Las Vegas New Mexico

Las Vegas Renaissance

El Fidel Hotel's Meadows Bar

El Fidel Hotel's Meadows Bar

A once-forgotten railroad town moves full steam ahead.

By Carolyn Graham
Photography by Sergio Salvador

Unlike the identically named city in Nevada, northern New Mexico's Las Vegas doesn't like to show off. The Land of Enchantment's rendition of Las Vegas — which means "the meadows" in Spanish — sticks close to its Wild West roots, preferring instead to allow history and grand architecture speak for themselves.

The absence of glitz doesn't mean this Las Vegas isn't proud of its past. The town has carefully preserved several of its glorious old Victorian mansions, Spanish Colonial buildings, and neoclassical facades, giving them new lives as eateries, shops, and galleries. In fact, visitors probably don't realize that tucked within Las Vegas are an astronomical 900-plus buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. Anywhere you look, you're going to bump into a place that has a story to tell.

That's nowhere more apparent than at the Castañeda Hotel. It reopened in April 2019 after a massive renovation that brought the property back from the brink of desert decay. Noted hospitality entrepreneur Fred Harvey originally built the trackside Spanish Colonial hotel, which first opened in 1898, as a pinnacle of service, good food, and comfortable accommodations for Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway passengers. Harvey Houses, as they were known across the Southwest, eventually fell out of popularity in the 1930s as highways replaced railroads as the primary mode of cross-country travel.

The derelict Castañeda stood as a reminder of more affluent times until Harvey House devotee and developer Allan Affeldt bought the stately hotel to restore it to its former glory. Affeldt oversaw restorations of Winslow, Arizona's La Posada Hotel and the Plaza Hotel, another Las Vegas landmark. "At one time, Las Vegas was the biggest city in New Mexico," Affeldt explains. "Then it went to sleep for a hundred years."

Affeldt gutted most of Hotel Castañeda, which had been vacant for 70 years. He brought in a team of artisans to rework everything — from the windows to the hardware. He preserved as much as possible while updating the hotel to today's standards, such as adding bathrooms to each guest room. The Castañeda now features 16 rooms, a welcoming lobby, a casual restaurant and bar, and a formal restaurant called Kin. It's operated by Sean Sinclair, one of New Mexico's up-and-coming chefs who recently won top honors at the 2019 Green Chile Cheeseburger Smackdown in Santa Fe.

Echoing the attention to detail and high level of service of its Harvey House roots, the hotel is becoming a destination for both history buffs and visitors seeking an escape with turn-of-the-century charm."It's all putting Vegas on the map," Affeldt says, adding that the refresh of the Plaza Hotel and the Castañeda's reopening has "injected a more positive vision" for the town's future. "We felt like if we could do a good enough job of rebuilding then people would come."

Before Affeldt started the Castañeda project, he purchased the Plaza Hotel and added polish to this former "Belle of the Southwest." Anchoring Las Vegas' shady Old Town Plaza Park, the Plaza Hotel has lured high-profile guests — from famed gunslinger Doc Holliday to first lady Michelle Obama — since it debuted in 1882. (It's also reportedly home to the resident ghost of former owner Byron T. Mills.) The Plaza maintains a Victorian charm among its 71 guest rooms, twin walnut staircases, and creaky-floored lobby. "We knew from day one there could be a Vegas renaissance," he says. "There are at least 20 other [buildings] under renovation right now."

Isaac and Shawna Sandoval of The Skillet.
Isaac and Shawna Sandoval of The Skillet.
The Skillet's tacos.
The Skillet's tacos.

The Castañeda's rebirth led the charge for other folks to breathe new life into some of the town's old buildings, as well as other beautification projects around town. Across the street, the shimmering two-story Italianate Rawlins building is undergoing a renovation. The building, constructed in the late 1800s, served as dormitories for the "Harvey Girls" — the squad of Harvey House employees known for their starched uniforms, strict moral code, and exemplary service — and features one of New Mexico's most ornate pressed-tin facades. It's set to reopen in 2020 as apartments and retail space.

An influx of younger residents is also igniting a thirst for innovative and authentic cuisine, as well as hip spaces for socializing. "That's exciting that people from the other generations are coming," Affeldt says. "Together, we can lift that town back up." This blossoming foodie scene coincides with the renovation boom, where folks are repurposing formerly shuttered buildings while also expanding the town's culinary offerings. Craving tacos? Try The Skillet. Tucked in a 1924 building (on the National Register of Historic Places, of course), it serves tacos filled with a choice of smoky brisket, green chile pork, carne asada, or a range of other options. Sandwich lovers shouldn't miss the house-cured pork belly sliders or the ribbon fries, both of which can be enjoyed amid bright and whimsical artwork by chef-owner Isaac Sandoval and his wife, Shawna.

