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Historic courthouse is downtown’s ‘grand old lady’


The old Doña Ana County Courthouse, a 1937 Spanish Revival style building designed by El Paso architect Percy McGhee with subsequent additions as recent as 1969, maintains a stately presence at 251 W. Amador Avenue.

Its nickname as downtown Las Cruces’ “grand old lady” originated with its 1938 dedication. The county seal and lettering over its northeast entrance have been taken down, but the concrete, brick and stucco structure – a product of the Roosevelt-era Works Progress Administration –  summons a quiet dignity as traffic rushes past it, looking over all of its surrounding buildings except for the 10-story Electronic Caregiver Tower on Main Street.

Inside, many of the doors still bear the names of county offices where daily business was once transacted. The building functioned as a courthouse into the 1980s, and had also served as the county jail, later holding federal prisoners, with many of the cells still intact. A balcony outside a judge’s office peers into downtown. Some rooms show signs of a previous owner’s excavations, with dirt and debris swept into piles on the floor. A vaulted courtroom is illuminated through windows that let in the sun, but many rooms and corridors, including the old cell blocks, are in perpetual darkness. With flashlights, one can view art etched on the walls by inmates long ago; a chess board carved onto the surface of a steel dining table; and evidence of break-ins and activities by squatters from the years the building sat empty.

A sunken patio where prisoners were once allowed a daily hour of sunlight and fresh air has a sullen mood, with no view except the sky above and the layers of mesh installed to prevent contraband from being tossed in or out. The Arabic-language graffiti on these walls is left over from a movie that was filmed here. The site is popular as a filming location: Mel Gibson filmed scenes for a movie here and left a copy of his script in the drawer of a desk.

The darkness of its spaces and local lore about horrifying conditions in the jail contribute to its reputation for being haunted – and the interest it has roused among paranormal researchers.

One business maintains a living presence there today: Southwest Expeditions, a local enterprise offering a variety of adventure tours in the area including hikes, kayaking and rafting alongside historical tours and other events, is headquartered here.

David Crider, owner of Southwest Expeditions, right, speaks about his operations at the historic courthouse on June 6. At left is Ron Lautenbach, who works with the company as a hiking guide.
David Crider, owner of Southwest Expeditions, right, speaks about his operations at the historic courthouse on June 6. At left is Ron Lautenbach, who …

“I fell in love with the building because of the architecture,” owner David Crider said in an interview. “It’s very elegant. It’s a hidden elegance because it’s gone downhill over the years.”

As a historic site, Crider said the old courthouse has diverse stories to tell. Some of those stories are of ghost sightings and creepy noises emanating from the depths of the building; some of past lawmen who worked here and prisoners who suffered violence and mistreatment upstairs; and others about historical figures from Las Cruces and Doña Ana County, of how previous generations in these halls and looking through these windows, dreamed their city might flourish.

Plans by the courthouse’s private owners to renovate the site for a luxury hotel were hobbled by the 2020-23 Covid-19 pandemic, which caused the project’s costs to skyrocket. The developers’ business plans had included a provider for tours and adventures, which is how Crider became the building’s living presence and ambassador.

Over a few years, while continuing to present tours at other locations, Crider has found more events to present at the courthouse, sharing its strange treasures.

While the hotel project stalled, Crider has kept going – and as part of his enterprise, he has welcomed more visitors to get acquainted with the “grand old lady” through historic tours, ghost tours, paranormal investigations, playing laser tag, dancing or banquets in the old courtroom and small rooftop events.

As for the reports of shouts, slamming doors and inexplicable drafts of cold air or movement of shadows that have been reported here, Crider said he has experienced all of the above and has accepted the presence of these “entities,” viewing them as mischievous rather than malevolent.

“I respect them. This is their home; I’ve come to that realization.”

And for the foreseeable future, he plans to keep working here, growing his business and taking care of this unusual historical site.

“As long as I can do this, this is what I’m going to do,” he said.

grand old lady, Historic courthouse, haunted