LAS VEGAS, N.M. – Dr. Mukul Kumar climbs dozens of concrete steps daily from his home to his college office high atop a historic “castle” tucked away in relatively unknown corner of northern New Mexico.
As he passes students from some 70 different countries who come for two years of experiential learning combined with a wilderness experience, he calls them by their first names. He knows the names of all 230 students on this 200-acre campus three miles west of Las Vegas that includes a hot springs.
The obscurity of the historic building known as Montezuma Castle, home to the United World College since 1982, may soon become a thing of the past.
“We are the best-kept secret and we ought not to be that anymore,” said the forward-thinking Kumar, who, along with entrepreneur Allan Affeldt and other community leaders, envisions brighter days for the Las Vegas area.
The castle/college in the tiny burg of Montezuma nestled in Gallinas Canyon could soon be one of the centerpieces of a renaissance plan intended to capitalize on Las Vegas’ unique, colorful history that has taken place where the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains meets the plains.
Tours are envisioned for the castle, which started life as a Harvey House hotel. The Montezuma, with its Queen Anne-style architecture dating from 1882, was Englishman Fred Harvey’s first luxury resort.
Harvey is credited with opening the Southwest to tourism during the railroad era with his string of lodges and the world’s first chain restaurants. Late Taos author Frank Waters said Harvey “introduced America to Americans.”
The castle tours are being coordinated with visits to two other historic lodging buildings in Las Vegas itself – a sibling in the Harvey chain, the long-forlorn La Castañeda Hotel that fronts the railroad tracks downtown, and the centerpiece Plaza Hotel on Las Vegas’ spectacular town plaza.
Affeldt, from California, purchased the long-vacant and dilapidated La Castañeda last year. He intends to completely rebuild it and turn it back into a working hotel with the same charm and opulence it showed off when it was new in 1898. Affeldt has already done the same thing with another Harvey property, the very successful La Posada in Winslow, Ariz.
While waiting for approval of a tax credit plan to make the Castañeda job feasible, Affeldt purchased the bankrupt Plaza Hotel and is remodeling it as well, as it continues to operate.
Las Vegas Mayor Alfonso Ortiz said he’s “extra happy” that Affeldt bought La Castañeda. “It’s going to bring visitors we have never seen before and it’s going to enhance the economy,” Ortiz said, “… He likes Las Vegas, Las Vegas likes him.”
Return to alma mater
For Kumar, who has been president of the United World College for just over 100 days, his job is a homecoming. UCW is where Kumar’s international academic career started. He graduated from the college in 1989.
“This is a call to the alma mater,” he said. “This is a return to the place that was transformational for me when I was 16 and it’s a chance to say, ‘how do we re-invent the relevance of the school?’
“The UWC was a pioneer in education back in the 1960s, when nobody was thinking international.”
Kumar, originally from Mumbai – the Indian city of 16 million – won a scholarship to UWC and came to Montezuma, population 300, sight unseen. It was his first time in the U.S. Kumar spent his recent years in higher education in London and was the provost of a business school.
The Las Vegas school is one of 15 UWC campuses on five continents, part of system that started with a school in Wales in 1962 that was intended to bring together students from both sides the Cold War.
The schools’ mission is for high school-aged students to “develop a deep global understanding and nurture a passion for positive change,” and for global “peace and sustainability,” according to UWC literature.
United World College patrons have included Lord Richard Attenborough, the renowned British actor, film director and entrepreneur who died last year, and American investments billionaire Shelby MC Davis. The New Mexico school was founded by Dr. Armand Hammer, the late business magnate best known for his association with Occidental Petroleum.
Kumar wants to open the school more to the outside world.
“I think the 21st century requires openness from us in all ways: technology, falling distances, all of those require us to be very open. That’s got to start at home,” he said. “We’ve been doing deep service programming in Las Vegas for 32 years since we started, but I would certainly like for more of the community to be able come through here.
“We are offering weekend tours, we are offering more activities for the kids from the schools in town to be able to come on campus,” he said.
Along with Affeldt, Kumar is working with Kathy Hendrickson, who manages tours of Las Vegas historic buildings and who started the Las Vegas Harvey Girls, to lead tours of Montezuma Castle, the Plaza Hotel and La Castañeda.
For now, the tours, which started in November, are not regularly scheduled. But they are available for groups or individuals through the Harvey Girls group.
