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Saving the ‘Queen of Las Vegas’

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

LAS VEGAS, N.M. – Renovation of the long-shuttered, 120-year-old La Castañeda Hotel in Las Vegas, N.M., is chugging right along.

So much so that developer Allan Affeldt says he hopes in October to open one wing of what is considered the first in Fred Harvey’s historic chain of railroad track-side hotels and restaurants that catered to passengers traveling through the Southwest on the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad.

“The fun part is figuring it all out,” Affeldt said during a recent tour of his project that has already had an impact on the local economy.

Like, where do you put an elevator that’s required to meet the Americans with Disabilities Act when one didn’t exist when the hotel was built in 1898?

That’s just one of the many challenges Affeldt and his crew have had to figure out in what he says is very much a collaborative effort to restore what was once fondly known as “The Queen of Las Vegas.”

For instance, Bob Feeley, one of about 50 people working on the hotel renovation on Monday, figured out a way to mimic the pressed tin ceiling panels originally installed in the hotel by making molds that are cast in plaster.

Rodney Pacheco, left, a mason, works on the of the brick columns on the outside of La Castañeda Hotel in Las Vegas, N.M. Some suites in the renovated Harvey House hotel may be open as soon as October. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“We’re fortunate to have the people with the right skill sets,” said Affeldt, who along with his artist wife, Tina Mion, purchased the 25,000-square-foot hotel in 2014 for $700,000. That included the liquor license attached to the property.

Affeldt is primarily using local labor on the $5 million renovation project.

“For them, it’s not just a paycheck,” he says of his labor staff. “Here, it’s like they feel they are saving this town.”

Affeldt spoke while standing not far from a large wooden sign, a duplicate of the sign that formerly hung from the belvedere atop the hotel and facing the railroad tracks, that had been locally milled. Now, the hotel faces the highway and is readily visible to anyone passing by Las Vegas on Interstate 25.

“It will be a gateway beacon for Las Vegas,” he said. “And once they discover this, they’ll want to see the rest of the town.”

Integral to city history

Las Vegas Mayor Tonita Gurulé-Giron says Affeldt is helping save the once bustling western town, now with a population of about 13,000, which represents a decline in recent years.

“He’s opening his arms and embracing our community,” she said of Affeldt, who also purchased Las Vegas’ Plaza Hotel, originally built in 1882, for $3 million in 2014.

Ornate details are emerging as renovation and restoration work continues at La Castañeda Hotel in Las Vegas,N.M. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“We are fortunate and grateful to have La Castañeda renovated and moving it forward in such an incredible historic district. We don’t want to lose our historic sites. They are so integral to the history of our city.”

Las Vegas, which boasts nearly 100 properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was established in 1835 by settlers awarded land grants by the Mexican government. It prospered as a stop along the Santa Fe Trail in subsequent years, but it became a boom town after the railroad was built in 1879.

By the time La Castañeda was built two decades later, Las Vegas was flourishing and one of the largest cities in the Southwest. In 1899, the hotel hosted the first reunion of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, the volunteer calvary unit that a year earlier made its famous charge up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War.

Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion, stayed at the hotel in 1912 when he defended his title against “Fireman” Jim Flynn in a Fourth of July fight in Las Vegas.

President Harry Truman visited the hotel on his whirlwind whistle stop tour while campaigning for re-election in 1948.

Restoration work continues on La Castañeda Hotel. The $5 million project is spurring other redevelopment in Las Vegas, N.M. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

That was a last hurrah for La Castañeda, which closed as a hotel that same year. The building sat idle for years before the railroad sold it to a private party, who in turn sold it to Don and Marie Elhd in the early 1970s. It was utilized as an apartment building for some time – and served as the set for the 1984 film “Red Dawn” – but increasingly fell into disrepair.

Affeldt, who’s from California, said Marie Elhd probably saved the building by continuing to live there for 30 years until he and his wife bought it. She also kept the bar open, though the hours were irregular.

‘Nothing like it’

But La Castañeda’s heyday was its early years, when it served as a Harvey House from the time it opened until the 1930s.

Designed by architect Frederick Louis Roehrig and built in the Mission Revival style at a cost of $105,000, La Castañeda offered 37 guest rooms, featured a 108-seat dining room and a 51-seat lunch counter. The Santa Fe Railroad also had offices on the first floor.

Affeldt’s plans are for a 22-suite hotel with a restaurant and bar on the first floor, another bar in the basement, and a museum and art gallery in the attic.

