Historic Las Vegas, New Mexico, Stands Strong Through the Pandemic
Isaac and Shawna Sandoval were running a food truck called The Skillet from the lot outside their art studio in Las Vegas, New Mexico, when the owner of the building next door offered to sell. They bought the place in 2016 and transformed it, creating a bar out of wood from an old bowling alley and filling the space with their own mixed-media art. By the onset of COVID-19 shutdowns, they’d been serving burritos, burgers, and Asian-inspired rice bowls out of the brick-and-mortar Skillet for almost three years and were having their busiest year ever. Despite the challenges of retrofitting their business for a global pandemic, they were grateful for all the space around the building, where they could offer open-air seating. Fortunately, they had already addressed the matter of the brine pit.
The building had served as a tannery and wool warehouse starting in 1924, and the old backyard pit for curing animal hides in saltwater had been fixed in the renovation. “While we were doing construction that summer, it smelled like vinegar and urine,” Isaac said. By the time we spoke on the restaurant’s patio in September of 2020, the Sandovals felt pleasantly surprised by how well The Skillet had weathered the pandemic so far—although they worried about a slow winter. But on that fall afternoon, masked patrons wandered onto the patio to drink beer at metal tables as top-40 music blared, and not a whiff of brine pit could be detected.
Most entrepreneurs in Las Vegas can tell you about the challenges of opening a small business in an old building that’s gone through decades of neglect and reuse. Sagging roofs, unstable brick walls, sawdust insulation, old plumbing. Such is the process in a city that boasts a rich preservation history and a growing cohort of preservation-minded residents. The past few years have seen increased momentum and innovation in tourism and hospitality, what some call a Las Vegas renaissance.
“It’s been coming for a long time, and I think some of it is that we’ve been discovered as a tourist destination,” says Michael Peranteau, executive director of MainStreet de Las Vegas, a local economic development organization and part of the National Trust program Main Street America. Far from breaking that spirit, the considerable challenges of COVID-19 have only highlighted the city’s resilience.
The story of modern-day Las Vegas starts on the Santa Fe Trail, which ran through the area years before a small group of Mexican settlers founded the town in 1835. Previously inhabited by Native Americans, the area was part of a Mexican land grant until New Mexico became a United States territory in 1850. “This was the first town that the Santa Fe Trail caravans encountered after 700 miles on the prairie,” says Elmo Baca, a longtime resident who now runs the Indigo Theater on Bridge Street, one of the city’s main drags. “So when they got here, they wanted a little bit of brandy. They wanted some fresh meat, vegetables, milk, you know?”
As more caravans arriving from Colorado and Kansas camped out before their last stretch toward Santa Fe, merchants built stores to serve them. When the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway came through Las Vegas in 1879, it brought business from Midwesterners, as well as new building materials like glass, cast iron, brick, quarried stone, and steel. Within a few years, Las Vegas was a true boomtown and one of the largest cities in the Southwest. “From its buildings you can see the moments when the citizens had money,” says former New Mexico State Historic Preservation Officer and National Trust advisor Katherine Slick. “You can follow the economic rise and decline of the city.”Las Vegas’ fortunes, for better and worse, remained tied to the railroad. By the 1950s, after the Great Depression and the decline of rail travel, its economic growth slowed. Today, more than a quarter of its residents live below the poverty line, and its population is about 13,000. The economy has gone through ups and downs. These days the predominantly Hispanic population relies mostly on jobs in healthcare and education—there’s a state behavioral health hospital in town, plus a university and a community college—with a growing hospitality sector.
Baca knows this history well: His family has lived in and around the Las Vegas area for at least a century. The Indigo Theater, an old hardware store building that he and his father bought in 1980, still has its original stone walls. Its 15-foot ceiling happens to be high enough to accommodate a movie screen. He often shows family-oriented blockbusters, and fondly remembers screenings of Star Wars franchise films and the Pixar movie Coco. The day we spoke, he sat in front of a Mulan poster dated March of 2020. It was slated to premiere about two weeks after he closed the Indigo’s doors because of COVID-19.
He isn’t sure how long it will be until he can reopen. That’s a huge loss for the community: Baca built the theater in order to serve Las Vegas residents. As a lifelong film enthusiast who spent part of his career helping old New Mexican movie theaters stay alive during the transition from film to digital projectors, he sees them as critical to every community. “A theater is one of the pillars of civic life. It’s people coming together, sharing life together,” he says. “When you lose a theater in a town, it’s one of the first signs of death.”
