A new exhibit has opened at the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History called, "Vernacular Architecture of New Mexico." Featuring 52 black and white photos taken by Robert Christensen beginning in the mid-1970’s, it’s an excellent look at some of the most interesting architecture in the state. While you won’t find churches or pueblos, you will see the old Spurs Saloon in Vaughn and the Contreras School. The exhibit got me thinking about the Werner-Gilchrist house, which I profiled last time, and other unique buildings that have been lost. So, in that spirit, I thought I’d do a second piece on Haunted Architecture, this time covering the much-loved Aztec Motel. (All photos are clickable.)
The Aztec was the first motel on East Central and before its demise was considered to be among the five most historically important left on the avenue. There is disagreement as to whether it was built in 1931, 1932, or 1933, but it certainly pre-dated Central’s 1937 designation as part of Route 66. Built in the “Southwest Vernacular” style and originally called the Aztec Auto Court, the motel had 13 units and three carports. In the 1950’s, the carports were walled-in and became four additional rooms. This is also when the original neon sign was replaced with the one that can still be seen beside the now-empty lot.
Like so many old motels, the construction of the interstate system pulled the rug out from under the Aztec. It declined for many years until it was frequented mostly by drug users, prostitutes, and the down-and-out. In 1991, Mohamed Natha bought the place and worked to bring it back from the brink. In an effort to cut down on visits by hookers and their clients, Natha rented only to long-term residents and soon the Aztec began to be extravagantly decorated with found items, undergoing a kind of renaissance. The long-term residents were chiefly artists, free spirits, and assorted characters-about-town whose personalities became reflected in the building itself.
Thus, the Aztec soldiered on, becoming the longest continuously-operated motel in New Mexico. In 2006, a development company bought it with the aim of renovation. What they found was that more was being spent on maintenance than was coming in as revenue and structural problems brought the cost of rehabilitation to a million dollars. And, with that, the decision to demolish the Aztec Motel was made. It came down around its 80th birthday.
The Aztec is probably best remembered for those decorations, which can be traced back to one woman, Phyllis Evans, a retired professor of social work at Michigan State University. In "History Takes a Lick," an article on the Aztec’s end written by Leslie Linthicum and published in the Albuquerque Journal, Evans says that she never planned to live in a motel, only coming to the Aztec by “some miracle.” In 1994, she moved in and immediately started adorning.
Here's further description from a 2006 Daily Lobo article by Marcella Ortega: “Evans covered the building with multicolored Mexican tiles, perforated metal crosses and plates, Mexican and American Indian paintings and wood-carved musical instruments. There are tables with candles outside each unit, too.”
Jae Whitehorse, who had been at the motel for three months when interviewed for the Daily Lobo piece, mentioned that he was particularly fond of a mannequin in a 1920's flapper costume and brown fur shawl: "She's gorgeous, only she's missing one hand," he said. And, describing the Aztec, added, "It's not all prim and proper. It sort of has a wildness look to it. I don't like things all prim, proper and preppy. The place is funky and quirky and accepting of the weird, which I am, and I fit right in. I love it here." Whitehorse said that the motel's residents and staff were like a family.
After the motel closed, decorating moved to the back lot. This was not the work of Phyllis Evans, but someone with a darker, yet no less individual, vision. Two ornate pigeons, one blue and one red, were laid out on mirrors atop a wooden cable spool. A few feet away, numerous stuffed animals were tied to a tree. At the base a doll laid face-down and against the trunk was propped a pair of dress shoes. And high up in the branches, above the other toys, swung a lone gorilla. I looked at the old motel rooms and noticed lights on outside a couple. Was the creator inside?
Soon the pigeons began to decay and finally disappeared. They were replaced by hand-written notes, one of which said, “Practice random acts of public humiliation.” The stuffed toys began to lose their stuffing, with the gorilla bleeding badly out of a hole in its side. Once I found a collection of CD’s stacked in a corner of the concrete fence. They weren’t in cases, but were carefully tucked away beside some beer bottles. The music wasn’t what I would’ve expected. It was better and included the likes of Captain Beefheart.
In the end, all that remained were some last weather-beaten stuffed animals still tied to a few limbs. The demolition team took down not just those ragged creatures, but the entire tree. I wonder what those animals might have thought as they considered the last hours of the Aztec Motel...and themselves.
John Mulhouse is an Albuquerque-based frequenter of gravel roads, ghost towns, and empty buildings. His blog, City of Dust, features photos and hidden history from all corners of New Mexico and beyond. He welcomes stories and suggestions for future visits. More of his photography can be seen on Facebook and Flickr.