Close to Home: Gothic house turned Turquoise Museum

A picture showing the local and foreign beauty of turquoise, as well as the ancient-looking building full of art and history. Photo by Dustin Lombardi.

I have noticed that East Mountain folks tend to fall into two categories for visiting cities: we either dodge them or we frequently visit because it’s really not that far.

Dustin typically falls into the first category, but he does enjoy museums and music. 

There are only a handful of things that fuel my desire to make the drive and that is the arts—mostly music, but also tap rooms, art galleries, international food, museums, old buildings and a handful of festivals. 

I spend a fair amount of time in downtown Albuquerque for the music and art galleries and when I was a kid my family lived in the University area.

I have memories of a strange building on the corner of Lead and 2nd Street that had tall, sterile-looking walls with lots of sharp wrought iron sticking out of the top, an unusual roof and two tower-like structures reminiscent of a castle, and strange gargoyles.

It’s a building I have wanted to explore for a long time but unlike some other old buildings in the city there was no access because of the looming wall it has. Every time I drive past, I look over and wish I could see the inside. I have pointed it out to Dustin many times. 

When I heard that the Turquoise Museum was opening in a castle-like building in Albuquerque I got excited and was really hoping that it would be the very same building I had been dreaming about for years.

I got lucky this time—it totally was. Until the other day I had no idea about the history of the building and I was curious about it and eager to ask about it. I was more excited about the building and Dustin was more excited about the turquoise.

We looked at the price of admission online and calculated the amount we would need for gas before we left, since the museum is in downtown Albuquerque. Their website said $15 each and Dustin determined that the museum was 30 miles away in one direction, and that we would need two gallons of gas to get us to and from which costs about $5.50. Our budget of $50 was depleted from the start and we were left with a remainder of $12.50 for any other activities. 

This is the most expensive place we have been to so far and if it weren’t so unusual I probably wouldn’t have considered it because I really believe that fun can be frugal. We chose to pay the price for an oddity and to fulfill a childhood fantasy of mine. 

The parking lot was strange. You have to drive past the building to park. It feels like you are zipping right past.

As soon as we got out of the car we were met by a young docent wearing a suit, tie and earpiece.

When we got there we found that the online price conflicted with the price they charged us in person, and they charged tax. That put me off right away. I spend a lot of time making sure I know exactly how much money I need when I travel since I both live and work in a rural area. 

And it was a pretty significant difference. We went expecting to spend $32. What it actually cost was $37.76. They charged $15 for Dustin, since he is under 17 and they charged $20 for general admission plus tax. I have never been to a museum that charges tax, so that surprised me as well. That also made our new total for gas and admission $43.26 leaving us with no money for lunch as usual.

The outside setting was also a bit strange. There was another young docent wearing a suit, tie and ear piece, identical to the first docent, sitting there to direct people. He told me to walk to the left and then turn right. 

There are no signs and the courtyard space is awkward. First we followed a line of cement crosses covered in moss that looked like they belonged in an old graveyard, not in a courtyard. 

When we reached the corner of the building we followed a line of cement columns that had busts of women on top, which also seemed out of place. When we reached the end of that line, we noticed a beautiful cement Renaissance revival-style fountain sitting in the center of a little garden that was coming to life with spring flowers and then finally, the front door.

At the door we were met with yet another young docent wearing a suit, tie and ear piece, matching the first two, who opened the door for us and then disappeared as soon as we walked through. I have a sudden realization that I had seen this weird scene before—it’s the agents from The Matrix. 

We were given a map and learned that we had access to two floors, although as soon as you walk into the front part of the house and look up you can see a third level. We started checking out the exhibits, which were interesting, but I wanted to peek behind curtains and into windows to get a feel for the orientation of the building, since I had seen it from outside so many times. 

On more than one occasion, as we walked into a room, I would notice a black-clad agent standing there and then we would walk into the next space and he would suddenly be gone. We also had a few of them appear out of nowhere and suddenly be standing in the room that was previously empty. 

I started becoming suspicious of some of the doors and walls because it was pretty eerie to watch these guys disappear and reappear so mysteriously. I never figured out how they were pulling that off. 

It also felt pretty intrusive. We felt like we were under surveillance. Also, it was bizarre to see so many young docents. Usually docents in museums are older and they love to yack, which is what makes them great resources. 

We walked through the entire space, upstairs and downstairs. There were a few specimens that were very impressive, but for a New Mexico museum I was not super impressed. I think being born and raised in the Southwest makes things like turquoise not as magical to me as it might be to someone else. 

Dustin begs to differ. He really enjoyed the history of turquoise and the numerous displays. They also had some hands on activities that he enjoyed. He got to weigh some turquoise using a balancing scale which he had never seen or used. It was a fun homeschooling moment for me because I am just old enough that we used balancing scales in science class when I was in school. 

The entire museum is a pretty quick walk-through even though there is lots to look at. By the time we got done I couldn’t help myself anymore. I wandered around the courtyard on our way back to the car because I knew this was my chance to explore a little bit.

On our way out I decided that I must know that history of the building. Who built it and why? When was it built and for what purpose?

Again, the story gets strange. I asked an agent these questions and he said Gertrude Zachary had it built in 2008. I was gobsmacked at this information because I swear the building has been there much longer and I told him this on our way out. 

Online there is a little bit of information about Gertrude Zachary. I asked around a bit while we were downtown and I was told that Zachary recently died and that her house was taken over by the museum.

According to the Turquoise Museum’s website, she had the house built in 2008 and lived there until her death in 2013. She wanted to live downtown and created a home that was molded after grand estates of France. She was also a collector of antiques and religious artwork. She also had an antique business right next to the house.

I tried really hard to dig up more information about the building because the timeline just didn’t seem correct to me, but I couldn’t find much. 

I found a few stories that all had the same tone and the same picture of Zachary. They all had a dry tone, a lack of interesting adjectives and that one picture; all of which are highly unusual for a story about a eccentric lady who had a reputation in New Mexico.