History Takes a Lick on Route 66

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — “I never imagined living at a motel,” Phyllis Evans told me back in 1999 when I decided to drive the length of Route 66 in New Mexico and write about the people who lived along the Mother Road. “By some miracle, I ended up in this one.”

Evans, a retired Michigan State University professor of social work, was renting a room at the Aztec Motel on Central Avenue in Albuquerque and serving as the motor court’s grande dame and artistic muse.

Back then, this is how I described the genesis of what would become a beloved local folk art installation:

“Several days into Evans’ stay, she found an empty whiskey bottle outside her door in the morning and stuck a flower in it. The whiskey bottles kept showing up. And Evans kept filling them with plastic flowers and setting them around the motel.

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“Street people started dropping off bottles, flowers and other objects they had found on the street – broken plates, statues, a hobby horse, a Buddha – and Evans continued to build on her outdoor artwork.

“Five years later, the Aztec is festooned with gardens and a traffic-stopping display of folk art.”

Until a couple of weeks ago, that last sentence remained true. The Aztec, the first tourist motel built on Central Avenue and the longest continually operating Route 66 motor court in New Mexico, was decorated with haphazard gardens set off by booze-bottle borders, little windmills, old signs, broken tiles, bundles of plastic flowers, battered lawn furniture, and touches of whimsy – a lost-looking mannequin or a stuffed animal perching on a broken toilet.

Today, you can count the Aztec as the latest piece of Route 66 history to bite the dust. Bulldozers have spent the better part of two weeks demolishing the 79-year-old motel.

Standing on the hot sidewalk one afternoon this week, all I could see was the Aztec Motel sign with its big neon arrow and piles of rubble.

Nob Hill Development Corp. bought the motel several years ago, and the company’s co-owner Jerry Landgraf told me he and his partner, Matthew Terry, had the best intentions. They had purchased the Premiere Motel, a motor court across the street from the Aztec and renovated it. They did the same with the Nob Hill Court a bit to the west.

But the Aztec turned out to have serious problems that would make renovation costly, Landgraf said, while its size (20 small rooms) would make it impossible to recoup the investment. They hired architects and engineers to look at renovation strategies (boutique hotel, short-term housing, office suites, retail), but couldn’t make any of them work for the bottom line.

When the developers asked the city for a demolition permit earlier in the spring, the city’s historic preservation planner, Ed Boles, got involved to see if there was any chance of saving the building.

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Although the building wasn’t especially architecturally significant, Boles said, it was an important piece of vanishing Route 66 history, as well as a local landmark.

If it’s important to keep Albuquerque quirky, Boles said, “It was about as quirky as they come.”

But even though the building is on the national and state historic registers, that affords no protection from demolition. In the end, the city granted the permit.

Landgraf knows he tore down a part of Albuquerque history and a piece of irreplaceable outsider art, leaving many in mourning.

“We hated to see it go, too,” he said. “That wasn’t our intention.”

With the economy what it is, Landgraf said there are no immediate plans for building on the site.

There’s a bit of good news in this tale. Whatever the developers decide to build on the property, they will incorporate the motel sign. And many of the objects that festooned the property were salvaged by people with a soft spot in their hearts for the Aztec. As the demolition plans unfolded, neighbors and former residents came by to salvage pieces of the outsider art installation.

As for Evans? She was already gone. She moved to a home she owned in Hawaii shortly after Nob Hill Development bought the Aztec.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Leslie at 823-3914 or llinthicum@abqjournal.com. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

Photo Credit – ROBERTO E. ROSALES/JOURNAL
Cutline – Demolition crews tear down the Aztec Motel on Central Avenue in Albuquerque last week. It was the longest continually operated motel along Route 66 in New Mexico.

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