The historic town is making a comeback, spurred by Wild West can-do spirit and the renovation of its landmark hotel.
SUMMER IN THE MEADOW CITY | LAS VEGAS
Fourth of July Fiestas
Come to Plaza Park for live music, a parade, watermelon-eating contest, and the Fiesta Run. (505) 454-1401, ext. 3272; lasvegasnewmexicofiestas.wordpress.com
Rough Rider Motorcycle Rally
Motorcyclists from all walks of life re-create a tradition started by Teddy Roosevelt. Tattoo contest, blood drive, bike raffle, vendors, and live music. (505) 617-5632; roughridermotorcyclerally.com
Sponsored by the Citizens Committee for Historic Preservation, this annual event includes lectures, music, a chile-and-beer fest, pioneer dinner, garden tour, drivein movies, and more. Most programs are free. (505) 425-8803; lvcchp.org
Places with a Past Historic Sites Tour
A highlight of Heritage Week. Peek inside the Castañeda Hotel, Montezuma Castle, Our Lady of Sorrows Church, and adobe and Victorian homes during this self-guided tour. $20. (505) 425-8803; lvcchp.org
San Miguel County Fair
Check out the agricultural abundance, needlework, culinary skills, and more. County fairgrounds, N.M. 65; (505) 454-1497; visitlasvegasnm.com
Meadow City Music Fest
Main Street Las Vegas hosts free live music and children’s activities on the plaza. (505) 617-6800; meadowcityarts.org
People’s Fair & Music in Carnegie Park
Art, crafts, food vendors, and music outside the historic Carnegie Library. (505) 425-1085; lasvegasartscouncil.org
Need to Know
The Las Vegas Visitor Information Center in the old depot next to the Castañeda Hotel provides maps and a brochure of historic buildings. From there, you can hoof it, but parking is generally easy to find and free. 500 Railroad Ave.; (505) 425-3707; visitlasvegasnm.com
Charlie’s Spic & Span Bakery and Café has drawn national attention for its down-home New Mexico–style breakfasts and lunches (715 Douglas Ave.; 505-426-1921). JC’s New York Pizza Department is the new kid in town with pizza by the slice (131 Bridge St.; 505-454-4444). The Old Town Drafthouse (139 Bridge St.; 505-850-6839) serves British-style ale and the ever-popular tacos and other fare from El Rialto Restaurant & Lounge. 141 Bridge St.; (505) 454-0037
Plaza Antiques (1805 Old Town Plaza; 505-454- 9447) and Rough Rider Antiques (501 Railroad Ave.; 505-454-8063) sell furniture, pottery, art, books, and more. Blowin’ in the Wind is a boutique and gallery that fills its large space with hip clothes, local art, jewelry, and home décor (108 Bridge St.; blowininthewind1.com; 505- 454-1050). El Zócalo Cooperative Art Gallery gathers dozens of local creators and includes Meredith Britt’s cut-paper collages and Todd Christensen’s miniatures of Vegas landmarks (212 Plaza St.; 505-454-9904). Tome on the Range carries a wide array of literature, including almost any author who can claim a toehold on the Land of Enchantment. 158 Bridge St.; (505) 454-9944
Franchise hotels line the business route off I-25. For a sense of place and history, check in to the Plaza Hotel; rooms from $83. 230 Plaza St. (505) 425-3591; plazahotel-nm.com
Slip into the City of Las Vegas Museum & Rough Rider Memorial for exhibits on local history (727 Grand Ave.; 505-426-3205; lasvegasmuseum.org). The Santa Fe Trail Interpretive Center has photos, artifacts, and historic talks. 116 Bridge St.; (505) 425-8803; lvcchp.org
The first time Allan Affeldt peeked inside the Castañeda Hotel 10 years ago, he figured it for a lost cause—another tragic chapter in the crumbling saga of Harvey House lodgings that once dotted the railroad and helped tame the West. Albuquerque’s Alvarado Hotel had vanished, along with Gallup’s El Navajo, Lamy’s El Ortiz, Vaughn’s Las Chavez, and others.
“People couldn’t figure out a way to save them,” Affeldt says, “and this one, it just seemed clear, it was only a matter of time.”
The 1898 Castañeda, an exemplar of Mission Revival style, whispered of danger and decay. Largely vacant, it housed a bar that Affeldt described as “surreal.” Renovated decades ago in a slapdash mash-up of rustic-cowboy-meets-seventies-disco, it opened at odd times on occasional days, just enough to validate the liquor license.
By then, Affeldt had renovated another Harvey gem, La Posada, in Winslow, Arizona. Under his hand, the hotel had morphed from an aging eyesore into a sprawling beehive stuffed with lodgers. So when Vegas folks wondered how a rebuilt hotel might jazz up their town, nestled on the eastern flank of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, just 60 miles east of Santa Fe, they thought of Affeldt. He became their Don Quixote. But every time he tilted at the Castañeda’s price tag, he folded.
“At first it was $2 million, then a million and a half,” he says.
