Friday, November 18, 2005

Feds comb through historic home’s ruins

The New Mexican November 17, 2005
As the community mourned the loss of a historic landmark, federal agents were called to an investigation at the remains of Seton Castle on Wednesday. The building south of Santa Fe was left in ruins by a fire that began around lunchtime Tuesday while construction crews worked on a restoration project. The fire’s cause might be determined as early as today, said James Maxon, an investigator with the state Fire Marshal’s Office. Maxon said he called in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms to help conduct a joint investigation because his department doesn’t have the kind of manpower needed. Statements from about 20 people who were either working inside or near the home Tuesday indicate the fire began on the north end, in the music room, Maxon said. “To be honest, we don’t really know one way or the other (who or what started the fire),” he said. “We usually don’t take a guess until we go in there and see what we are dealing with.” ATF helps local fire investigators determine the cause and provides expertise in arson, according to agent Kent Masters, who said the agency has not ruled on whether the fire was accidental. Construction workers were midway through a renovation project on the 70-year-old structure designed by Ernest Thompson Seton. The building’s owner, the Academy for the Love of Learning, had planned to use it as an educational center and had a $300,000 federal grant for the work. Seton, a famed naturalist, artist and author, helped establish the Boy Scouts of America and lived in the 32-room home from 1934 until his death in 1946. He left behind hundreds of paintings, rare books and artifacts. The expansive, multilevel home occupied about 6,900 square feet. “Castle was a little bit of a misnomer ,” said Donato Jaggers, education-resources coordinator for the academy. “Seton was English by birth with Scottish ancestry, and we understand that Seton Castle was a name that he and his wife gave to the house as sort of a grand title.” Seton’s collection had been removed from the castle prior to the construction project. Jaggers said the paintings will be restored and made available for public exhibition. The academy is still reeling from the fire, he said. The building, listed as a National Historic Landmark, was insured for construction risks. The Santa Fe County assessor last valued the property at $763,000 in 2000. Asked what he suspected was behind the fire or if he blamed the construction crew, Jaggers said, “We’re not worried about that at this point. Our main feeling is absolute gratitude and relief that they all got out safely.” Long-time local Lew Thompson has fond memories of time spent in Seton Castle. Thompson lives on land he bought from Seton’s wife, Julia Seton, and had visited the home on many occasions. He recalls sitting for hours in a stairwell that led to the castle’s “second or third basement” with Julia reminiscing about her husband. Thompson was heartbroken over the fire. “I felt like crying, and I couldn’t look,” he said, “but I couldn’t help looking. I saw the plume of smoke from my house, and I went right over knowing all the time I was getting there that it, indeed, was the castle burning. ... It’s a great loss of a Santa Fe institution.” Seton biographer Jack Samson called the building’s demise tragic. “It was a shame, a real shame,” he said Wednesday during a phone interview from his Santa Fe home. “It was a lovely building and a real nostalgic place.” Samson, who was editor of Field and Stream magazine for 15 years, wrote The Worlds of Ernest Thompson Seton. He said the naturalist was influential across the globe and received many foreign visitors. Jason Auslander contributed to this report. Contact Julie Ann Grimm at 986-3017 or jgrimm@sfnewmexican .com

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