But Baca has been involved in Las Vegas’ civic life long
enough to feel hopeful. “It’s a quintessential American town in a bicultural
way,” he says, referring to its Hispano and Anglo-European design roots. “It
engenders a real fierce loyalty to the town because we all have similar
memories of the urban landscape.” Not long into our interview, a thin,
bespectacled man passes by the theater, and Baca asks him how his mother is
doing. “We grew up on Tilden Street together,” he tells me.
As a preservationist who holds a degree in architecture from Yale University, Baca has even more reason to put his faith in Las Vegas. The town has six historic districts, and residents have always understood the buildings’ value. “Historic preservation is critical [for economic development],” he says. “What preservation has done for us is helped us not just create a complex sense of place, but sustain it. That sense of place has increasing value.”
And he still sees it as a place full of fixer-upper possibilities. Las Vegas has held on to hundreds of old buildings in architectural styles that are rarely found throughout the rest of New Mexico—not because they never existed elsewhere, but because more prosperous cities like Santa Fe knocked them down or remodeled them over the years. Las Vegas didn’t always have the money to do the same, and the buildings’ excellent craftsmanship in New Mexico’s dry weather kept even neglected buildings in decent shape. Many of these buildings have simply been waiting for someone to come along, reinvest in them, and give them new life in the 21st century.
Just about a mile east of Bridge Street sits a horseshoe-shaped building with faded red brick, freshly painted white trim, and manicured greenery. Until a few years ago, locals referred to the Castañeda Hotel as the “Nasty Casty.” It was one of the crown jewels of Las Vegas’ boom times, and one of the buildings that fell the farthest after its prime.
During the heyday of rail travel in the late 19th century, hospitality entrepreneur Fred Harvey opened a series of hotels along railways. The Castañeda was built in 1898 as one of the first trackside hotels in the Southwest. It closed in 1948 with the decline of rail tourism and has been mostly vacant since, occasionally serving as a bar or event space. For the most part, it looked the way current owner Allan Affeldt remembers seeing it when he bought it in 2014: “It was a wreck.”
Affeldt has some experience with wrecks. He made a name for himself renovating La Posada, another formerly neglected Harvey hotel in Winslow, Arizona, which he purchased in 1997. (He discovered it in the pages of Preservation magazine.) His fascination with the Harvey hotels brought him to Las Vegas in 2000, and the area’s respect for history solidified his interest. “It’s very much a Rip Van Winkle kind of town,” he says. “If you had been there a hundred years ago and came back today, you would recognize the buildings. That’s fairly unusual.”
With logistical help from MainStreet de Las Vegas, he and his wife, artist Tina Mion, bought the Castañeda along with the downtown Plaza Hotel, a Historic Hotels of America member. Affeldt knew that the cost of repairs to the Castañeda could quickly exceed the building’s original price tag, so used federal historic tax credits and New Markets tax credits to help finance the work. Affeldt’s team made the building livable again, filled it with vintage furniture, and halved the number of rooms to 20. (Back in the day, rooms were smaller, and patrons shared a bathroom down the hall; now, each room has its own.)
After meeting chef Sean Sinclair at a Harvey-themed dinner in Santa Fe, Affeldt asked the New Mexico native to helm the Castañeda’s bar and fine-dining restaurant. Sinclair says that people started showing up with old documents, pictures, and menus from the Harvey days. “We got to see what the menus and prices were like. Some entrees were 25 cents, and the drink menu was three lines long.” He added historically inspired items—like spaghetti and meatballs, a dish often served on train cars—to his own menu.The hotel attempts more than just a nod to the Harvey days; Affeldt preserved as much of the look of the building as possible.
“In those days, the railway hired the greatest designers in the country, because they were using these buildings as basically marketing pieces,” he says. Since it opened in April of 2019, the Castañeda has drawn lots of tourists familiar with Harvey history or Affeldt’s work.
And what about the locals? Before construction started, Affeldt says, he was mindful that “there was a fair amount of skepticism. Promoters and businesspeople come and hype their projects and try to get the cities to give them some money; then they walk away.” Now that he’s restored it, Affeldt has found that more Las Vegas residents are excited about the reopening of the legendary Castañeda.
