The New Mexico Architectural Foundation (NMAF) is celebrating its 30th anniversary and focusing attention on Albuquerque architecture during this year’s annual tour. The tour will spotlight several downtown buildings designed by the Trost and Trost architectural firm and the architect Henry C. Trost. Trost’s firm was based in El Paso but had a major influence across the southwestern United States. Henry Trost’s Hotel Paisano, in Marfa, Texas, was featured in one of my earlier “In Praise of Old Hotels” series blog posts. Trost and Trost designed a number of buildings in Albuquerque that still exist including the “Old Main” High School and the easily recognized Occidental Life Building. Details on the tours are here: https://newmexicoarchitecturalfoundation.org/2017/09/25/2017tour-trost/
The built environment in New Mexico is, in general, is a low-rise environment. It has been largely dominated by the natural beauty and the impressive landscape more than the human-scale buildings. The Albuquerque skyline is no exception. The Sandia Mountains are the most eye catching and demanding feature – it is hard to compete with towering mountains. The earliest residents of New Mexico revered the landscape and became part of it. Even today’s pueblos seem to be embedded into the natural surroundings.
The city government issued an RFP this year for a new high-rise building in downtown Albuquerque which, if constructed, will be the tallest building in the state. Whether we need a new high-rise building in Albuquerque is open to discussion, I guess, given other civic priorities. We will have to wait and see what happens.
This blog post is a quick, hit and miss sort of foxtrot through some of Albuquerque’s architecture, both historical and modern. The city of Albuquerque grew from around 11,000 population in 1910 to about 560,000 at present. That is a tremendous growth in population and size in just over 100 years. With a population as small as 11,000 there really isn’t much of a historical legacy of architecture throughout the city. It was once a farming and sheep-herding community and there were small clusters and hamlets and historical neighborhoods at key locations in what eventually became the city. The Spanish colonial town plaza in Old Town was at the city’s original core.
Although Indian populations lived in and around the Albuquerque area for thousands of years, the first Spanish presence came in the 1540s with the Coronado expedition. The earliest Spanish colonial settlers arrived in northern New Mexico in the 1590s. Santa Fe was established in 1610 and Albuquerque was settled in 1706 by settlers moving south from the Bernalillo settlement. The oldest existing building in the Albuquerque area lies fifteen miles to the south at the San Agustin del la Isleta Mission church at Isleta Pueblo, built in 1622.
The Barelas neighborhood in Albuquerque dates to about the 1660s and was at the site of a river crossing on the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro which connected Mexico City to Santa Fe and the San Juan Pueblo (now Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo). When Alburquerque was established (that pesky first ‘r’ was dropped sometime later) the town plaza was the focus of civic, religious and commercial activity. The oldest documented building in the city is probably the church of San Felipe de Neri located on the plaza and dating to 1793.
The other buildings around the plaza are mostly from the Mexican period (after 1821) or later in the 1800s. The Casa Armijo, a residence built sometime in the mid-1800s, became La Placita Dining Rooms in 1935. Casa de Ruiz, now the Church Street Café, has the reputation of being the oldest residence in the city.
The Old Town served as Albuquerque’s main center until the arrival of the Santa Fe Railway in 1880. The railroad established a depot, rail yards, and maintenance buildings about two miles east of Old Town and the center of commercial activity moved to the depot area, called New Town, leaving Old Town largely intact for the next century. That first relocation of the city center and the patchwork of early settlement is, perhaps, a hint at the way the city has developed in a dispersed pattern over the decades.
Several neighborhoods grew up around the rail yards and maintenance shops. Albuquerque transitioned from a farming and herding community into a railroad town. The rail yard buildings are mostly unused today and began to fall into disrepair until some recent rehabilitation started turning the site into a market and entertainment venue.
Things were looking pretty good for Albuquerque. The railroad invested a lot of money in their installation and provided new jobs for a growing population. Albuquerque became known as a place with a healthy dry climate and an industry of sorts grew up providing recuperative housing and treatment for respiratory patients. There were seventeen sanatoriums built in Albuquerque where “Lungers” could seek “the cure”. It also became sort of a cottage industry and some private homes were also retro-fitted out with spaces for Lungers. There are still older houses in town with an airy “penthouse” addition with windows an all sides to allow free air circulation.