Affeldt a ‘savior’
For Dee Clark, one of Hendrickson’s Harvey Girls and part-owner of a local antiques store, the purchase of La Castañeda has made Affeldt something of a town savior.
“We would anticipate when people would come to town to look at the hotel, is it going to sell, is it going to sell? And it just never did,” said Clark.
“… Well then, when it happened, it was like, oh my gosh. So just to be a part of that and to watch that now happening all over the next year or two is going to be very exciting.”
Kumar and Affeldt see the Castle as a key leg in a historic tripod along with the two historic hotels in town.
“This is the conversation with Allan, having this Harvey Hotel, one of the original marvels of northern New Mexico,” said Kumar, “and we are lucky that, about 13 years ago, with the generosity of Shelby Davis, we were able to restore much of this castle.”
More community involvement also stimulates Kumar. “We are going to figure out: What are people interested in?” he said.
Kumar would like to see more of what happened for the college’s winter concert when “about 350 folks from the community” showed up for a program that “started with about a dozen 8-year-old kids from town who had been trained by our students.”
Activities for visitors have to be balanced with the school’s educational mandate, said Kumar. “This is a fully functioning residential campus for 16- to 19-year-olds,” he said, adding “I think, in today’s world, you can balance safety and security with openness, and that’s a theme that I hold near and dear. … And certainly I would like for this place to be better known. The United World College is the only high school I have ever encountered that has a mission that rises above itself.”
Education for world good
“We say we want to use education as a force of good on this planet for peace, sustainability and social justice,” said Kumar. “We serve a higher purpose and I would love to make sure that purpose is something that others engage in.
“The local community has engaged with us. But I think all of the New Mexican community and the broader community, folks from out of state who will want to come and visit either because it’s a Harvey Hotel or because they hear about the UWC and the fabulous work we do, both would be very welcome.”
Affeldt, Kumar, Las Vegas Harvey Girls leader Hendrickson and the women who portray the girls are all enthralled by the Las Vegas story.
“I am personally fascinated by Las Vegas,” said Kumar. “I came to this community when I was 16 years old. It’s the first part of the U.S. I ever experienced. Allan (Affeldt) often quotes this number, there are 700-plus buildings on the architectural register in Las Vegas, it’s the highest of any place in the Southwest. That’s fabulous. This place had an amazing history.”
Other historic buildings in town include the Charles Ilfeld Building, which is adjacent to the Plaza Hotel, and was a dry goods firm and one of the largest mercantile firms in the state. It was also purchased by Affeldt.
The town is also famous as the site of the July 4, 1912, World Title Heavyweight Championship fight between champion Jack Johnson and challenger Jim Flynn. The house where Johnson trained is still standing; Flynn trained at Montezuma Castle. Teddy Roosevelt once addressed his fellow Spanish-American War veterans – the Rough Riders – at La Castañeda.
Dancing at the Plaza
Affeldt has plunged into his area-by-area fix-up of the Plaza Hotel. “I think that’s part of the fun of it, as people walk around the building, they can see what’s going on,” he said.
Affeldt purchased furniture for the hotel from yet another Harvey House inn – La Fonda in Santa Fe, which sold off furnishings to make way for a remodel a couple of years ago. “I bought a thousand pieces of furniture from La Fonda,” said Affeldt. He recently showed off hand-painted headboards lined up in a hallway.
Affeldt is putting in a chapel in honor of Benigno Romero, who built The Plaza in 1882 (Romeroville south of Las Vegas was named for him).
“The family always had a chapel,” said Affeldt. “There was a huge mansion in Romeroville, which burned down, so we are going re-create the Romero family chapel to tell the history of the Spanish families in northeastern Mew Mexico who built all these spectacular places.”
The bar area has been enlarged for comfort and weekend dances, and a walnut and birch bar, built by local craftsmen, has been installed. There are local beers and wines on tap.
“You want to tell the New Mexico story, not just in the building, but in the food and the wine and the beer and everything that comes out of here,” said Affeldt. He just hired chef Scott Shampine, a Los Alamos native, from a Portland, Ore., restaurant.
If there is any doubt that Harvey House history can be a big draw, consider: In Santa Fe, a recent New Mexico History Museum panel on the hotel chain that included Affeldt required a second session as hundreds lined up in the lobby to get in.