El Rancho Hotel – Gallup, NM
During my late December trip to Flagstaff I was looking forward to stopping at the El Rancho Hotel in Gallup, New Mexico, on the way home. I had heard stories about the place. It was a “must see” according to people who had been there. My curiosity was caught up in the anticipation of a classic old hotel. On my way west I spent a night in the La Posada Hotel in Winslow, Arizona, and at Bright Angel Lodge at the Grand Canyon. Both of those places were part of the Harvey Hotel operation and were associated with the Santa Fe Railway.
The El Rancho and the La Posada were often inhabited by movie stars when they were working in the area shooting old western films. My expectations were influenced by my stay at the La Posada and at Bright Angel Lodge. That was unfair and unrealistic. The El Rancho is a different animal.
When I write up these hotel blog postings I think in terms of classifying the places as historical or haunted or tourist hotels. They can be Route 66 “Mother Road” hotels or railroad hotels. The El Rancho fits in several categories but not easily into just one.
It certainly has history. It opened in 1937 and was built and operated by R. E. “Griff” Griffith, the brother of D. W. Griffith, the early film industry pioneer who directed “Birth of a Nation”. I guess the Griffith boys knew this would be prime movie making territory. The hotel was designed by Joe Massaglia who later had an ownership interest in the classic southwestern Franciscan Hotel in Albuquerque (demolished in the 1970s, of course). As far as I could discover, Joe Massaglia never designed anything else. Although it was never a Harvey Hotel, the staff members were trained by the Harvey Company. The Harvey Company had a large hotel in Gallup, the El Navaho, which was designed by Mary Colter but (you guessed it) demolished in the 1950s.
The El Rancho is a rambling and rustic sort of place. It was touted as “the World’s Largest Ranch House” with the charm of yesterday and the convenience of tomorrow. It intentionally looks a little rustic and scruffy like one would expect of a wild west ranch house. It has been described as having a southern plantation look to it. I can see that a little. It has been added to over the years but the three-story central part is the original structure. The place is close to the railroad and positioned on old Route 66. It is definitely a tourist hotel and I wonder about the possibility of hauntings.
My arrival was at night and the parking lot out in front was jammed. I was wondering what the huge draw was but found out that there was a local Christmas party going on. The lobby is a two-story showplace of western and movie memorabilia. You immediately know you are in the American west if you have somehow awakened from a coma. The second floor lobby balcony is almost covered in old movie star publicity shots, mostly autographed. Just about everybody from Hollywood westerns and even some Egyptian or Middle Eastern themed films stayed here. There was a nicely decorated and huge Christmas tree taking up one part of the lobby.
I was booked into the Alan Ladd room on the second floor up an impressive staircase (the elevator wasn’t working). It was across the hall from the Jane Fonda room and there were a dozen other actors’ names on the other rooms nearby. John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, Humphrey Bogart, Kirk Douglas, and Gregory Peck all stayed here, among others. I could have booked the Ronald Reagan room but chose not to for personal reasons. The hallways have southwestern Indian-style murals painted on the walls.
Alan Ladd, it turns out, suffered from (terminal) chronic insomnia and probably didn’t get much sleep in my room. He might have been pacing the floor all night — it was big enough and he was only about five foot six. I’d like to think that maybe he just read a book. The hotel furnishings look like they are from the movie star era. There are a few chairs made out of cow horns out in the lobby. I had furniture in my room that I suspect dated from the 1930s or 1940s. That is not to say that it was restored or refurbished, it just seemed to be original and matched some of the furniture out in the lobby. The two beds in my room were not original but were quite comfortable and I slept well. They have Wi-Fi but it is an odd system based on room numbers and service is hit and miss. I was actually curious about any reported hauntings in the place. People have reported hearing footsteps and laughter and some mysteriously moved objects. I heard footsteps and laughter but there was a party going on. I suspect it is pretty much spirit free….but maybe just a little creepy.
The Christmas party was still going on as I went into the dining room to eat. The food was simple but plentiful. I had a steak and it was good. The waitress was friendly and cheerful, like those that call you “dearie” or “honey”, which was nice for a change. You wouldn’t get that homey treatment at the La Posada or Bright Angel Lodge. I had a good “cowboy” breakfast the next morning and got the same treatment. The restaurant décor is sort of Mexican, sort of western, and sort of oriental all at once. I’m guessing a Hollywood concoction of styles. The restaurant is popular with local Gallup folks who seem to be somewhat entertained by scrutinizing the hotel guests. There aren’t many movie stars eating in the restaurant these days but they seemed happy to speculate and watch me eat my breakfast. I took my time and gave them a good show.
The hotel went into bankruptcy in the 1980s and was heading for demolition when it was purchased by Armand Ortega for $500,000. He spent another $500,000 refurbishing it and got it back on its feet and reopened in 1988. Mr. Ortega, who died in 2014, was an accomplished businessman and national park concessionaire. He operated restaurants and southwestern art gift shops and spent a lot of time at the El Rancho visiting with guests. There is a large Ortega gift shop at the hotel just off the lobby. I left the El Rancho thinking that it needed a little help. It is on the Historic Register and they obtained a grant a while back to fix the wooden shingled roof.
The El Rancho has its own style and is not easily placed in one category or another. That accounts for some of the charm of the place. There are no obvious stories of movie stars riding their horses into the lobby or gunfights…no tales of it once being a brothel. You are left with the notion that this is a place stuck in time but also in transition for a long time…maybe from the start. First the railroad, then Route 66, movie stars and film crews are now mostly gone, the interstate highway is across town. It is a little off the beaten path unless you are following the Mother Road. Improvements and additions were made and some were probably not well conceived. Maintenance costs must be very high. With the death of Mr. Ortega I’m not sure what the future holds.