El Zócalo complex boasts history, event space, revenue

Story by Gary Herron of the Rio Rancho Observer

El Zócalo is a historical building Sandoval County now uses as an event space and visitors center. Gary Herron photo.

BERNALILLO — How does that old phrase go? “What was old is new again,” or something like that?

That wording can adequately describe what’s going on the with historic El Zócalo complex, built in 1874, in the “Town of Coronado.” People can rent the former convent for weddings, quinceañeras, reunions, team dinners … even funerals.

The translation of El Zócalo is “the meeting place,” and that sums it up today.

“We just figured how to really, truly maximize the space,” said Dora Dominguez, Sandoval County’s director of business and economic development.

Historically speaking, El Zócalo was entered into the National Register of Historic Places in 1977 and the state historical registry in 1980, and initially received Economic Development Association grant funding in 2006.

A building with historical significance typically isn’t available to the public as a place to entertain and celebrate.

Not so at El Zócalo, where, according to its website, “More than 135 years ago, nuns walked the halls… (and) the convent was a gathering place where people in Bernalillo came to meet, learn and exchange ideas.”

And they’re still doing that, with nearly 2,400 square feet of meeting space inside its thick adobe walls and brick floors, with outdoor and indoor spaces to host up to 175 people.

This past photo shows the short adobe wall that used to be on the front of the building, with a mural of the late Abenicio Salazar as a “citizen builder from 1868-1941.” Courtesy of Sandoval County.

The courtyard has fountains, a fireplace with heaters for wintry gatherings, grassy areas and views of the Sandias. Tables and chairs are available, with the facility set up as needed and broken down when events are completed; there is a prep kitchen and two private changing suites.

Audio and video equipment, with a sound system, projector and screen, are also available in the various packages.

The packages —La Empanada, El Biscochito or El Pastel — have prices varying with the seasons of March through October or November-February.

A refundable damage deposit is always required, insurance must be purchased and on-site security is mandated.

It’s proving to be a source of revenue for Sandoval County, and it’s been preserved alongside what was once hailed as El Camino Real and, in the 1920s, a portion of Route 66.

El Zócalo was a school in 1881 and was used in that capacity in various forms — including as an industrial school for Native American girls (1885-1937), a public girls grade school, public middle school, public co-ed high school and a parochial school, with students boarding there until 1941.

The contributions of the Sisters of Loretto, who originally taught at the school, made “to the entire territory, before New Mexico was a state, were significant with schools — educating those people of the West,” Dominguez added.

There are two other on-site buildings: The barn, built in 1880, and the two-story Salazar Building, built in 1922 as Our Lady of Sorrows High School and in use now as office space, including the headquarters for Kent Berry, the county’s tourism and event center coordinator.

“Everybody up until about 1960 came here (to the Salazar Building), and the sisters taught most of the classes,” added Mike Kloeppel, a Bernalillo native and now the Town of Bernalillo’s director of economic and community development. “This is significant mainly because of it being the high school and a convent; most people in Bernalillo of age know this as the old Lady of Sorrows High School.”

Several other buildings on the site were razed between 1974 and 2007.

“There were a lot of buildings that were lost to the complex in those early days because of floods,” said Dominguez. “All vineyards (in the area) washed into the (Rio Grande).”

But you can enjoy the ones that remain.

For more information on leasing El Zócalo, as well as pricing information, visit ElZocaloPlaza.com or call 505-867-8687.