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San Juan County Historical Society seeking new, larger headquarters


Past president says organization has outgrown its 829-square-foot home

FARMINGTON — Bursting at the seams.

That's how Patty Tharp, the past president of the San Juan County Historical Society, describes the organization's situation regarding its headquarters in downtown Aztec. The society is housed in an 829-square-foot space that is filled floor to ceiling with historical documents, newspapers and government records, and it is rapidly running out of space to accommodate more materials.

Tharp, the society's office manager, felt compelled to describe the organization's plight when she delivered an annual report on the society to the San Juan County Commission during its Jan. 18 meeting. She used the opportunity to put out a call for help, encouraging anyone who has an idea about how the society might be able to access a larger facility to reach out to her.

The society has leased its present home at 201 N. Main Ave. from the City of Aztec for the past several years, paying rent of a nominal $1 a year. Tharp expressed her gratitude toward Aztec officials for their generosity in essentially providing the organization with free space during that time. But she made clear the historical society has outgrown that space — which is a converted fire station — and badly needs a new, larger home.

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"Because of the small square footage, we can only have a few extra people in the office at a time," she told commissioners, later adding that the space is so small, the organization cannot even hold its board meetings there.

The historical society has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, Tharp said, noting that when she joined the board in 2015, it had only 65 members. Now, it has more than 230, she said, and it delivers a year-round schedule of meetings, presentations and other activities focused on the organization's mission of preserving and showcasing the county's past.

Tharp's successor as president, Laura Harper, said the organization's board of directors has established a committee to conduct a feasibility study of the organization owning or operating a new, larger facility. The process of completing that study will play out over the next two years, she said.

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There are many issues to be addressed in the study, she said, including the size and location of such a facility. Harper said some members of the society believe the organization should remain in Aztec, the county seat, while others believe the importance of its location is secondary to the size and quality of the space itself. The committee also will be examining the idea of whether the society is better off purchasing property or leasing it.

In any event, Harper said the idea of locating a new home for the organization is a high priority for the board.

"I'm hoping for a future of a large facility for our wonderful society and its archives," she said.

While the society still accepts donations of historic documents, records and publications, Tharp and Harper said the organization is careful about what it takes because of the limits on its space. That lends a sense of urgency to the search for a new facility, because at some point, the organization simply will not have any more storage space, Tharp said in a subsequent interview with The Daily Times. As an example, she said she has dozens of books she would like to donate to the society's library, but there is no room for them.

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The ideal solution to the problem, Tharp said, would be for someone to donate a historic home to the organization, preferably a structure of at least 2,500 square feet. She said the society does not have the financial resources to purchase a new property, but she said she is exploring what might be available to the organization in the form of government or foundation grants.

Any new home for the society would have to be climate controlled to secure the preservation of the historic materials, she said. There are other issues that would need to be addressed, as well, including the space's degree of accessibility to disabled people and its suitability for accommodating those conducting archival research.

Tharp said that making its archives available to people looking up their family history, conducting scholarly research or writing books is one of the main functions of the society. Under the current conditions, she said, it is difficult to make room for those folks.

"I have always envisioned it would be so great to have a research room with a subscription to Ancestry.com" so visitors could learn step by step how to map their family tree, she said.

Tharp said during the commission meeting that the society obtained its 501c3 nonprofit status last spring, which should make the organization more attractive to potential donors, since their contributions are now tax deductible. That was not the case previously, she said, explaining that the society's former lack of such status had been a millstone around its neck.

Tharp encouraged anyone who has an idea about a new home for the organization to call her at 202-538-2102.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.