Row of old shops and cafes
Architecture,  History,  Monday walks,  New Mexico

A stroll around Las Vegas

No, not THAT one!

Did you know that there’s another Las Vegas, in New Mexico? But unlike its more famous glitzy namesake, this one is an appealing mix of slightly down-at-heel with trying-hard-to-revive itself.

Let me take you for a stroll around the town for one of Jo’s Monday Walks.

The Plaza Hotel

We’ll start at the hotel we stayed in here, the Plaza, a focal point in the old town. The main hotel building was built and opened in 1882. For a while it was the place to stay. But soon after it was built the focus of the town moved a mile to the west, away from the original Spanish colonial plaza to the area around a new railway station. Eventually the hotel declined, as did the large store next door, Charles Ilfield’s ‘Great Emporium’. The hotel was restored in 1882; and in 2009 the owners bought up the neighbouring emporium, which at one point was the biggest department store in the Southwest, and converted it too into part of the hotel.

We found its sensitively restored Victorian public spaces and rooms a delight to visit; the more so because the unfashionable nature of Las Vegas makes them very affordable when compared to pricey Santa Fe or Taos.

The Plaza

The hotel sits, unsurprisingly, on one side of the Plaza. After seeing the plazas of Old Town Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Taos (among others) on our drive through New Mexico, the one here in Las Vegas came as something of a surprise. Like the others it is a legacy of Spanish colonisation; but it has retained fewer adobe buildings and has less of the Spanish air to it. Instead it feels a little like a small Victorian park, surrounded by buildings that are still historic but dating mostly from the more recent past.

The plaza began, as was the custom for Spanish settlers, with the construction of a number of small homes around an open space that could be defended easily from attack. When the Santa Fe Trail route was established, locals were quick to encourage passing merchants to overnight here; and the resulting trade led to the city’s expansion. Over time many of the houses surrounding the plaza were converted into stores. Meanwhile some were totally demolished, and shops built in their place.

The Plaza, with one of its few remaining adobe houses

The area became the lively hub of the city and was witness to several historical events. For instance, a plaque in the park commemorates the day in August 1846 when General Kearney stood on top of a building here and claimed the territory for the United States.

When the railroad came to Las Vegas it arrived a mile to the east, and a new town grew up there. West Las Vegas remained as a bit of a backwater; but it was still thriving enough for a while for new businesses such as the Plaza Hotel and Ilfield’s Emporium to be established. Then however the main railroad line was diverted south of here. Both East and West Las Vegas suffered as a result; and for a while the buildings around the plaza, as elsewhere in the city, fell into decline.

In recent years the city has enjoyed something of a resurgence; here in the plaza area this is exemplified (and was in part triggered) by the restoration of the Plaza Hotel. There are several other buildings of note around the perimeter too. A few still retain the old adobe (albeit now mostly covered with stucco) while the majority are Victorian in appearance.

Historic Bridge Street

From the Plaza we can walk east along Bridge Street. When the ‘new’ East Las Vegas, triggered by the coming of the railroad, sprung up a mile to the east of the Plaza, it and West Las Vegas remained two separate towns; and this was so until as recently as 1970. For years the area between them was semi-rural, used by settlers to grow crops. But as East Las Vegas expanded it stretched out towards its neighbour and Bridge Street was born. Lined with commercial buildings in a wide range of architectural styles, it is today a slightly kitsch (to my eyes) mix of the seedy, the small-town Americana, and the sympathetically restored.

Reflecting the city’s sudden boom many of these buildings were quickly thrown up, constructed of inexpensive materials. When the city declined, so did they. But perhaps ironically, the city’s economic decline during the mid 20th century helped in their preservation. There were no funds for restoration during a period when such tasks were approached with much less sensitivity than is the case nowadays.

Today we are inclined to value our heritage more perhaps. This whole area has now been declared an Historic District by the city council; over 90 buildings in and around it are listed on national, state or local registers of historic buildings. Some of the most notable, according to the sign we saw, include the Italianate Stern & Nahm Store (1883-1886) and the ‘World’s Fair Classic’ style Romero Hose and Fire Company building (1909). But we enjoyed just as much the less remarkable buildings and the general sense of a town that is lived-in rather than on show; a great antidote to the sometimes too-studied artiness of Santa Fe or even Taos.

I hope you’ve enjoyed exploring with me and might even be tempted to visit this very different Las Vegas!

I visited New Mexico in 2011

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