Given the additional multimillion-dollar cost of new plumbing, a new roof, new wiring, reconfigured walls, asbestos abatement, and who knows what else in a building that might yield just 20 guest rooms, Affeldt walked away. But he always looked back—at a downtown bustling with quaint shops, at a bounty of Victorian architecture, at hot springs and trout streams, all of it just a side step off I-25.
In April, the Castañeda’s price fell to $450,000, and the keys finally slipped into Affeldt’s pocket. The day after his purchase, he spoke to a packed meeting of the Las Vegas Rotary Club, whose members shared not only a nostalgia for the mecca the hotel used to be, but an eagerness to kick-start an economy too accustomed to the slow lane.
“This is one of the prettiest small towns in the West,” Affeldt told the group. “I hope the Castañeda is just a catalyst so that Las Vegas becomes once again Las Vegas Grandes—the great Las Vegas.” Just blocks away, in various pockets of the city’s three historic districts, other businesspeople were already at work on the next evolution of Vegas. As the Castañeda joins the march, their paths converge toward a tipping point.
What lies ahead? An offbeat blend of historic charm, antique stores, northern New Mexico realness—and perhaps an unexpected streak of hipsterish bootstrap entrepreneurialism, complete with tech-savvy kids, an award-winning brewery, and even artisanal pickles.
Billy the Kid, Doc Holliday, and Fred Harvey walk into a bar. It sounds like the setup for a joke, but it may have actually happened. A onetime remote land-grant village, Las Vegas (“the meadows”) boomed when the Santa Fe Trail cut across New Mexico in 1821. The railroad arrived in 1880, and Victorian architecture blossomed, all the way from the tracks to the Old Town plaza.
Despite the gentility such buildings imply, the town was gritty and raucous, a magnet for notorious outlaws and conniving politicians.
Stephen Fried, author of Appetite for America, a renowned biography of Fred Harvey and his hotel empire, says Billy, Doc, and Fred likely crossed paths as the height of the Wild West greeted its most civilizing factor.
Harvey staked his claim on top-shelf customer service. In partnership with the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway, the company attracted travelers to exotic lands west of Missouri, and enticed them to linger along the way.
In the 1880s, Harvey had overseen construction of the magnificent Montezuma Hotel six miles north of Vegas. Though it burned down twice, the company restored it each time, attracting visitors to the area’s hot springs, ice ponds, and mountain scenery. (Today, Montezuma Castle is home to the Armand Hammer United World College of the American West, a high school in the International Baccalaureate program; tours are offered during the school year.)
The Castañeda, named for Pedro de Castañeda, chronicler of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado’s 1540 expedition, was designed as the first of three luxury stops on a specific western tour, along with the Alvarado and the Grand Canyon’s El Tovar. As local carpenters and masons completed the Castañeda, future President Theodore Roosevelt recruited local cowboys to serve as Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War. Though their service was brief, their national heroism gleamed. In 1899, they held the first Rough Rider reunion at the brand-new Castañeda; Teddy himself was at the fore. The town thereafter established an annual tradition that continued until the last of the honorees took off his boots for the final time.
In 1948, with the Harvey empire fading, the Castañeda turned toes up. Two subsequent owners tried to bring it back, but travelers checked in to newer hotels, stayed a night, and then buzzed away. Over the next several decades, the tourism economy sputtered, despite its rip-snorting history, lively art scene, next-door national forest, 900-plus properties on the National Register of Historic Places, and two colleges (New Mexico Highlands University and Luna Community College). Every time Affeldt and his wife, artist Tina Mion, visited, they left puzzled.
“For 10 years, we’d come up and ask, ‘Why aren’t there people here?’”
With the Castañeda, they intend to change that. Their plans include combining some of the original 40 rooms and shared baths into self-contained guest suites. The highlight: a two-story suite that carries lodgers into the building’s bell tower and boasts a small balcony facing the courtyard. They’ll restore the lunchroom and dining hall, salvage as much of the enormous kitchen equipment as possible, and buff up the first floor’s pressed-tin ceilings and terrazzo floors. Rooms could open within a year at a cost of $119 to $160 a night.
Fried, who leads an ad hoc legion of what he calls “Fred Heads”—amateur historians who delight in the lore of the railroad and the Harvey legacy—anticipates scores of reservations. “It’s going to be a lot of fun,” he says. “A lot of people are going to connect to a part of New Mexico history that is not well known.”
In his first week of ownership, Affeldt and a crew demolished decades of neglect (including that odd bar) and cleaned it up in time to host a welcoming celebration attended by Governor Susana Martinez and an array of the town’s bedrock citizens. The lobby filled with artists, rebuilding advocates, laborers, politicians, and business leaders. Dressed in everything from cowboy boots and Carhartts to banker’s suits and Sunday dresses, they earned a serenade by the Robertson High School’s Mariachi Cardenal.
