Getting Lost in History in the Other LasVegas
By STEVEN TALBOT
Published: November 16, 2007
LAS VEGAS, N.M., laid claim to its name about 70 years before that upstart neon metropolis sprang out of the sands of Nevada – and it shows. With only about 14,000 people, this Las Vegas has 900 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, four grand old hotels (two still accepting guests), and not one but two period-piece downtowns.
Its Old West credentials are solid. Doc Holliday had a dentist’s office in town, and Billy the Kid hung out there. Teddy Roosevelt recruited some of his Rough Riders in Las Vegas and spent a not-so-rough stay at the local hot-springs castle. And before that, this was a stop on the Santa Fe Trail.Las Vegas’s ill fortune in the 20th century is its good fortune in the 21st. Because the economy collapsed in the early part of the 1900s, no one was tearing down old buildings to make way for new ones. Now many buildings have been restored, but Las Vegas hasn’t been covered in stucco in an attempt to adobify it, and tourists are only beginning to trickle in. Take a trip there, and you can get lost in the history and the architecture.
You won’t literally get lost, however, if you wander the town’s nine historic districts with the smart brochure and map published by the Las Vegas Citizens’ Committee for Historic Preservation. You can knock about town in an afternoon, to skim a bit of the flavor, or settle in for a weekend or a few days to get to know the city and its surroundings.
As you admire a stepped parapet on this building or the brickwork on that one, expect to rub elbows with locals – shoppers pulling up to the drugstore in their pickup trucks; business types, more often in jeans than in suits, on coffee break; the occasional car bellowing music at stop signs. This is a real working town.
Las Vegas was once two separate places. Old Town, founded in 1835 by Spanish settlers, fans out from a central plaza and was modestly prosperous in the days of the Santa Fe Trail. On South Pacific Street, adobe structures, one room wide and more than 130 years old, still hug the sidewalk, well-kept residences to this day.
In 1879 the railroad arrived, and New Town popped up. “The railroad blew everything open,” Ernest Quintana, a lifelong resident of the area and chairman of the preservation committee, said over a cup of coffee at Charlie’s Spic & Span Bakery and Cafe. A wave of non-Spanish immigrants laid out a grid of streets and parks reminiscent of Eastern cities and built block after maple-and-elm-shaded block of Victorian houses that still remain – Queen Anne, Italianate, Georgian Revival or mixed styles, colored peach, blue, yellow and orange, vibrant yet slightly weathered.
“Basically, this place was where different people under Manifest Destiny met,” Mr. Quintana said.
Las Vegas boomed. Ornately trimmed two- and three-story commercial buildings went up on both sides of town, creating the two western Victorian downtowns a half-dozen or so blocks apart. “For the new visitor, what really boggles the mind is that all of these fantastic buildings happened in a quarter of a century,” Mr. Quintana said. “You have to imagine the amount of money that was here.”
A good place to start a tour is the Railroad Avenue Historic District. The city’s visitors center is in the restored brick depot, built in 1898, where Amtrak still stops. Next door is La Castañeda, a Mission Revival hotel that was once a jewel in the Harvey House chain. The arched brick porticoes remain sturdy and the grass and shrubs are trimmed, but some first-floor windows are boarded up and just a small section of the hotel is open today, as a bar. If it’s open, stop inside for a sense of the hotel’s former grandeur.
A few blocks away is New Town’s downtown, centered on Douglas and Sixth Streets. Two of its buildings – the Richardsonian Romanesque-style Masonic Temple, built in the 1890s and now with an antiques shop on the first floor, and the neo-Classical Bank of Las Vegas – were designed by the Chicago architectural firm of Rapp and Rapp. Nearby, the El Fidel Hotel was built in the early 1920s and is still a good place to stay.
Stroll into the Spic & Span, a never-empty diner, for a glazed doughnut or a burrito: one employee may be whipping up a cappuccino while another is making a fresh tortilla. And close by, drop in at the Las Vegas Museum/Rough Rider Memorial Collection, a good place to find out more about the history of the town.
In Old Town, the three-story brick Plaza Hotel, renovated in 1982, a century after it was built, stands on one side of the original plaza. Inside, a grand wooden staircase leads to the 37 guest rooms. Guests mingle with locals in the hotel’s Landmark Grill.
On another corner of the plaza, festive blankets, shawls and scarves lie on tables, and patterned rugs hang from a stone wall at the Tapetes de Lana weaving center. Local weavers make the store’s wares from wool that has been spun and dyed in a nearby town, some working at the center’s own looms (most mornings, visitors are invited to watch) and others in their homes.
“We bring in individuals from the community who are low income,” said Teresa Victor, whose mother, Carla Gomez, founded the center. “We train them to weave and then give them a loom and materials.” Scarves sell for $45, shawls for $125 and rugs range from $95 to $4,800.
Elsewhere on the plaza and nearby Bridge Street, galleries and shops sell painted carved wooden images of saints called santos, books (check out the store called Tome on the Range), herbal products and treatments, and standard souvenirs like mugs and T-shirts.
Six miles northwest of town is Las Vegas’s grandest old hotel by far, an eye-popping Queen Anne-style structure called Montezuma Castle. The railroad built a spur there in 1882, drawn by a hot spring on the site, and twice a hotel went up and then burned to the ground. The current building, designed by the Chicago architects John Root and Daniel Burnham, is the third.The Montezuma became a stop for the rich and famous, but its popularity peaked in the 1890s. It was vacant when the Armand Hammer Foundation bought the property in 1981 to be the American campus of United World Colleges, a London-based institution with 12 campuses worldwide. The school grew up on the land and now has 200 students, but the castle remained empty until a restoration and renovation was completed in 2001. It is now used for campus housing and socializing and houses an international conflict resolution center. On selected Saturdays, students lead tour groups into the spacious dining room, updated with two serpent-like Dale Chihuly glass sculptures; the ash-paneled lobby; and other public and private rooms.
Down the hill, the hot springs – the original draw – are still open. There’s little formality – you’re on your own; there are no attendants. Just make sure you wear a bathing suit as you bask in one of the concrete tubs.
Las Vegas is on the edge of two ecosystems, nestled where the Sangre de Cristo Mountains meet the Great Plains. East of town, at a national wildlife refuge used by 250 species of migrating or nesting birds, an eight-mile loop drive winds past ponds, marshes, grasslands, brush thickets and cottonwood groves. A half-mile hike leads into a box canyon that is home to prairie falcons and cliff swallows.
Looking back toward Las Vegas from the refuge, the rounded humps of Hermit’s Peak dominate the sky behind the town. Tilt your head to the left, and the peak forms a profile of a face, peering skyward. This mountain – in the mid-1800s the home of a real hermit, who dug out a cave and moved in – offers a good, challenging day hike.
The 9.5-mile trail rises to an elevation of 10,160 feet from 7,520 feet, and the view from the top is vast – mountains in one direction and in the other, the Gallinas River snaking down a canyon into town. In front of you, miles and miles of grasslands spread out, probably looking much as they did when the wagon trains and the railroad arrived to put Las Vegas on the map.
For a close-up view of the Montezuma Castle, call United World College (505-454-4200) for advance permission to enter the property, or to register for a tour. The nearby hot spring is freely accessible; tubs are off Route 65 just north of the college.
The trailhead for Hermit’s Peak is in the El Porvenir campground, about 15 miles outside Las Vegas off Route 65.
– United World College Student Magazine –