SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – A uniquely designed amphitheater by Italian American architect Paolo Soleri sits decaying behind the Santa Fe Indian School’s sports stadium. Essentially unused for more than a decade now, the venue could see new life thanks to capital outlay funds from the state legislature.

Crafted in the mid 1960s, the Paolo Soleri Amphitheater was once a mainstay of not only the Santa Fe Indian School, but the Santa Fe community as a whole. And the design, inspired by the Southwestern landscape and the Indigenous cultures that called that landscape their home, is truly unique.

“When you look at the historical background,” explains Santa Fe-based architect Conrad Skinner, it was designed “specifically for Native American drama.” It includes elements of design reminiscent of Native American ceremonial venues combined with Greek theater tradition, he says.

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The unique architecture of the Paolo Soleri remains majestic, despite crumbling infrastructure. Photo: Curtis Segarra

And the amphitheater embodies a history of reclaiming Native American identity and historical narratives, Skinner says. “They wanted to take on this stuff and have been submerged for so many decades –centuries, you know – and bring it right back out and create new culture from the old culture.”

But around 12 years ago, the venue was closed indefinitely. The reason: operating costs and rowdy concertgoers, according to KRQE News 13’s previous reporting. At the time, a spokesperson said it costs the Santa Fe Indian School around $100,000 a year to maintain.

So, the on-campus amphitheater was abandoned. But it wasn’t forgotten.

In 2016, for example, the Paolo Soleri Amphitheater briefly held the spotlight during the 2016 Santa Fe biennial. And Skinner says community members still hold fond memories of bygone concerts.

“I think it’s very much still alive in people’s minds,” Skinner says. “I don’t think it’s forgotten.”

And now, it could be getting a second chance. Last week, several New Mexico legislators heard from Christie Abeyta, the Santa Fe Indian School superintendent, who asked for over $1 million in funds destined, in part, to help renovate the Paolo Soleri Amphitheater.

The funds would follow a $3 million appropriation to the school earlier this year. And the Santa Fe Indian School has set aside another $5 million for the project.

“Over the years the interest kind of swayed,” Abeyta told KRQE News 13. “But we’re seeing more and more students gravitate to the media and to film and performing arts in general.”

“So, the Paolo Soleri renovation is going to include learning spaces for the green room or wardrobe, studio space, or ballet, or other kind of dance,” Abeyta says. And the heart of the amphitheater will be preserved as best as possible given the aging infrastructure.

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The open-air design of the venue and stage has led to weathering over the years. Photo: Curtis Segarra

“We’re wanting to save all that we can as far as this original design and build out around it,” Abeyta explains. “The original amphitheater now, there are several structural issues that compromise the safety, and that’s why it was closed, along with the it’s not being ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] compliant.”

Speaking to legislators in the Indian Affairs Committee, Abeyta did indicate that the history of the venue is also worth preserving, including keeping Soleri’s name attached to the project. And legislators seemed to agree.

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The Paolo Soleri is currently fenced off, meaning current students are unable to experience the space. But that may change in the coming years. Photo: Curtis Segarra

So how long before the famous Paolo Soleri sees performances again? It could still be some time before the project moves past the planning stage and into construction. Ultimately, Abeyta is hoping the project will take five more years or so.

But first, Abeyta will have to gather more funds. Even with the $5 million from the school, $3 million from the earlier appropriation, and another $1.25 million or so possibly on the way, around $10 million more will probably be necessary to achieve the full scope of the vision. Abeyta estimates that the total project cost could reach $15 or even $18 million.

Still, the ball is rolling. And Conrad Skinner is hopeful that the unique performance space can one day be put to use again.

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Concept images show what a new building above the Paolo Soleri Amphitheater’s seating could look like. From NM Legislature and Dekker/Perich/Sabatini.

Skinner hopes the venue can once again be home to more shows in the future. “If they could find a way to use it for performances and bring in companies that were involved in Native American performance, I think that would be enough,” he says.

Superintendent Abeyta says that her goal is to preserve the architecture and share it among the future of Santa Fe’s performing arts community. “There’s a lot of performing arts schools here, charter schools, the School for the Deaf is just right down the road, and I think we can all benefit from this type of venue in a way that supports our students,” she says.

So it looks like the Paolo Soleri Amphitheater may not only live on but also find a breath of new life as a classroom and space for students. But according to Abeyta, the days of bringing in rock bands and hosting public concerts at the venue are long gone. Instead, the students come first.