Americans were riding the rails and Albuquerque was an important stop. In 1902 “the greatest railroad hotel in existence” was opened by Fred Harvey: the Alvarado Hotel. Harvey House hotels were largely partnered with the Santa Fe Railroad and one could eat or stay in a Harvey House hotel at almost every major Santa Fe stop. They served as both passenger railway stations and comfortable hotels. Mary Colter, the architect of most of the iconic buildings at the Grand Canyon, was the interior designer…her first gig with Fred Harvey. She stayed on to design many of his company’s hotels and was a big proponent of the Southwestern Pueblo Revival style.
The Alvarado was built in a grand Southwestern/California Mission Revival style. Native American art and crafts were on display everywhere and especially in the wing of the hotel were items were sold to eager tourists. In many cases this was the first exposure for many travelers to Native American art. Local Indian artisans were on hand to meet the trains and sell their work…as they still are today.
Passenger rail service dwindled away after WW-2 and the Alvarado Hotel fell on hard times. Maintenance of such a large and mostly empty building was too much. Finally, in 1970, the beautiful hotel was demolished and converted into a dirt parking lot. What remained as a passenger station burned down in 1993. After 2000 the city began constructing the Alvarado Transportation Center on the site as a combination city transit depot, bus station and Amtrak station. The architects reached back and used some of the features of the old Alvarado Hotel in the design of the new structure. It appears reminiscent of the old hotel but serves a more modern purpose. Surprisingly, there are a couple small structures that remain from the old hotel…a telegraph office and a freight office on the south end of the property.
This was the southwest and southwestern architecture was king for many decades. Spanish Colonial Revival, Pueblo Revival and Territorial style design can be seen throughout the city. The perennial dry climate and occasional gusty winds coming off the desert or through the canyons made flat roofs most common. The high elevation sun made shade an important asset so portals and loggia/porches were popular features. Historically, the old buildings were constructed of adobe mud bricks plastered with a sticky mud every few years. The affect was similar in appearance to stucco so stucco became a popular and common finishing material on newer construction. From a distance, the earth tones of stucco homes with flat roofs blends in with the colors of the desert and just becomes part of the landscape.
It was clear that the southwestern United States had an essential and unique architectural flavor. Even government buildings built at this time reflected the southwestern style. An example is the Old Post Office and Federal Building in downtown Albuquerque (now repurposed as a charter high school).
The Pueblo Revival style became popular in the early 20th century largely through the work of John Gaw Meem, an architect based in Santa Fe. Meem arrived in Santa Fe in 1920 initially for “the cure”. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis while in Brazil and entered a local sanatorium where he lived off and on for several years. Meem became increasingly interested in architecture and local efforts to preserve the historic and pre-historic adobe structures in New Mexico. He was trained as a civil engineer and had little formal training in architecture but in 1924 he started an architectural partnership with a fellow patient while living at the sanatorium. Meem eventually was hired to renovate the La Fonda hotel on the Santa Fe plaza. The hotel had been built in the early 1920s in “Santa Fe Style” which was essentially Pueblo Revival. The La Fonda was acquired as a Harvey House hotel in 1925 and renovation started with Mary Colter in charge of interior design and Meem tackling the exterior. The building stands today as a prime example of Pueblo Revival architecture, both inside and out
Meem had other projects during this period including restoration of adobe churches dating back to the 1600s. In Albuquerque, he designed the Los Poblanos ranch residence and other buildings. Meem became the official architect of the University of New Mexico in 1933 and remained in that position until his 1956 retirement. During that time the University buildings were generally designed, or redesigned, in the Pueblo Revival style. Most notable is probably the Zimmerman Library building but other structures on campus or associated with the University also fall into that style. The visitor center at Kuaua pueblo (Coronado Historic Site) is a Meem building.
