Sisters doing it for themselves — and the rest of us
The Whites in Santa Fe
For most of the decade immediately following World War I, the U.S. economy was
booming. Women had gained the right to vote. Many upper-middle-class women had successfully held important jobs during the war, and the postwar period was rich with opportunity for these women. The cities of the East Coast and Midwest were crowded, most of the jobs there having reverted to men returning from war. Women of means flocked to the Southwest in the late 1910s and ’20s to seek adventure and new cultural experiences; among them were Georgia O’Keeffe, Mary Cabot Wheelwright, Dorothy Stewart, Mary Austin, Mabel Dodge Luhan, and two sisters, Amelia Elizabeth and Martha Root White.
After they had graduated from Bryn Mawr College and volunteered for the Red Cross as nurses during the war, the White sisters were on an automobile trip across America in 1921 when — according to local lore — they stopped in Santa Fe to get their hair done. As these stories usually go, they were enchanted by the small town, purchased a parcel of land, and never left. Architect and neighbor William Penhallow Henderson designed their compound, which they called “El Delirio” (The Madness). It included a swimming pool, tennis courts, and a large kennel for their Irish wolfhounds and Afghan hounds. They were well regarded for their philanthropy, and by all accounts, they threw excellent parties.
The White sisters are a fascinating lens through which to examine the Santa Fe of the 1920s and beyond. New Mexico Women in the Arts presents a lecture by Nancy Owen Lewis entitled “The Artistry of El Delirio: The White Sisters’ Remarkable Legacy” on Wednesday, Oct. 10, at 3 p.m. at the School for Advanced Research (SAR). Lewis, scholar in residence at SAR, said the talk will focus on “five institutions that Santa Feans enjoy today, all made possible by the generosity of the White sisters: Museum Hill, the [Santa Fe] Animal Shelter, the School for Advanced Research, Garcia Street Club, and Sena Plaza.”
The Whites created the De Vargas Development Company to preserve tracts of land, donating a parcel for the Laboratory of Anthropology and one for the Wheelwright Museum. The Whites thereby de facto devised Museum Hill. The sisters collected Native American art and helped to organize the Exposition of Indian Tribal Arts, which opened at the Grand Central Art Galleries in New York City in 1931. Amelia Elizabeth ran the Ishauu Gallery on Madison Avenue as a means to exhibit and sell Native American art on a wider scale.
The sisters are perhaps best known for their work in support of Native American issues. Lewis said, “They were involved in efforts to protect Pueblo land, promote Indian health, and preserve Indian art. They contributed to the Indian Arts Fund, promoted Pueblo painting as fine art, and organized national exhibits.” Their spectacular estate and the bulk of their extraordinary collection were deeded in 1972 to the School for American Research (now called the School for Advanced Research), at 660 Garcia Street upon Amelia Elizabeth White’s death at age ninety-four.
Martha died of cancer in 1937, but Amelia Elizabeth had continued to be a philanthropic and iconic force in the life of Santa Fe until her death. The School of American Archaeology had been founded by Edgar Lee Hewett in 1907, and was housed in the Palace of the Governors — Hewett was also, at the time, the director of the fledgling Museum of New Mexico there. According to the SAR website, “In 1917, the School [of American Archaeology] changed its name to the School of American Research to reflect the broadening scope of its mission.” In 2007, as part of its centennial celebration, the name was changed to the School for Advanced Research.
The New Mexico Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts was established in 1997 as part of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington. They support local women artists through scholarships, programs, and exhibitions. The lecture is a fundraiser for the committee and includes a reception with Lewis.