those markers is actually based upon a National Park Service rustic design that was coming in vogue in the 1920s and 1930s. And the state has managed it ever since my office took it over, I believe in the 1970s. …
Now, you can imagine text on any of these… go back to the 1940s, the 1950s, the 1960s, the 1970s. And built into that, of course, is a presentist language that they used, much like what we use today. We may not be conscious of it, but we’re committing to something in language that’s a representative of our time. So we need to go back and we need to constantly look at the text on these, because my gosh, there’s so many of them that could be perceived as offensive and they need to be changed.
CJ: What does that look like? Might someone call up your office and say, ‘I’m offended by this on Highway 50?’
JP: Yes. That’s exactly what happens. One of the remarkable things about the state of New Mexico, it’s relatively small—at least its state government is relatively small, and people have access to their decision-makers. And that is a remarkable part of who we are, so it’s truly democratic. And so we do, we receive calls all the time about markers that are either damaged or destroyed or language that may not be accurate or language that may be offensive. And our job is to go back and revisit all of these sites and to make sure that we are applying contemporary scholarship to address these issues.
CJ: What is the monetary cost of fixing up that kind of stuff—versus the cultural cost of not?
JP: I think the important thing to think about is that societal or cultural cost. And then everything flows from there. You’ll find the money at that point; if it becomes important to the state, it becomes important to people who really care about their history, then the money will become available to do it. Right now we have no funding mechanism, at least no state funding mechanism, but we can leverage federal dollars to do this work.
How much will it cost? It’s a good question. I don’t know. What would it cost to hire someone to go around the state and to take photographs of each of the historic markers to locate them? We do have a database for these markers, so we know roughly where they are, but we’d have to do surveys first. And then we would have to work with our partner who actually manufactures the signs. … It would cost potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars.
CJ: But you know, as you said, the cultural cost of not is immeasurable.
JP: Yeah, you can’t calculate that—where a state is just sitting on text that clearly needs to be reevaluated. But that’s partly the unfortunate reality of certain programs that don’t have a proactive approach to the way that we manage them. And this program, I think, suffers from that.
CJ: You obviously care a whole lot about what you do. What is it about this position that has gotten you to this passionate place?
JP: It’s a question that you should ask yourself every six months to a year, or every month or two months, or when you’re challenged—
CJ: Every day.
JP: —or every day! The passion, if one can call that, derives from my love of teaching. I think everything revolves around teaching—young kids, college kids, high school. And I don’t see what I do any different than that.
I’m at heart a teacher. Talking to a secretary about a budget is to teach that particular administration about why this work needs to happen. So it doesn’t really answer the question why I feel as though the work needs to happen, it’s just that I feel as though I have a need to teach people why it does.
And it really goes back to my training as an historian. That I do feel that story absolutely matters and how cliché that may be. But I think, if you really drill deeply into that cliché, ‘story matters,’ you get to the root of the passion. You get to the root of engaging and enfranchising disadvantaged communities, marginalized communities that have not had a voice in the historic narrative for eons. …
I’ll give you an example. Two years ago, we nominated the entire community of Duran to the national register. They have an entire association there that takes care of those properties. And they came to us and said, ‘We want a seat at the table.’ How do you want to do this? ‘We want to nominate the entire town to the national register.’
And then, years ago, when the state committed their resources to nominate Mount Taylor to the National Register of Historic Places and to recognize the five Native narratives that are associated with that holy mountain—that is not something that this state prior to that nomination was able to locate at a particular place like Mount Taylor, right? A 400,000-acre site that is now listed on the state Register of Cultural Properties. So now any time that the state has anything to do with that area, those Native American communities have a voice at the table.
There’s nothing more profound than that. Although I love science and physics. I don’t think there’s anything as powerful as that, even politics, because the pure expression of that—it gets me every time.
Encounter Culture is a production of the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs. It is produced and edited by Andrea Klunder at the Creative Imposter Studios. Its technical director is Edwin R. Ruiz, its recording engineer is Kabby at Kabby Sound Studios, and its executive producer is Daniel Zillmann. Learn more or listen in at podcast.nmculture.org or on your favorite podcast app.
Charlotte Jusinski is the editor of El Palacio and the host of Encounter Culture.