Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Poverty Preserves

The town of Las Vegas, New Mexico is as different from its glitzy Nevada namesake as it is from its sixty-five mile down-the-road neighbor, Santa Fe.  In fact much of it is more similar in appearance and architecture to a pair of east coast cities in which we have spent some time – the late 19th century Victorian communities of Cape May, New Jersey and Bellefonte, Pennsylvania.

We made the one-hour drive to Vegas to take in the “Holiday Home Tour” put on by the Las Vegas Citizen’s Committee for Historic Preservation (LVCCHP) on a recent Saturday from five to nine p.m.  Since, as we have mentioned in other posts, there are basically no street lights anywhere in northern New Mexico – and since all the roads involved in this adventure were unfamiliar to us (including that portion of the seventy-five mph Route 25) – we opted to spend the night there at the Plaza Hotel, the exterior of which should be recognizable to fans of the Netflix Series “Longmire” as the front of the sheriff’s office.

Located along the edge of the eastern plains of New Mexico, at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Las Vegas was established by a Mexican land grant in 1835.  It was originally named “Nuestra Senora de los Dolores de Las Vegas Grandes” (“Our Lady of Sorrows of the Great Meadows) by the original settlers whose roots in the area went back to the early 1600’s.   Initially, the settlement was designed to be battened down for attacks by the Apache Indians with one-story adobe houses circling a large, central plaza where livestock could be driven to safety.   The soldiers later moved up the road twenty-six miles to Fort Union.

In 1846, during the Mexican War, General Stephen W. Kearney led his “Army of the West” to Las Vegas.  The 1,500 residents quickly surrendered.  By then the Santa Fe Trail had become a major trade route, and as the first town of any size east of Kansas the city eagerly began supplying whiskey and women to the traders, pioneers and prospectors who stopped by.  When the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad reached the settlement in 1879, Las Vegas became the largest city between San Francisco and Independence, Missouri rivaling Denver, Tucson and El Paso in size.

“Overnight, a new town was born on the east banks of the Gallinas River, a mile east of the Plaza. At first, a settlement of tents, sheds and makeshift shelters were built, but within just a few short years, many permanent buildings had been established, as well as a competing commercial district…The six trains that stopped there daily opened up yet another era of prosperity, bringing with it both legitimate businesses, but also introducing even more new elements into the town’s already distrustful environment. Before long, outlaws, bunko artists, murderers and thieves were becoming so common that the eastern part of the settlement had become utterly lawless,” according to

“It was during these notorious days of Las Vegas’ history that the town was called home or visited by the likes of Doc Holliday [who had a dentist’ office in town], Big-Nose Kate, Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Bob Ford, [and] Wyatt Earp… In 1881, after Billy the Kid was killed at Fort Sumner, New Mexico, his index finger was sent in a jar to the Las Vegas newspaper.”

 (Mary Katherine Horony-Cummings aka Big-Nose Kate)

To maintain control of development, the railroad established a station and other buildings one mile east of the Plaza, creating a separate, rival “New Town,” just as it did elsewhere in the Old West in places such as Albuquerque. The train station itself was built in 1899 as a two-story brick station building designed in the Spanish Mission style and featuring a red tile roof, ornate metal brackets and a curving parapet.

The railway also brought entrepreneurs such as Fred Harvey whose “Harvey House” chain of restaurants, hotels, and other hospitality industry businesses situated alongside the tracks in the western United States catered to the growing number of traveling train tourists.   In Las Vegas Harvey built the Hotel Castañeda where Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders held their first reunion in 1899.

“Railroad Barons” and other successful businessman constructed many large Victorian style homes along various streets on the city’s east side.  Andrew Carnegie endowed one of his public libraries to the town – this one designed in a Neoclassical, Palladian style similar to Jefferson’s Monticello.  Fin de siècle Las Vegas featured all the modern amenities, including an electric street railway, the "Duncan Opera House,” and the New Mexico Normal School (now New Mexico Highlands University) – all on the east side of town.

The separation point between the east and west, along the banks of Galinas River, was known as the Tortilla Curtain.  The two sides finally unified into one town in 1950 but each one retains its own distinct characteristics and separate, rival school districts.

