NOB HILL--So many of the old motels on East Central have been torn down that it is a pleasure to watch the rebirth of one of them. The Nob Hill Motel opened for business in 1937, the same year U.S Rte. 66 first came through Tijeras Canyon and headed west straight out Albuquerque's Central Ave. When that motel was boarded up I thought it was also surely headed for destruction. But drive by and take a look at her now. She looks
as good as better than new, housing an insurance office, a barber shop, and an art gallery.
What happened? Does the Nob Hill Motel have a history worth remembering? What about the awful days of crime-filled rooms, police calls, and the desperate families living here. But most of all, how did this one small motel survive to live again?
The Baron of Bad Motels
I got Gerald Landgraf's name and number off a For Rent sign on the motel. We finally got connected and I found out he not only owned the Nob Hill Motel, he and his Nob Hill Development Corporation own roughly five square blocks along east Central, including most of the older motels. In addition to the Nob Hill, they also own the Aztec, Premier, De Anza, American Inn, Royal Inn, and the Town Lodge. What a list of problems!
Landgraf's To-Do list must be a constant multi-page nightmare. However, distressed property smells like opportunity to the entrepreneur. And so Gerry Landgraf put himself in the middle of the old motel business. But let's turn back the clock about 70 years.
The Modern Auto Court
In late 1937 Walter and Glessie Botts moved to Albuquerque and looked around for a business to buy. They purchased the brand new Modern Auto Court: six "campground units" which had just been built earlier that year right on that new Chicago-to-Los Angeles highway.
Walter Botts was a schoolteacher in Los Lunas. "Mom" Botts managed the motel. They soon enlarged the motel, just in time for the influx of airmen who were in training at Kirtland Field during WW2. Many of them brought their wives to Albuquerque and the small motel was soon filled up.
The photo of the military couples was taken in the summer of 1943. They were guests in the Modern Auto Court. This whole collection of photographs is courtesy of Evelyn Stanage, a long-time friend of the Botts family. Ms. Stanage still lives nearby.
The name was changed to the Nob Hill Motel after WW2. The beautiful new sign which reflected that change is still there. The sign was restored a couple of years ago and looks almost new.
Walter and Glessie Botts continued to own the motel their whole lives. After Walter's widow Glessie died in 1980 the property passed through several owners.
The Worst of Times
These turned out to be very dark days for the Nob Hill Motel. All the old motels became havens for drug users, prostitutes, and criminal activity. Being so old, these motels were the cheapest in town and attracted people on the run and without money. Even desperate families set up housekeeping in the Nob Hill Motel, crowding adults and kids together in one small room.
I know because I taught at nearby Monte Vista Elementary School. I went on a home visit there once. My student, a 10-year-old girl, sat on the bed with her younger brother and her mom. I sat in the only chair. The TV was on in back of me. The kids looked at me. Their mom watched the TV. This was their home, their life.
A few years later a 7th-grade girl came to my classroom looking for her sister who was my student. She was absent. Their young brother in kindergarten was also absent. It seems the kindergartener had been picked up across the street from the motel in the 7-11 about 1:00 AM. He was out by himself. Police found the other two children asleep in their motel room. The parents were gone.
They did eventually return. The mother was wanted for knocking over a gas station in Clovis. The kids left town with their dad.
"A contractor told me it would have taken only a half a day to just tear it down." Gerry Landgraf leaned back in his desk at the Nob Hill Development Corp. He looked at me and smiled. Despite that obvious temptation Landgraf had other plans. He gave me the phone number of the man who would eventually do the rehabilitation of the building, Al Schwanke.
We met for coffee at the Nob Hill Flying Star and then walked over to the motel. It quickly became obvious that this man deserves his own biographer.
Al Schwanke, inventor, started out painting water tanks along the Mississippi River. He moved to the Duke City and got involved in the solar energy boom of the 1970's, founding Solar Age Industries which was probably the biggest of the local solar collector manufacturers. He later traded all his stock in that company for real estate. Then he designed and built a 100 ton tire recycling machine in Oklahoma. He built another one here on South Broadway. Currently he is working on converting an old Geo Metro to run on hydrogen. That is a long term project...meanwhile he's turning the Geo into an electric automobile.
Nothing about this rebuilding project looked easy. Much of the Nob Hill Motel was built of a hollow ceramic brick. Both Landgraf and Schwanke called this stuff "prison block," a term apparently referring to its maker. Not only that, many of the rooms were former carports between motel rooms. The floors were uneven, wiring bad, ceiling joists sometimes lacked proper supports, and much was rotting. Landgraf got estimates for rehabbing the motel, but they all ran into seven figures. He knew the old structure would never be able to support that kind of investment. Someone told him about a man named Al Schwanke who might be interested.
Al Schwanke rebuilt the motel for $450,000 in 4 months.
The Nob Hill Court
Landgraf plans to change the name of the complex to the Nob Hill Court. Not only does this reflect the motel's new mission, it harkens back to the original designation of "court" in 1937. It becomes significant because of the neon sign. The sign had been restored as part of Route 66 preservation project, and approval for changing the sign from Motel to Court has to be given from that program.
Landgraf and Schwanke did their best to bring the motel back to its original look. The stucco matches colors found buried under several coats of paint. They were even careful to take stucco samples from interior areas so that the colors would have not been faded from years in the sun. Even the windows have been reproduced to match the originals. The coping on the parapet also matches the original.
ADA requirements were met in an innovated way in the back structure of the complex. That building was 6 inches above grade with no room for a ramp, so instead they raised that section of the parking lot six inches.
The 17 units of the motel have been converted into 9 office rentals. So far three tenants have moved in: a State Farm Insurance agency, a barber shop, and an art gallery.
East of Carlisle
The neighborhood east of Carlisle has seen several improvements lately. Besides the renovated Nob Hill Court, the Bright Future Futon Co. has opened its new store right next to the Court. And Ragin' Shrimp has just opened its new location right down the street. Maybe all this will help to solve the biggest problem for small commercial redevelopment east of Carlisle: Nob Hill shoppers don't cross Carlisle. No one goes there.
Blueprint for Redevelopment
Can the Nob Hill Motel serve as a pattern for other troubled motels? Maybe. The keys seem to be these: a good location and reasonable development costs. Perhaps the most interest is in the future of the DeAnza Motor Lodge. I will try to get inside that story in a later post.