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Castañeda: Act II

Written by Maria Basileo

For a growing number of savvy travelers looking for a more authentic hotel experience, a restored historic hotel may be just the answer. And the restoration of La Castañeda — the Queen of Las Vegas — is poised to be just that. The venue’s restoration by the Winslow Arts Trust is set to put the classic venue back on top.

Steam rises in the distance as the Santa Fe railway train barrels into Las Vegas, New Mexico, and into the railway station. Passengers become onlookers as the train makes its stop near to the massive horseshoe-shaped building with the romantic sounding title “Castañeda Hotel” written on the front.

It was 1899, when the future president, Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders, flooded Las Vegas for their first reunion. La Castañeda Hotel was only a year old, but would remain renowned for the next 120 years.

Founded in the 1830s by Spanish settlers who received the land from the Mexican government, Las Vegas, a town in northeast New Mexico, was built to resemble the traditional Spanish colony, with a central plaza and market. With the arrival of the railroad, 40 years later, the town prospered and boomed. At the time, Las Vegas’ population was larger than that of Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Today, Las Vegas’ population stands at around 13,000 (2016), with over 900 historic buildings, such as the Montezuma Castle and Old City Hall, continuing to preserve the town’s rich history and at its heart is the La Castañeda, the oldest Mission Revival Style building in New Mexico.

A Man with a Vision

Fred Harvey, an entrepreneur and immigrant from England, saw potential business opportunities in towns along the railway line across the southwest. Harvey approached the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, his employer, with an idea to sprout restaurants and hotels along the railroad, to serve not only the workers, but also the tourists on- board the trains.

The Burlington - as the company was commonly referred to - was not impressed with the idea and passed on the offer, only for it to be accepted by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad (AT & SF).

Fred Harvey.

Harvey would open his first eatery at the Santa Fe Topeka train depot with the AT & SF in 1876, and his first Harvey House in Florence, Kansas, in 1878, sending his success into overdrive. This was the beginning of the world’s first chain restaurants and hotels. At its peak, a total of 84 Harvey Houses were built from Texas to California, all along the Santa Fe’s main line; one of which was La Castañeda.

One of the most recognizable aspects of Harvey Houses were the workers. In the beginning, men served as waiters, but they were constantly getting into trouble with customers and in a revolutionary move that would go on to define the Fred Harvey enterprise, Harvey decided to employ only women, whose only opportunity for employment at the time was primarily domestic, as waitstaff instead. ‘Harvey Girls’ were single, well-mannered young women who were subject to strict rules such as a curfew, dress code and good reputation. Soon, being a Harvey Girl became one of the most sought-after jobs in America by young women across the country, going on to inspire a movie titled The Harvey Girls starring Judy Garland.

La Castañeda, a 25,000-square-foot hotel with about 40 guest rooms, 108- seat dining room, and a 51-seat lunch counter, was built in 1898. The only Santa Fe Railway venue designed by Architect Frederick Louis Roehrig, and named after Pedro de Castañeda, a foot soldier who recorded explorer Francisco Vázquez de Coronado’s expedition in the 1540s. The hotel thrived through the 1930s, with a guest list of who’s who, until the Great Depression when its struggles began, and finally closed in 1948 after World War II, the same year that President Truman stopped in while campaigning for re-election.

The railway left it vacant for years before selling it to Las Vegas local John Lawson in 1960, who in turn sold it to Don and Marie Elhd. The pair bought the property for $85,000 in 1973 and transformed the hotel into an apartment building and bar. Their original plan was to restore it, but they did not get to see their vision transformed into physical space.

Hope on the Horizon

In 2014, Allan Affeldt and his wife, Tina Mion, bought the hotel for $700,000. The building sat for almost three years before gaining the necessary tax credits needed to tackle the monstrous amounts of updates and repairs required to make the hotel a success once again.

The couple and their talented team is known for their extraordinary restoration work on other Harvey Houses, including their first, La Posada, in the Route 66 town of Winslow, Arizona. The couple wanted their projects, like La Posada and La Castañeda, to become public institutions, and so in 2010, founded the Winslow Arts Trust (WAT), a non-profit foundation through which they can preserve the art and historic artifacts and buildings of America’s cultural heritage for future generations. La Posada - The Resting Place - was designed by famed architect Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter, and first opened in May 1930. Although most rail- side businesses declined throughout the 1930s, La Posada pushed through to the 1950s before it shut its doors. The railway turned the building into an office space for themselves, but it soon became vacant and fell into disrepair. Residents of Winslow proclaimed the building as a money pit, but Affeldt and Mion saw the jewel in the rough.

Construction on the 72,000-square-foot property began in 1997, however, the restoration and transformation of the La Posada to its former glory took a whopping 15-years to complete. The hotel, which opened in 2012, has become the flagship of WAT’s projects, and is recognized not only as one of the finest hotels in Arizona, but also as a museum and a gallery showcasing the works of various artists. The economic impact of the restoration of La Posada on the town of Winslow has been tremendous, with the positive effects felt far and wide. Affeldt, Mion and their team is now bringing the same expertise, dedication and proven success to Las Vegas and to bringing this southwest historic treasure, La Castañeda, back to life.

