The burned-out ruins of the historic Seton Castle loom atop a hill southeast of Santa Fe, a melancholy reminder of the rambling 30- room structure that once was.
In November, it will be three years since flames and smoke engulfed the 70-year-old building off Old Las Vegas Highway, reducing its five uneven stories down to one.
Ernest Thompson Seton may have co-founded the Boy Scouts of America and earned fame as an early American naturalist, but even his admirers have acknowledged that he was a pretty terrible builder.
"I always imagined he had a hammer in his hand when he died," said Aaron Stern, founder of the nonprofit that owns the castle. The Academy for the Love of Learning was midway through a $2 million renovation of the 6,900-square-foot building when the fire broke out.
The Academy had considered rebuilding the castle, a national historic landmark, before determining the cost of bringing it up to code was too high. But this summer, a new building echoing Seton's spirit -- if not his building methods -- is rising in the castle's shadow.
In the early 1930s, Seton divorced his first wife, married his secretary and assistant, adopted a daughter and moved from the East Coast to 2,500 acres south of Santa Fe, where he went to work building an "academy of outdoor life." Seton was in his 70s, with a bushy white mustache that curled up at the ends.
He had spent his life drawing and writing about wildlife and the environment and establishing the Woodcraft League, an alternative version of the Boy Scouts that honors nature and wildlife and encourages people to protect and nurture the natural world.
A community eventually grew on Seton's sprawling compound, as he established a college, printing press and even a zoo, according to Stearn.
Many of the Seton Village homes today dotting the hills trace their lineage to tepees that Seton had installed for visitors to his summer camps. The tepees were later replaced by railroad boxcars, some of which still form the core of many of the high-priced homes in the area.
At the center of it all has sat Seton's ramshackle castle, whose oddly shaped rooms stuffed with all sorts of curiosities stirred the imaginations of generations of children peaking through the windows.
Since Seton's death in 1946 at the age of 96, followers and admirers from all over the world have made pilgrimages to the castle. His daughter, Dee Seton Barber, lived in the home through the late 1990s before opting to sell it.
The Academy for the Love of Learning purchased the structure in 2003. The castle had a million problems, with no foundation in some places and walls with no studs. The place reeked of mildew and was filled with numerous buckets meant to catch the rain water.
The academy embarked on a $2 million renovation. The bottom level where carriages once parked was to be used as office space for the 12-employee academy, while the rest was slated for leadership and ecological awareness programs for young people.
On Nov. 15, 2005, Stern was on a flight to New York when a problem with the airplane's hydraulic system forced an emergency landing, as numerous firetrucks were on standby on the runway. The frightening experience seemed to foretell the conversation he would have with his office after the plane safely landed.
Back in Seton Village, the fire had spread quickly through the castles' adobe and stone walls, wood floors and vigas, as construction workers involved in the restoration fled for safety. The cause of the blaze was never determined.
"It was a shock," Stern said. "It was horrible."
Academy, take two
Today, the castle appears frozen in time to that November afternoon. An open trench holds pipes where DSL lines were to carry high-speed internet into the castle, while a pile of vigas waiting to be installed sit roasting in the sun. Weeds grow amid the gutted castle walls and the bell above the entry gate hasn't been rung in years.
Rebuilding the castle would have meant widening the stairways and hallways and other costly steps to bring the building up to code, Stern said.
But new life is coming to Seton Village. Earlier this year, the academy broke ground nearby on a $10 million, stucco-and-glass building in which Seton's legacy will play a prominent role.
Part of the bottom floor will house Seton's voluminous collection of art and writings, his library and other artifacts that were safe in storage at another location when the fire hit. The collection includes a letter from Helen Keller and signed books by Theodore Roosevelt, along with pots made by Maria Martinez, American Indian blankets and serapes, and Seton's classical music records. A major showing of Seton's work is planned for 2010 at the Palace of the Governors.
Seton Gallery will open onto a trail leading up to the castle site. Of the remaining walls, the academy plans to preserve and strengthen the west and south facades that will be woven into meditative gardens, with markers showing the castle's former footprint.
Just as Seton Castle was a center for learning and living-room gatherings of more than a hundred people, the new 14,000-square- foot center will have rooms and gardens for intimate, contemplative discussions, central to the academy's work, as well as a Great Room for occasional group gatherings. On the second floor, a circular adobe meditation room is under construction.
The "green" center is being built into a hillside, keeping it cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Solar arrays and geothermal wells will also allow the academy to sell electricity back to the grid. Rooftop rainwater will be collected and stored in four, 10,000-gallon underground tanks.
While the castle was built from stone quarried on-site, the center's walls are being constructed out of recycled plastic that's been compressed and filled with concrete.
Standing just beyond the chain-link fence wrapped around Seton Castle recently, Stern mourned its destruction and looked towards the land's future. The academy should be completed by October 2009, he said.
"It was a great loss," Stern said as he looked at a ceramic mural of a peacock embedded in the charred castle wall. "And the new building is going to be fabulous. Both are true."