The Plaza Hotel where we spent Saturday night was built in 1882 on the West Side of town by a group of Hispano businessmen led by Don Benigno Romero at a cost of $25,000. It is a three-story brick building with an Italianate façade, grandly decorated, with high-ceilinged guest rooms. The lobby is connected to the second floor by towering twin staircases.  It was advertised as the finest hotel in the Nuevo Mexican territory, and frequently referred to as the "Belle of the Southwest.”

Like many other 1800s railroad boomtowns however, Las Vegas did not fare as well in the twentieth century.   In 1905 a new rail line was built in New Mexico between the towns of Clovis and Belen, cutting off Las Vegas in the north.  The Great Depression hit the community hard, and the postwar rise of automobile and truck travel and the accompanying decline of the railroad industry pretty much sealed its economic fate.

But as M, the former Assistant Director of our Historical Society in Wethersfield, Connecticut, used to say, “poverty preserves.”

The New York Times agrees.  “Las Vegas’s ill fortune in the 20th century is its good fortune in the 21st. Because the economy collapsed in the early part of the 1900s, no one was tearing down old buildings to make way for new ones. Now many buildings have been restored, but Las Vegas hasn’t been covered in stucco in an attempt to adobify it.”

Today, Las Vegas is home to over 900 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, one of the highest per capita in the nation.   “So many of these historic buildings are still standing here because no one had the money to tear them down” after Las Vegas’ boom town days ended, according to the LVCCHP – the sponsor of the House tour that brought us here.

There were six stops on the excursion – four residences (two eastside and two west) and two hotels, likewise east and west.  One of the stops was the Plaza, our home base for the weekend.

The West Vegas homes were located in a neighborhood replete with 130 year old adobe houses.  The first one however was originally a single-wide mobile home expanded into an eight room bungalow in which every surface of every room was filled with Christmas decorations.  Each area was organized by theme – Nutcrackers, angels, a Christmas Village, a working carnival – with trees of the same motif.  Something the owners of the house have been doing for the past ten years – five as a part of the house tour.

The next west-sider was in fact an old adobe that had been more than doubled in size to accomodate two offices, a greenhouse, and more.  The decoration here was of the less-is-more style but the house was the show.  Another one of the New Mexico houses whose size cannot be understood from the outside.

The “New Town” homes were both two-story, 3,200 sq. ft. plus, Victorian style buildings with large porches and cellars built in the late 1800s  – one by a “Railroad Baron.”   Either residence would have fit perfectly into the Cape May Historic District, the Victorian streets of Bellefonte – or Hartford, Connecticut’s Nook Farm area.

The other east side stop on the tour was the El Fidel Hotel.  Built in 1923 as a community project initiated by the Commercial Club of Las Vegas and originally called “The Meadows,” the Spanish Colonial revival style structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Two years after it opened, the inn made headlines as the site of a shooting involving Las Vegas Judge David Leahy and Carl Magee, founder of the now-defunct Albuquerque Tribune.  Prohibition was in full swing when the hotel opened, but that didn’t stop their bar there from selling liquor. Individuals wanting adult beverages would enter through the alley “as a nod to respectability,” the hotel website noted.  The business was purchased in the 1940s by the Syrian immigrant Fidel brothers who re-named and renovated it.   It was sold again in 2016 and is in renovation – although open for business.

Several of the older buildings in town are being, or recently have been, restored including the Hotel Castañeda, which has been closed since 1948, but is, as we speak, being renovated by developer Allan Affeldt and partners who have already bought, refurbished, and re-opened the historic Harvey House hotel La Posada in Winslow, Arizona.         

The owner of the “Railroad Baron” Victorian house mentioned that a friendly apparition, whom she believes to be the former live-in cook, haunts her abode.  In that same spirit, the town of Las Vegas is trying to rehabilitate itself by resurrecting more of its ghosts from the past – and sharing them once again with the touring public.

We will miss what could have become a regular visit to Cape May and the early morning walks on the beach.  As well as our annual trip to Penn State University for Coach Denise’s Golf Camp – and a day in nearby Bellefonte.

But now we know, should we start to get an attack of adobe-phobia requiring a quick dose of Victoriana, that relief is just an hour away.

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