Motivations behind the ownership of La Castañeda are simple and clear according to Affeldt: “There are beautiful buildings everywhere that are falling down or falling apart from lack of care, or lack of capital or lack of vision.” From Affeldt’s position, architecture is very much a form of art, and what his team brings to the table, unlike the ones before him, is “a business understanding of how to make them viable again.”

The idea is simple; provide a rail connection between the properties in Winslow and in Las Vegas, as one continuous living museum experience, but with each venue having its own fascinating and unique story. “For us, it’s become a sort of giant museum that scales the southwest,” says Daniel Lutzick, president of the Winslow Arts Trust, referencing La Castañeda, La Posada, the Plaza and other WAT projects. “Those are like galleries, sort of like living history in the museum.”

Lutzick, Affeldt and Mion met in college in 1992 when they were each attending the University of California Irvine. While there, the trio were individually involved within the art community; Mion was a painter, Lutzick a sculptor, and Affeldt was involved with sustainable designs. La Posada was their first big art project together in 1994 when Lutzick became a partner and Special Projects Manager during the restoration.

Harvey Houses were built close to the railroad for a reason; to make it easier for tourists to hop off and find lodging and food, virtually eliminating the need to walk into town. “When you visit one of our museums, you learn about the other properties you can visit, or are perhaps encouraged to get on the train and explore a little bit,” Lutzick adds.

Work at La Castañeda began in August 2017 with environmental remediation as asbestos in the plaster and lead in the paint are often found in historic buildings. Construction officially started in January 2018, and, according to Affeldt, is ahead of schedule.

The La Castañeda crew plasters the ceiling of guest room 204
in the second floor south wing.

During the restoration process, the idea is to reuse as much of the original historic fabric of the building as possible, however, obstacles like sewers, plumbing and electrical lines threw wrenches in the team’s plans when updating the building to 21st Century standards. One necessity required in every room is a bathroom, which were absent in the original 1898 floor plan. It is hard to imagine this in today’s era of expected space and comfort, but back in the late 19th Century, expectations were quite different.

But even before the construction crew was on the ground, residents of Las Vegas and tourists alike were enthused at the prospects of a second act for La Castañeda. “They’re so excited that this building is going to be saved, because they wanted it for so long,” shares Lutzick.

Kathy Hendrickson, a local tour guide, ran pre- renovation tours for three years through her company, Southwest Detours, upon the success and hard work put in by Affeldt and his team. “He [Affeldt] gave me the keys to the Castañeda and said, ‘You can start doing tours,’” recalls Hendrickson.

The ongoing construction does not deter her. Hendrickson now runs hard hat tours during the transition period between rubble to relaunch. Other tours such as the Las Vegas Art Studio Tour and The Places with a Past also run tours for tourists who desire to see the hotel before it reopens.

An illustration of the La Castañeda.

Hendrickson has given tours to people from California, New York, Washington D.C, and from all over the country. “People are coming into town. They’re going to The Plaza. They’re walking around, just intrigued with Las Vegas, and [are] so surprised about all of its wonderful history. They want to see the Castañeda Hotel and the railroad. They want to explore The Plaza Hotel [another of WAT’s projects]; a lot of them stay there now.”

An authentic experience remains key for the success of La Castañeda. Full immersion into 19th Century New Mexico would be impossible with new beds and televisions peppering each room. As part of the restoration efforts, many elements of the 19th century building will remain the same or become repurposed. “There’s an original French broiler. There’s an original dish machine, several original refrigerators and walk in freezers,” Affeldt explains. These objects will be cleaned and repurposed as artifacts within the building.

Even artwork, such as the mural that was uncovered in the lunchroom kitchen turned bar, after removing layers of sheetrock, will be restored. Affeldt describes the painting as “a little politically incorrect...there’s various drunks and town characters,” but it will be on display for tourists to see and learn about.

Work on the hotel will remain local as many skilled craft workers and artisans from the area “are rebuilding the Castañeda brick by brick and window by window,” Affeldt explains. The prospect of bringing jobs, tourists and money to the city makes residents hopeful for the future.

Hotel Castañeda in its 1941 incarnation.

The hotel is on track to open seven guest rooms in the south wing in late 2018, but aims to be completely open and operational with 22 rooms by late 2019. In the same vein as the naming of La Posada guest rooms, which are named after famous people such as Howard Hughes, John Wayne and Harry Truman, La Castañeda will do something similar. Rooms will be named after plants and animals from the region like the spotted lizard and black bear. According to reports, the guest list is pages long and growing each day, with people vying to be one of the first guests to stay for La Castañeda’s opening season.

Until today, Amtrak trains continue to stop at the Las Vegas railway station twice a day like they have been for almost 140 years. And as with the region that is itself steeped in history and culture, La Castañeda will continue to play an important and enviable role for generations to come.

Photographs courtesy of Daniel Lutzick and the Winslow Arts Trust.

To follow and get updated information and pictures on the ongoing construction and restoration efforts at La Castañeda, follow the Winslow Arts Trust blog link: hotelcastaneda.blog or visit their Facebook page at facebook.com/CastanedaHotel.

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