In June 2014, after arriving in Albuquerque from her home state of Maryland, Thea Haver was driving west on Central Avenue, old Route 66, feeling somewhat self-conscious in her bright blue Saturn Ion, a car she considered unworthy of the storied Mother Road, when she was startled to see a tall building at Central and San Mateo.
“I was rather confused by this tower with little else so tall around it,” Haver recalled recently.
The looming structure that took her off guard was the 17-story, old First National Bank Building East, known today by many Albuquerque residents as the Bank of the West Tower.
Haver had more surprises waiting as she continued west.
“I drove through the Highland Business District, which I now call home and recognize as an incredible pocket of midcentury modernist architecture,” she said. “I saw the circular Bank of Albuquerque, Classic Century Square and Loyola’s. It was eye-opening. The diversity of people, culture and architecture was more than I expected.”
Four years after that drive west on Central, Haver and her husband, Ethan Aronson, whom she met after moving to Albuquerque, founded Modern Albuquerque, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting, preserving and teaching the public about modernist architecture and art in Albuquerque and New Mexico.
Last week, Modern Albuquerque launched a website, modernabq.org, that permits people to tour modernist, or midcentury, buildings as Haver did a few years back, only by computer rather than in a Saturn Ion.
The website offers a breath of open road to those confined to their homes because of the COVID-19 crisis.
“It’s designed to be a rabbit hole of information,” Haver said.
You can find on the website 12 buildings that make up a “Must-See Modernism” list, including several that caught Haver’s attention on that initial drive in 2014,
but also Ace Hardware, formerly the Kistler-Collister department store, 1100 San Mateo NE; Summit Construction, 900 Hazeldine SE; and the Simms Building, 400 Gold SW.
Click on these sites, and you’ll get a picture of the building, the date of its construction, the architect or architectural firm that designed it and some details about its history and design features.
“The more we learn about a building, the more we learn about the intent of the architect,” Haver said.
Form and function
Haver said modernist or midcentury architecture dates from 1945 to 1975, “from post-World War II to pre-‘Star Wars.’ ”
“Modernism is a set of (architectural) principles; it is form following function,” Haver said. “You drive by Loyola’s (Family Restaurant, 4500 Central SE), you look in the window and you want a happy meal.”
Loyola’s, which opened as Sherm’s in 1958, and the Whole Hog Café, 725 Central NE, built as a Denny’s diner in 1964, are examples of Googie architecture, named for a Hollywood coffee shop. Born in Southern California, Googie architecture often includes design elements such as upswept roofs; curvy, geometric shapes; and brazen use of glass, steel and neon.
While midcentury architecture sometimes entails dramatic elements, it does not often feature external ornamentation.
“They are buildings doing a job,” Haver said. “And modernism is honesty in materials. The Simms Building is made up of a lot of glass and calls attention to that.”
Since January 2019, Modern Albuquerque has added 57 modernist buildings to an earlier city inventory to bring the total of midcentury buildings in Albuquerque to 366. So far.
“We have been out there driving around, looking around,” Haver said. “The research never ends. And we have started to add buildings (constructed) after 1975, because there are still architects doing modernist design. By listing these, we get a jump-start on preservation.”
Preservation is important, because significant midcentury buildings have been lost in Albuquerque.
The website’s “Lost Architecture” section includes the Elks Lodge, built in 1963, demolished in 2019; the White Winrock Hotel, built in 1962, demolished in 2012; the Trade Winds Motor Hotel, built in 1958, demolished in 2009; and the Albuquerque Civic Auditorium, built in 1957, demolished in 1986.
From the website, you can get to Modern Albuquerque’s three-part, 35-minute video presentation “The Albuquerque Civic Auditorium: An Architectural Story.”
“The Albuquerque Civic Auditorium is the deepest and most resounding loss,” Haver said. “Think of all the (music, sporting, other) events that happened there. Often we don’t pay attention to the buildings we experience. We don’t pay attention to the space. We take them for granted until they are gone.”
Haver said the Civic Auditorium had been struggling financially and was the victim of vandals. The Trade Winds Motor Hotel was torn down because it was a “nuisance property.”
“There were so many Route 66 motels that fell into disrepair after I-40 went in,” Haver said. “It is hard to prioritize architecture over the safety and well-being of the community.”
Orange at sunset
Another feature of the website is “Coloring Pages,” which allows site visitors to download and print out pictures of midcentury Albuquerque buildings and color them.
One of the buildings available for artistic embellishment is the First National Bank Building East, the soaring giant that first caught Haver’s attention in 2014.
When completed in 1963, the 17-story bank building was the tallest in New Mexico. It is the fifth-tallest in the state today and the tallest outside Downtown Albuquerque.
“Its white tower reflected the desert sun, and its gold tiles changed color, depending on the time of day,” Haver said. “They were golden orange at sunset.”
Haver, 35, moved to Albuquerque to take a job at the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History and is now in business for herself as a creative consultant for museums and attractions. She considers herself a museum person.
She said she came by her love of architecture from a maternal grandmother she never knew.
“She drove her kids around Dallas to look at buildings,” Haver said. “My mom thought that’s what you did. So she drove me around (Maryland) looking at buildings.”
And that’s what Haver and Modern Albuquerque are trying to do for people today with their website.
But even in these self-isolating times, it’s possible for people to happen upon modernist gems while driving for groceries or to pick up prescriptions. You just need be on the lookout.
“If we have any impact at all,” Haver said, “we hope that when people are sitting at a stoplight, they look to the left and right and pay attention to the buildings they are seeing.”