No doubt the innovative Fred Harvey would admire the emergence of DIY cool in Vegas today. At the Parachute Factory, he could marvel at a Las Vegas high schooler embedding a T-shirt with computerized lights. Maybe he’d sample an Old Town Drafthouse ale, created in what its owners call a “nano brewery”—small in size, large in regional acclaim.
Ask almost any local micro-entrepreneur, “Why Vegas?” and they’ll tout an abundance of affordable real estate and a community eager to embrace risk-takers.
Margaret Smith, a native of nearby Rociada who’s lived all over, wasn’t sold on Las Vegas, but liked the vacant storefront she found on Bridge Street a year ago. As she and her husband, artist David Schaum, renovated it into their Blowin’ in the Wind gallery, neighbors kept popping in to cheer them on and build new friendships.
“By the time we had our grand opening,” she says, “we had fallen in love with Vegas.” (Fans of “One of Our 50 Is Missing,” take note: That grand opening was delayed a few weeks because the delivery company sent the gallery’s jewelry cases to the other Las Vegas.)
In 2012, Vegas native Mariano Ulibarri founded the Parachute Factory, a maker space—a site for communal creating with high-tech equipment—as part of his master’s in media arts from Highlands. Born in Vegas, he moved away and eventually taught English in Japan with his wife, but the love of family drew them back. The Parachute Factory started out with the mission of connecting children with technology, and has grown into a Bridge Street encampment that features everything from pinhole cameras to 3-D printers—and it welcomes adults, too. Drop-in programs are open to anyone interested in flexing their creativity (parachutefactory.org).
Ulibarri named the program after a decrepit building he’d love to move to on the plaza. Long empty, it once housed a Korean War–era parachute factory that employed legions of northern New Mexico women. His Parachute Factory, modeled after maker spaces in far larger cities, has won national acclaim for lighting the spark in a small town.
“They do them in San Francisco, but have trouble finding someone who can, say, weld things,” Ulibarri says. “Here, I can throw a rock and hit 12 people who weld to fix their fences. We have New York–transplant artists who used to be subway engineers working with kids. We have rugged and high-tech all in one space.”
Thus far, his motto has been “Just try anything,” and as for “Why Vegas?” he says it’s simple: “The economy is less affected than other places. And there’s this isolated feel, so making things happen out of necessity is more common than places like San Francisco. Part of it,” he adds, “was just wanting to get my friends and our kids together.”
One of those friends, Miguel Melendez, settled into a booth at the Old Town Drafthouse across the street and described how he grew up in the area, moved to Albuquerque and, upon returning six years ago, noted the “lack of beer culture but a lot of people who enjoyed craft beer.” He and co-owner Joshua Woodlee put their heads together, found some local folks willing to help, and within nine months the New Mexico Craft Brewing Co. had its first batch ready, with a taproom connected to El Rialto Restaurant & Lounge.
“Last October, at the Albuquerque Hopfest, we rolled down in my pickup truck, set up next to Marble Brewery, and came home with second-place Best of Fest,” Melendez says. “My phone has been ringing off the hook with distributors.” The hipster vibe continues at the War Dancer gallery on the plaza, where artist Diana Whitten launched her effort to establish a community commercial kitchen within the year. The goal: to give local amateur chefs a place to turn their homemade treats into retail items.
“People want to make gluten-free baked goods, pesto, and hummus,” she says. “Someone wants to do jerky. We’re working with all the local farmers and beef growers.” In perfect Portlandia fashion, Whitten intends to make Mother Works pickles.
Beyond the gallery, the Plaza Park hosts music festivals. Santeros have carved the trunks of dead trees into inviting statues. Bridge Street’s Tome on the Range continues to prove that independent bookstores can thrive in the age of Amazon. Nearby, the E. Romero Hose & Fire Company building is set to be renovated into a fire-truck museum. Casa de Cultura, a nonprofit group, has held blues festivals and recruited local youths to create playful murals, with plans for a collection of murals inspired by artist-activist Banksy. Annual events like the Rough Rider Motorcycle Rally and the Places with a Past Historic Sites Tour draw visitors from all over the world.
In 2013, the American Planning Association named Bridge one of the nation’s top 10 streets for successfully combining “its ‘Wild West’ origins … with a heterogeneous mix of restored Greek Revival, Italianate, Georgian Revival, Queen Anne, Neoclassical, and Colonial Revival architecture.”
Kudos aside, the street still lays claim to too many busted businesses and broken windows. The Plaza Hotel, an 1882 queen of the city that Affeldt also hopes to buy, is open for business but bankrupt after a 2009 expansion cracked heads with a national economic slump. Affeldt sees Vegas’ wounds, but predicts that the Castañeda and the town will heal at least some of them. “We’re hoping to do a lot with local produce and with the drafthouse,” he says. “There’s a lot of entrepreneurial energy here. There are antique stores and restaurants. Some may be just hanging on, and if more people were in town, they’d do better.”
While Affeldt spoke of the future, a piece of his dream turned audible; as if on cue, a train whistle sounded, faint and lonely, a voice from the past catching up to the present. ✜