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LAS VEGAS, N.M. – It has stood forlorn and mostly empty alongside the railroad tracks in Las Vegas for decades – a throwback to when train travel opened up Southwest tourism and visitors needed places to rejuvenate mind and body, and fill their stomachs.
The Castaneda Hotel, done in Mission Revival style as the first gem of the Harvey House chain, is ready for a makeover and there’s a new sheriff in town aiming to do just that.
Allan Affeldt propped the hotel door open with a case of bottled water on April 8, the day after his deal to buy the Castaneda closed. The curious popped their heads in to see what many had never seen before and to wish him well.
“Oh, look at this space, it’s beautiful,” Affeldt said, standing in the massive dining room with its pressed tin ceiling. “It’s not like one of those cookie-cutter things.
“This building is unique to New Mexico and Las Vegas, New Mexico, and it’s beautiful.”
“Welcome to Las Vegas,” local Terry Mossman told Affeldt as they shook hands. Likely speaking for many in Las Vegas, Mossman added: “I hope all your plans come true.”
Joel Scheinberg wandered across Railroad Avenue for a look and called Affeldt’s plans to redo the old hotel “the best thing to happen to Las Vegas.”
Affeldt had been feted that same day by the local Rotary Club for his purchase of the horseshoe-shaped hotel built in 1898. He will try to repeat in Las Vegas what he did in the 1990s when he and his wife helped save the then-decrepit La Posada hotel in Winslow, Ariz. That was another of the Harvey House gems that dotted New Mexico, Arizona and California to serve train travelers. In New Mexico, in addition to La Castaneda, they included La Fonda in Santa Fe and the no longer existing Alvarado in Albuquerque.
What motivates Affeldt to take on such a project?
“I’m not a normal developer,” he said.
Big turnout at Rotary
The Rotary event apparently was a hot ticket. “They had a much bigger turnout than usual because everybody’s curious,” said Affeldt.
“I think the community sees this as maybe a tipping point event or a catalyst. It’s not that big a project – the building is 25,000 square feet and it’s going to cost a couple of million dollars – but psychologically it’s really important.”
Many locals thought the Castaneda would go the way of other derelict buildings along Railroad Avenue. Affeldt said, “From what I understand, people are thinking differently – instead of the glass being half empty, it’s half full-now.”
In Winslow, Affeldt and his artist wife Tina Mion created an art-filled hotel and the highly praised Turquoise Room restaurant. Mion will be joining her husband soon on the Las Vegas project – arriving by train, of course.
Affeldt knows the challenges that lie ahead in acquiring approvals from governmental entities that regulate historic properties. He’s trying to make the deal work by also acquiring Las Vegas’ other historic hotel, the Plaza, with commensurate tax credits.
If Affeldt can couple the two hotels, he can use federal tax credits from the Plaza, which is in a complicated bankruptcy, to help finance the Castaneda project. “If you don’t have that money (tax credits), it’s just too expensive to do this,” said Affeldt.
“It costs as much or more to restore an old building as it does to build a new one, especially a complicated building,” he said as he stood framed beneath one of ten arches on the Castaneda’s veranda.
“Nobody” – except Affeldt, apparently – “would spend a couple of million dollars to build a 20-room hotel in Las Vegas.”
Letting light in
“Just to take those boards off the building will be so satisfying,” Affeldt said, gesturing to plywood that has long covered broken windows and blocked sunlight from once-sumptuous rooms.
With the boards gone, “you will be able to see from the street to the courtyard and, with all the natural lighting here, it will be a warm feeling,” he said. “But it’s been like this, like a cave, for decades.”
Across Railroad Avenue in front of Moonlite Welding, locals Floyd Gutierrez and Danny Lujan stood talking. Gutierrez was both skeptical and optimistic about the hotel’s future. “Where are the customers going to come from?” he asked. “We are a welfare state.”
Affeldt sees a market on the passing interstate. “That’s I-25,” he said looking out beyond the hotel courtyard. “When there’s lights on in this building, I think it will give the sense to people going by that there is something here in this town, especially with that beautiful tower,” referring to the hotel cupola.
Local jobs for local folks
“Let’s just hope they employ local people instead of outsiders … we have good craftsmen in town,” said Gutierrez outside the welding shop.
Affeldt said he’s already getting job calls from Santa Fe and Albuquerque, “and my answer to all of them is that it’s nice that you are calling, but I am just going to hire people in Las Vegas.”
“This town, with all these beautiful buildings, was built by people in Las Vegas,” said Affeldt of a community known for its beautiful plaza and impressive stock of historic homes. He said every time he hires a local, “that person is going to shop here and eat here and support their family here, so it’s just philosophically important.”
Affeldt said the hotel’s rooms, some now with collapsing roofs, will be enlarged and since most did not have individual bathrooms, those will be added. The old Castaneda had 40 some rooms while the new one, some version of which could be open in 2015, will have about 25.
“The idea is to recreate that turn-of-the-19th-century hotel where it should look and feel as much as possible like it originally did. But as I also collect contemporary art, I want to support contemporary artists in the community,” he said.
Furniture is not a challenge. Affeldt said he bought all of the original hand-painted furniture from La Fonda, which sold off room furnishings during a remodel last year.
“We will also use it as a space for all kinds of exhibits and shows and lectures. So we want to make it a vibrant community space. We want to do a lot of events, like in the courtyard, in the dining room. There’s no space like this in Las Vegas.”
In the massive kitchen, the original baking oven occupies one wall and a gigantic cooking stove runs along another. A five-foot-tall mixing machine will be kept for display.
“I don’t have a restaurateur yet,” said Affeldt, and finding one probably will be an exception to his hire-local plan. He said one of his biggest challenges will be finding “somebody, hopefully from Santa Fe or Albuquerque, who’s a really good chef, and wants to have a fabulous kitchen and dining room.”
Gov. Susana Martinez visited on Monday to promote Affeldt’s project.
“Symbolically, that’s really important, showing that the state cares about the community,” he said.
When people go to the Las Vegas Visitors Center, next door in the Amtrak station, Affeldt hopes they’ll wander over to learn the history of the town “and that there is so much here to see.”
“So this,” Affeldt said of his latest project, “will be like an introduction to Las Vegas.”