In August of 1846 General Stephen Kearney stood on the roof of a low adobe structure on the plaza of Las Vegas, NM. He looked down at the assembled crowd. “We come amongst you as friends--not enemies,” he read, and claimed the area for the United States. That low adobe building still stands, and Kearney’s whole fascinating proclamation is immortalized on a nearby plaque in the plaza.
In fact, much of historical Las Vegas still stands. It has more structures on the various historical registries than any other town in the state--over 900.
Las Vegas, like Albuquerque, was built with two centers. The first settled was the area around the plaza; the other began about a mile away with the coming of the railroad in 1879. These two parts of town remained as separate towns, Las Vegas and West Las Vegas, until the 1970’s. In fact, there are still two separate school systems.
Both areas are wonderful for strolling around and looking at the many architectural styles that found their way into this part of New Mexico: Queen Anne, Italian Villa, Territorial, Eastlake, Romanesque, and many more. I would heartily recommend picking up the free and very helpful Las Vegas Guide for more information.
There are two historic hotels. Downtown near the train station is the El Fidel, which has less than a dozen rooms available nightly, but houses a wonderfully expansive lobby and also a great restaurant. I had a grilled Caesar salad there which I’m still trying to re-create in my own kitchen.
The Plaza Hotel, located on the north side of Plaza Park, is absolutely fabulous. Built in 1882 in the Italianate style, it has modern conveniences and generously sized rooms. There is a bar and restaurant on the first floor. Movie and TV stars occasionally stroll through the lobby. And of course Longmire, the A&E hit series about a sheriff in Wyoming, is filmed in the Las Vegas area and much of it takes place right in front of the Plaza Hotel.
Also in the plaza is the sculpture done by Peter Lopez called “El Campesino” which he dedicated to farm laborers and San Isidro. Carved from a dead elm tree, it was still a work-in-progress when I was there.
Interestingly, driving a car to Las Vegas in not necessary. Amtrak can take you from Albuquerque to the Las Vegas train depot for about $50. The El Fidel is an easy walk, and the Plaza Hotel will pick you up at the station with a phone call.
That Las Vegas train depot is right next door to one of the most imposing vacant buildings in New Mexico, the Castaneda Hotel. This 50,000 square foot Harvey House was built in 1898. Unoccupied for decades, renovation is expected to begin sometime this summer.
In fact, many of the historical structures in Las Vegas have suffered from years of neglect but are still standing and apparently basically sound. One factor might be that much of the construction is either stone or brick. But insiders say that it has more to do with the flat economy here. There was neither the money to fix up the buildings or to tear them down and redevelop the land.
What has resulted is a somewhat eerie feeling walking past beautiful commercial buildings right in the heart of downtown that yearn to be used again. The wonderful old private houses, on the other hand, are slowly being restored individually by their owners’ own efforts.
Also of interest are the public hot springs located 6 miles north of town on Highway 65. These natural pools, originally part of the old Montezuma Castle property, make a perfect end to a day of exploring.