In fact, if there’s any group that can be credited with helping the Castañeda weather COVID-19, it’s locals. Over the summer and early fall, Sinclair and his wife, Katey, opened only the casual side of the restaurant, called Bar Castañeda, and residents ordered takeout burgers or sat in the huge, social distancing–friendly courtyard. During the same time period, Affeldt, who serves on the state Economic Recovery Council created in response to COVID-19, says the hotel’s guests were mostly New Mexicans who were looking to get away—but not too far away. “They don’t want to stay in a chain hotel. They want to go somewhere interesting and beautiful, learn about these historic places, and do it safely.”
Of course, business is nowhere near what it was before the pandemic. “The tragedy for Las Vegas is that unlike other rural towns, we were on a real upswing,” Affeldt says. “There was a real sense of optimism in the community anchored by the opening of things like the Castañeda. So it was a really hard emotional blow.” Still, he notes that plenty of residents continue to work on the Las Vegas renaissance. “And I think it’s largely because of the catalytic effect of these important buildings. That’s the backbone of the town.”
I met Sara Jo Mathews on Bridge Street, at the blue-and-turquoise storefront of Borracho’s Craft Booze and Brews. She had run the bar from 2016 until that morning, when she made the difficult decision to close it down. In New Mexico, bars that don’t serve food have been shuttered by state public health orders since March of 2020. Given the situation, Mathews said, “It’s time to give up the dream and let go of our business.”
She teared up thinking about how she would break the news to her Borracho’s customers. But 32-year-old Mathews, who grew up on a cattle ranch just north of town, has no plans to leave Las Vegas. Affeldt has asked her to open a farm-to-table restaurant to replace the former Range Cafe in the Plaza Hotel, where she was a busser and food runner at the age of 15. And she recently bought a building a couple of doors down from Borracho’s in hopes of expanding; now she’s planning to reopen Borracho’s there one day. She still believes Las Vegas is on its way to a revival.
“The light after the Dark Ages was the Renaissance, and these are the darkest times,” she said. “I can only imagine what’s going to happen after. I see us coming back in a very big way.”
You don’t need to look far to see evidence that good things are still in the works. In the building she owns, Mathews has been sorting food donations to deliver to the local homeless shelter and elderly residents. Jewelers, music stores, and other small businesses line Bridge Street and the nearby plaza, where she’s been helping to run “Cash Mobs” with MainStreet de Las Vegas. Every week, one featured store offers a selection of items for people to purchase during a live Facebook event. The program has raised more than $55,000 for local businesses since April of 2020.
A few doors down from Borracho’s is the E. Romero Hose & Fire Co., the building that served as New Mexico’s first volunteer firehouse. Student volunteers recently gave it a fresh red-and-white repaint, and in 2017 MainStreet won a $150,000 Partners in Preservation grant from the National Trust and American Express for the site. The money was used to restore the building, which will eventually contain a museum.
The brightly painted facade and scalloped tin trim of the nearby Indigo Theater match that of its next-door neighbor, which used to house a beloved restaurant called Estella’s Cafe—most now refer to the building simply as “Estella’s.” The former mercantile sat empty from 2013 to 2019. Then Jan and Frank Beurskens, relative newcomers who renovated an old residential compound around the corner from The Skillet in 2016, bought Estella’s. They are hoping to finish its renovation within the next year. Knowing how important the building has been to residents, the couple is still figuring out how to use it in a way that honors the history—but they know it’ll be a community space of some sort.
“Our strength is that we’re so community oriented,” Mathews said. “We want to see one another succeed, and we want to see our community thrive and grow. This experience [of COVID-19] didn’t diminish that—it strengthened all of those things.”
Las Vegas has drawn both lifelong residents and thoughtful newcomers with similar values: a love of old buildings and an unhurried approach to modernizing the downtown while preserving a tight-knit, small-town feel. “If you have to survive the end of the world anywhere, Las Vegas is the place to do it,” Mathews said. “I joke that Las Vegas is like the Hispanic Stars Hollow, for anyone who watches Gilmore Girls.”
Not long after, her neighbor passed us on the sidewalk. “I have to return your dish,” he said—he’d been stuck at home with the virus a while ago, and she’d brought him food. “I burned the COVID right out of you with green chile,” Mathews said, laughing.
“See, maybe that’s a small taste of the Las Vegas magic that I’m talking about,” she added as he left. “People have good hearts, and we support each other in good times and bad. Las Vegas is a very old community. They’ve survived a lot, and we’ll be back.”
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