Sandoval's father runs the eponymous Charlie's Spic and Span, which has been serving fresh, fluffy tortillas right out of their kitchen for 30 years. The burritos and huevos rancheros here are hard to beat, but there's plenty of other offerings to tempt customers, such as fresh cinnamon buns, doughnuts, and, for those with a big appetite, the H-art Attack, a mound of potatoes topped with eggs and chile.

Owner Joaquin Garofalo opened JC's New York Pizza Department in Albuquerque before bringing a location to his hometown of Las Vegas, finding a bright spot among the Western storefronts on Plaza Street where he also managed to squeeze in a three-lane bowling alley.

Charlie Sandoval and daughter Elizabeth of Charlie's Spic and Span.
Charlie Sandoval and daughter Elizabeth of Charlie's Spic and Span.
Burrito at Charlie's Spic and Span. 
Burrito at Charlie's Spic and Span.

While it's undergoing a dramatic revival, the town hasn't forgotten its past as a railroad stop. The red-brick, 1899 Las Vegas train station houses the Amtrak passenger train station and the Las Vegas Visitor Center. (The building cameoed in the 2000 film All the Pretty Horses, too. It's one of more than 50 films and TV shows that filmed in the town.)

Because of the sheer volume of historic buildings, ranging from theaters and train stations to castles and private homes, the Las Vegas Citizens' Committee for Historic Preservation divvied up the town into nine historic districts.
The Plaza Hotel and its Plaza/Bridge Street District is lined with rustic storefronts housing galleries, shops, and eateries — many boasting hallmarks from the past, such as tall, pressed-tin ceilings and well-worn wooden floors.The colorful storefronts (which served as a backdrop in the Netflix series Longmire) continue around the corner on Bridge Street, where the 1909 two-story E. Romero Hose and Fire Co. building, which was home to New Mexico's first volunteer firefighter company, has been renovated and will house the Las Vegas Fire and Water Museum when it opens in 2020. Catch a flick at the 50-seat Indigo Theater, which, despite history dating back to the 1880s, is surprisingly lush and high-tech. Opened in late 2015, it shows first-run movies in a sleek space.

El Fidel Hotel owner Michelle Sandoval
El Fidel Hotel owner Michelle Sandoval

The Douglas/6th Street District is home to The Historic El Fidel Hotel, another gem with 10 guest rooms (additional rooms have been converted for apartments and Airbnb rentals) and a sushi restaurant called Oishi Sake and Sushi. The hotel opened in 1923 as the Meadows during Prohibition, but today's visitors will find a cozy lobby where they can fuel up at Dichos, a new coffee bar that serves beans roasted by Albuquerque favorite, Cutbow Coffee Roastology. The new Meadows Bar and Ballroom occupies the hotel's renovated ballroom and serves up a range of artistic and seasonal craft cocktails, some of which are concocted with New Mexico spirits.

The architecture is significantly more dramatic about five miles northwest of Las Vegas in the sleepy village of Montezuma, where in 1886, the AT&SF Railway built a massive resort near the area's hot springs in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The first two iterations burned down, but this rosy-hued, 90,000-square-foot Queen Anne castle remains as a sentinel to Las Vegas' significance as a boomtown.

The property has gone through a few owners (and was, at one time, managed by Fred Harvey). Ultimately, petroleum magnate Armand Hammer took it over in the 1980s, transforming the storybook buildings into the United World College of the American West. The iconic castle was renovated in 2001, serving as a beacon of preservation and renewal, and inspiring the community to continue to preserve Las Vegas' past through its historic buildings.

The college is not open to the public, but Las Vegas historian and Southwest Detours owner Kathy Hendrickson exclusively leads tours of the castle and visitors who check in at the UWC visitor center are allowed to enter the college's Dwan Light Sanctuary, a rock-covered, serene space that was spearheaded by heiress Virginia Dwan and opened in 1996. The sanctuary incorporates the work of famed solar spectrum artist and part-time Las Vegas resident Charles Ross, who is planning to open a studio in a renovated building on Railroad Avenue near the Castañeda sometime in 2020.

With renewed life in the historic buildings also comes an interest in preserving natural areas throughout town  and resurrecting the natural flow and ecology of the river. The city has long been working to restore, extend, and enhance its parks and public spaces. An 11-mile path will eventually connect the Montezuma Hot Springs, located on the United World College campus, with the Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge and downtown's Gallinas River Park. For now, park visitors can stroll alongside the gurgling Gallinas River and ponder Las Vegas' past and present.