Whereas the cozy rooms at the original La Castañeda were equipped with a sink, radiator, bed, dresser and not much else, Affeldt and his team figured out a way to convert the rooms into spacious suites.

“What we’re doing is combining guest rooms, taking five rooms and making two suites out of them,” he said.

Guests in the old days shared the one or two restrooms on each floor. Under the new design, each suite will have its own restroom.

Affeldt said he expects to have about six suites open for guests in October. He hopes to have the whole hotel open by the fall of next year.

“There’s going to be nothing like it,” he said, except, perhaps, for the La Posada Hotel in Winslow, Ariz., also a Harvey House hotel built in the 1930s, which he and Mion bought in 1994.

The couple restored that hotel, too, reportedly at a cost of $12 million. It features Mion’s quirky paintings on almost every wall.

Affeldt recently acquired the Lamy Railroad and History Museum southeast of Santa Fe through the Winslow Arts Trust, a nonprofit he and Mion formed.

Affeldt said he’s confident La Castañeda will be successful once it reopens. He intends to live there.

“This building, we believe, will be full from the time we open it,” he said. “Five million people come through Santa Fe each year and we’re only an hour away. What a great day trip.”

Asked about Amtrak’s threat to discontinue the Southwest Chief passenger train through Las Vegas and replace it with a chartered bus service, Affeldt launched into a rant against Amtrak, calling the idea “deplorable.”

The Southwest Chief, which runs daily between Chicago and Los Angeles, stops at the nearby train depot twice a day.

“I believe they just want to get rid of the long-distance passenger service. They’re going to make it so crappy that no one will want to ride the train and then use it as an excuse for shutting it down,” he said.

Ultimately, though, he said if that should happen it won’t have much of an impact on the hotel.

“It’s depressing, but it won’t affect business,” he said. “Not that many people come here by train. The reality is most people travel by car these days.”

Revitalizing the area

Affeldt’s crew is reusing as much of the original wood and brick as possible for the La Castañeda renovation. They sometimes have to stop construction when they uncover something worth saving, like the cartoonish western mural that had been hidden for decades behind paneling above what used to be a first-floor bar.

“You never know what you might find,” said Jordan Grimm, the general contractor hired to lead the renovation.

Artifacts from La Castañeda Hotel’s heyday as part of the Harvey House chain are turning up as the old hotel undergoes a major renovation. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Grimm keeps a box filled with all sorts of artifacts workers have recovered. Among the items in the box are old beer and whisky bottles, a pepper shaker, a pair of glasses, a Fred Harvey registration card, and Fred Harvey-embossed pencils and matchbooks.

They’ll all probably one day end up in the museum planned for La Castañeda’s attic.

The renovation of La Castañeda has spurred the restoration of surrounding properties.

Assistant District Attorney Thomas Clayton is in the process of renovating the Rawlins Building, across Railroad Avenue from the hotel, which used to serve as a dormitory for the Harvey Girls. Artist Charles Ross is in the process of converting an old warehouse building into a studio and gallery. Several other buildings are also coming back to life, just as Affeldt’s restoration of the Plaza Hotel sparked development around the downtown Plaza.

“The fact that Allan has taken the bull by the horns and is moving things forward is such an incredible thing for us,” Mayor Gurulé-Giron said. “We need to continue to grow, continue to develop, and continue to sustain our small businesses and the addition of new businesses. What that does is ensure we’ll have jobs for local workers so they can feed their families, and it brings tax revenue into our town.”

Financing for the project is complicated. Affeldt failed to get support from the state when he applied for a federal tax credit loan program designed to support commercial, industrial and retail real estate projects in low-income, economically distressed areas. He did get some help through the Main Street Las Vegas economic development project and about $400,000 in state-approved tax credits for historic preservation. He was able to win the support of U.S. Bank in gaining a tax credit loan.

Joseph Gonzales, left, and his brother Paul Gonzales, both from the Las Vegas area, apply texture to the walls of a dining room at La Castañeda Hotel. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“I think this is a great project,” said Thomas Lantieri, the commercial banking manager for U.S. Bank in the Santa Fe area, who came by to meet with Affeldt on Monday. “I think it’ll be a real gem for the community and will help revitalize this area.”

“Everyone was waiting to see if this building would fall down or be saved,” Affeldt said of the activity that has occurred since he took on the project.

Now that it has, Affeldt and his crew are working diligently to get the hotel open by next year.

“We’re trying to do in 18 months what it took us 10 years to do in Winslow,” he said, adding that the hardest part is figuring out the sequencing of the renovation so workers aren’t bumping into each other. “When it’s done, it will have the look and feel of 1898.”

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