History in towns: Another Las Vegas, this one in New Mexico

Across the street from this remarkableassemblage looms the high ruddy facade ofthe Plaza Hotel, completed in 1882 and recently refurbished:three stories, fifty-four spacious rooms, two street-level restaurants,and now the crown jewel of the more than ninehundred Las Vegas buildings listed on the National Registerof Historic Places. Recently, the hotel’s owner, Wid Slick, hasexpanded it to include its next-door neighbor, the CharlesIlfeld Building, an Italianate structure begun in 1882 andcompleted with additions by 1890.

Finally, on the east side of the plaza there is the RomeroBuilding, erected in 1919 by a political figure who was arelative of Tito Chavez’s, a long ramble of a California revivalbuilding with red tile corner pavilions, now a drugstore.Later, I discovered that within its high-ceilinged main roomthere is an impressive collection of cigar store Indians.

Then there were the grand houses on the east side of theGallinas. Before the railroad the Gallinas was a vital sourceof water for the community. After 1879 it became a culturaldivide that persists into the present day. The houses of thenewcomers were, appropriately, down by the rail yards andbore no architectural or cultural relationship to the adobes ofthe old Hispanic sections on the river’s west side. Thesenewer houses were the often gaudy, busy manifestations ofthe new money the railroad brought to town along with agaggle of drifters, gamblers, gunslingers, and camp followers.Driving around this section of town to give me an overviewof it, Vince Howell of the Las Vegas—San Miguel Chamberof Commerce wanted me to notice not only the size of thehouses (many of which would surely qualify as “mansions”);he also wanted me to get the radically different feel of EastLas Vegas. West Las Vegas with its narrow, winding streets,its adobes and acequias (irrigation ditches) was in many waysstill looking to its colonial past when the railroad arrived. Andit continued to look to the oxen-and-Conestoga-wagon pastwell after the railroad had changed so much. East Las Vegas,or New Town as it is still called, looked to the future, havingno past, and openly worshipped the god of progress. Thedifferent feel Howell wanted me to notice is not only a matterof the size of the houses. For New Town was laid out in agrid where idiosyncrasies and surprises were sacrificed toorder and replication. Soon enough Henry Ford (1863–1947)would make another American revolution by devising amanufacturing system based on these principles. Here thestraight, wide-spaced streets—First, Second, Third—werenot oriented to an agricultural commons where livestock hadonce been quartered (as was the case with the plaza in OldTown). Instead, New Town’s orientation was to two spruceparks: Carnegie Park with its signature library; and LincolnPark, adorned by three big brownstones, once the proudpossessions of a family that had come to town with the railway.Like the Veeder Buildings on the plaza, these were architecturalhodgepodges, combining with a certain unease featuresof Victorian, Italianate, Queen Anne, and classical styles.

But the railroad’s chief architectural bequests to Las Vegasmight be La Castañeda Hotel and Montezuma Castle. Forthose born after World War II it can come as something of ashock to encounter artifacts of prewar American railroad culture such as these two old hotels, about like stumblingupon the fully articulated skeleton of a brontosaurus.

La Castañeda rises grandly and improbably from the sprawland rusted detritus of the rail yards, majestic even in its gauntdisrepair—a high, broad mission revival palace with widearcades bordering its twin wings; a bell tower with a sunblisterednameplate on it; and a long-disused fountain in itscourtyard that once welcomed the famous of the westernworld from Teddy Roosevelt to Shirley Temple. Shortly afterFred Harvey (1835–1901) opened the hotel Roosevelt andhis Rough Riders gave it an unofficial baptism when theyheld their first reunion in Las Vegas. A photograph of theevent shows the stubby colonel posed in front of the hotel’sarcade, surrounded by his men and a few blanketed Indiansrounded up from somewhere. And there is another photographof La Castañeda hanging in the lobby of the adjacent depot(built the same year), showing a couple of touring cars thatlook rather like launches, pulling away from La Castañeda’sentrance with all seats occupied by smiling, sunstruck tourists.Much faded though it is, the print still imparts a sense of thegreat days of railroading and the significant part the FredHarvey system played in them.

Across Railroad Avenue stands the spectral hulk ofthe Rawlins Building (1899), now probably too fargone for renovation. The pressed-metal front of itsupper story is still intact as are the ground floor’s recessedstorefront windows, though these are boarded up. TheRawlins served as the dormitory for the once-famed HarveyGirls, those models of wholesome efficiency who cateredto the needs of the rail-traveling public from 1880 into the1950s. Their highly interesting story might well have beenanother casualty of our historical amnesia if historianLesley Poling-Kempes had not sought out the last of theHarvey Girls and recorded their testimonies.

Behind the building in the weed-choked and littered lot amodest stoop was barely visible through the spiky weeds thathad grown up around it. I stood there in the spring sunpondering it while two pit bulls menaced me from their cageacross the alley. When Fred Harvey personally supervised hischain in the West one of his many rules was that a Harvey AntiquesGirl must never be seen at rest–an event that in any casemust have been extremely rare. And so I found myself hopingthat here at least, on these three narrow steps and hiddenfrom the patrons they served over at the hotel aHarvey Girl or two might havefound a few moments of solaceand reflection.

Montezuma Castle, a fewmiles north of town, was for atime also a Harvey operationand is grander than La Castañedaor even the Plaza Hotel,though what you see of itnow—its turrets gleamingdully on its high hill—is reallythe third incarnation on the spot, the first twohaving burned. All three castles were located abovethe ancient hot springs that had served varioustribes as powwow grounds. By the 1870s the tribeshad been pushed westward or relocated to reservations,and Fred Harvey, who saw the commercialpossibilities here, talked the railroad into running a spurto it, and then in 1882 erected a massive, castle-like structurethat could accommodate five hundred guests.

The current castle, designed by John Wellborn Root(1850–1891) of the Chicago firm Burnham and Root, datesfrom 1886 and is a ninety-thousand-square-foot monsterbuilt mostly of red sandstone and slate in a belated cautionaryresponse to its two wooden predecessors. These days ithouses students of one of the United World Colleges, aneducational movement promoting world peace through internationalunderstanding. The interior has been retrofittedto accommodate its function, but there are still vestiges of itsluxurious past, and you can stand in what was once thelobby and imagine it filled with smartly turned-out Easternersand their leather luggage instead of lounging teenagersand backpacks. The reception desk is still there and the roomkeyslots behind it. And across the vast floor from the desk isa fireplace cavernous enough to roast a steer in.

But it may be outside on the lawns where you can get thebest sense of the hotel’s grandeur and the dreams that went intoits creation. You might be tempted to sink into one of thehigh-backed rockers on the long verandas there, hundreds offeet above the canyon floor. With the wind just right, you wouldget a sulfurous whiff of the hot springs below, still bubblingout healing waters for tribes and tourists in a dry place.

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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