Zimmerman Library – UNM
While Santa Fe largely embraced the Pueblo Revival style, Albuquerque had a broader vision of what urban southwestern architecture could be about. Pueblo Revival was not the only show in town…although it held a huge influence. The architectural firm of Trost and Trost (featured in the 2017 NMAF tour) was founded by Henry C. Trost in El Paso in 1903.Trost had a much wider range of styles including Art Deco, Prairie Style, Southwestern/Mission, and even Asian Bhutanese. Trost built the first reinforced concrete building in Albuquerque, the 1910 Rosenwald Department Store building which still stands at Fourth and Central in downtown Albuquerque. The building is something of a fusion of styles, including Southwestern and Modernism, and doesn’t appear to be 107 years old. In 1917, Trost designed the Occidental Life Building in a Venetian Revival style. The gleaming white building stands out as architectural landmark in downtown Albuquerque. The Trost and Trost firm had an enduring impact on Albuquerque’s architecture and the streetscape in the city’s core
The fusion of styles that developed in Albuquerque probably hit its most flamboyant peak once the city became a major stop on Route 66. Central Avenue, once named Railroad Avenue, became the main east-west axis of the city after the passenger railroad business dropped off and Americans took to the highway. It was already an important street leading out east to the University of New Mexico campus and new developments at Nob Hill. There were several early routes that the “Mother Road” took through New Mexico but it finally settled down on Central Avenue as it went through Albuquerque. The city greeted the incoming guests with open arms and a fantastic array of neon-lighted motels.
The style was often Cowboy and Indian Kitsch but was certainly exuberant. Many, probably most, of those Route 66 motels have been demolished or closed down. A couple are converted into residential cluster housing. The motel trade moved on to Comfort Inn, Motel 6 or Holiday Inn Express – dullsville. There are still several of the old Mother Road hotels if you look for them. Sadly, the Aztec Motel was pulled down in 2011.
As long as Mom and Dad and the kids were enjoying the sights in Albuquerque they could take in a movie. The KiMo Theater was built in 1927 in an amazing fusion of Art Deco and Pueblo Revival styles. This was the heyday of classic theater building all across the country and the downtown KiMo Theater certainly rises to the challenge. There is probably no other structure in America that goes all out in the marriage of the two styles both on the exterior and the interior.
The KiMo wasn’t alone – the Hyiand Theater sits further out Central Avenue closer to all the motels and tourist dollars.
Central Avenue is still a popular place for tourists, university students and locals to eat and unwind. There are a few diners and restaurants and a growing number of micro-breweries and brew pub taprooms. The Route 66 diner is an icon of the Streamlined Neon-Diner style if there is such a thing
Kelly’s is a great example of adaptive re-use of a sprawling Texaco station that probably served millions of tourists in it’s former life. It now is a popular spot for craft beer, burgers and people watching.
A few blocks north off Central Avenue, near the corner of Lomas and Eubank, sits the Owl Café, designed and constructed in sort of a fusion of Mid-Century Modern with an Owl Effigy style of architecture…Albu-Quirky style, maybe.
There are still lots of Pueblo Revival and Southwest Revival buildings going up but many have a different twist or a fusion with other styles. There are whole subdivisions of Pueblo Tuscan Revival homes going up on the outer reaches of the city. The use of stucco as an exterior surface is still popular on commercial and residential buildings.
There seems to be a willingness in Albuquerque to try new things and new styles. Here are a few fairly recent buildings that come to mind:
Atrisco Heritage Academy High School
Patrick J Baca Library
Central New Mexico Community College – West Campus
Aperture Center – Mesa del Sol
Isleta Pueblo Tribal Services Complex
National Hispanic Cultural Center
Casa Guadalupe Franciscan Friary West Mesa
Indian Pueblo Cultural Center
We have come full circle. Architecture in New Mexico and Albuquerque began a thousand years ago or more with stone and adobe structures built by local Indians. It progressed with the arrival of the Franciscans and the Spanish settlers. The railroad and industry had a role. Route 66 had and still has an influence. The later styles moved toward revival of traditional themes but also moved forward into uncharted territory. There has been a willingness to see value in new things. Experimentation has moved the built environment forward, backward and in some exotic or quirky directions at times but there are still threads of the traditional Southwestern style and experience. That is sort of what Albuquerque is all about.