I stopped off in Las Vegas, New Mexico, on the way home from a short visit with friends in Colorado Springs. I didn’t know much about Las Vegas. My only experience has been stopping there momentarily on frequent Amtrak trips between Albuquerque and Kansas City. The train passengers all sit and look out the windows and ponder the fenced off hulk of the old Castenada Hotel and remark that this doesn’t look like pictures of Las Vegas they have seen. Of course, that’s the other Las Vegas. This one is older and has (perhaps) more character and an interesting history. This time, travelling by car, I opted to stay one night in Las Vegas and see what the place is about. I could have spent a few more days.
Las Vegas predates the railroad and was an important stop along the Santa Fe Trail. As such, it seems to have grown up in a somewhat dispersed manner. The old town plaza is not hugging the railroad tracks and has a well developed commercial district. There is another commercial district over by the railroad station and a little bit more sprinkled here and there. New Mexico Highlands University is located in Las Vegas and there is some development close to the campus. The campus buildings are interesting as well.
The Plaza Hotel
I booked a room at the Plaza Hotel, located on a corner of the old town plaza. The building dates to 1882 and is a classic old Victorian building. In more recent years it has expanded into the adjoining Ilfeld Department Store building. The Ilfeld section houses a large ballroom on the first floor and guest rooms upstairs. As a lover of old hotels, I was immediately taken with the place.
As you enter the hotel there is a bar (saloon) on the right and a restaurant on the left. There are sidewalk tables outside the bar where guests can sit and enjoy the activity in the plaza. Decorations are sparsely elegant in both the bar and the restaurant. As you go deeper into the hotel lobby you start to see more of the gilded age décor. There are two large staircases leading up to guest rooms…there is an elevator as well. There is a bright conservatory located in the rear…where breakfast coffee and quick bread are served in the morning.
My room was on the second floor and very roomy and comfortable. Hotel rooms back in the day were quite small and often served by a communal bathroom somewhere down the hall. As these places are refurbished for modern guests the owners have had to combine rooms to add space and install bathrooms. Sometimes you can see how that was accomplished and other times you can’t. In this case, either the rooms were originally laid out in a spacious manner or the combining and redesigning was so slick that you can’t really tell how it was done.
This is an old hotel and probably the floor squeaked not long after it was in operation. It still squeaks somewhat and you can hear your upstairs neighbor walking across the floor. As with other old hotels, it was not designed for electricity and certainly not for modern guests with cell phones, computers and whatever else needs charging. Even with that, I found ample electrical outlets for all my stuff.
The Plaza Hotel has occasionally been selected as a movie set. There is a scene in No Country For Old Men where Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) is confronted on a stairway by hit man Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). That’s actually the way to your room.
Having eaten my way all the way to Colorado Springs and back I was looking for a light supper. The restaurant serves an excellent marinated kale salad with strawberries, almonds, quinoa and avocado. It was very good as was the Tres Leches Cake I had for dessert.
The hotel is owned by Allan Affeldt. If you have been following me on my visits to old hotels lately you will recognize the name. He is the owner (and savior) of La Posada Hotel in Winslow, Arizona…where I stayed about seven months ago on the way to Flagstaff and Grand Canyon. He has done a wonderful job here at The Plaza. The guy seems to be everywhere. He and his wife were waiting tables in the restaurant when I was there. Just the amount of work (and money) required to save and restore La Posada would make someone think twice about trying it again. But…he has the Plaza and is now the owner of the Castenada Hotel next to the train station here in Las Vegas. More on that later.
There is a lot going on in Las Vegas to keep you busy. As luck would have it, there was an historic architecture tour going on the day I arrived. That would have been interesting. There are several civic groups scheduling events on most weekends. I found a booklet that offers walking tours of historic areas in town so I went out looking for places near the hotel and around the plaza.
Of course there is the hotel and the converted department store described above. Just down the street is an interesting one story adobe building, now modernized with a stucco exterior surface. This building dates to about 1836 and was the stage for a dramatic event. In 1846, General Stephan Kearny stood on the roof and addressed the assembled town residents proclaiming the annexation of New Mexico by the United States. The text of the proclamation is recorded on a plaque across the street.
Around the corner is another old adobe structure now serving as the church parish hall. There is an impressive bank building and a drug store on the next corner. A quilt shop, antique shop and art gallery occupy several historic buildings across from the hotel.
While there was a great breakfast opportunity at the hotel, I heard about another spot as a bakery and breakfast restaurant: Charlie’s Spic and Span. There’s a giant cream puff on the front façade so you can’t miss it. It was a good choice… but very busy on Sunday morning.
After breakfast I headed toward the train station, passing the old Carnegie library along the way. The station is the Amtrak stop and serves as the visitors center. I’ve seen it before from the train.
The Castenada Hotel
Something else I’ve seen before, from the Amtrak window, was the fenced and boarded up Castenado Hotel. The Castenada was opened in 1898 and was the first Harvey House railroad hotel. It operated until 1948 and has been largely vacant ever since. The furnishings have been sold or auctioned off. I happen to have a dining room chair from the Castenada that was auctioned off some time ago.
Allan Affeldt purchased the Castenada a couple years ago and is intent on restoration and reopening for business. There are architectural drawings posted on the wall in the lobby of the Plaza Hotel showing what it will look like. Affeldt is taking advantage of tax credits with the restoration and with the old hotel’s use as the set for Midnight Texas television series. I’ve never seen the show but it is some sort of horror or vampire story. There is a curious frame church sitting on the corner of the property that is part of the TV set. From what I hear the Castenada is reputed to be haunted.
Mr. Affeldt has his work cut out for him. The structure has “good bones” (pun intended) and has weathered the 100+ plus years well. He has a video for sale that shows some of the challenges and some of the surprising strengths of the old structure. Even in its current state it is being used and I noticed that a concert is planned there in about a month.
Based on what I’ve seen at La Posada, I have high hopes for the restoration and look forward to seeing it in a refurbished state. As with La Posada, the original furnishings will probably not be available but the Affeldts make good choices that fit the context of the building and its era.
Somehow this place has survived and, coupled with the train station and visitors center, will serve as an anchor for the track-side neighborhood to develop. There are other restorable properties close by. The structure pictured below is directly across the street from the hotel.
The church from the TV production set is temporary and is constructed from two box cars side-by-side with the church exterior draped over the supporting box cars. Filming for the TV show starts back up in September. There is another Christian Bale movie (Hostiles) that will be partially shot in Las Vegas in the near future.
While I was walking around I met a lady from Vermont who stopped in Las Vegas because she was unable to find a place to stay in Santa Fe. She said that she originally just wanted to be able to say she spent a night in Las Vegas (as in Nevada) but was falling in love with the New Mexico version. She had an interest in the many older craftsman houses and in what she believed were Sears Roebuck houses in some of the neighborhoods. So, I must say that I, too, enjoyed my stop-over in Las Vegas and will be back. I was surprised to see that it is only about 100 miles from home…for some reason I thought it was a lot farther away.
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