Sunday, June 2, 2019

The Town that Time Forgot

As mentioned last week Las Vegas New Mexico is a world away from Las Vegas, Nevada. It is a quiet, you might even say a sleepy, town with antique shops and, diners that have been there since the 1950s. In one of them there were even mini jukeboxes at some tables.  For those of my younger readers, you put in a coin in and pick the song you want to hear, and it plays your selection in turn with other requests from diners.

As we walked and drove through town we noticed how little traffic there was.  Traffic lights lasted far too long for the lack of cars, and at one intersection that begged for a traffic light there was not even a stop sign!

In the 1880’s Las Vegas was New Mexico’s big town, bigger and richer than Santa Fe or Albuquerque. There are nearly 100 buildings in the area on the National Register of Historic Places!  Now there is clearly an effort to revive the town and one of the prime movers in this direction is Allan Affeldt. We did not know him before, but we stayed at his hotel, La Posada, in Winslow, Arizona, a number of times when we were visiting the Hopi reservation.

In Las Vegas we had booked at the Castañeda, an 1898 hotel which is Affeldt’s latest restoration project. Affeldt was there on his biweekly visit and generously allowed us to interview him. We soon realized that he was extremely well-connected including many government officials in Arizona and New Mexico. I asked if he knew our mayor, Alan Webber, and he said they were great friends which was confirmed to us by the mayor who cited “the great care and integrity he practices in his exacting projects”.  Affeldt has a serious interest in historic places and preserving them, but he treats them as businesses.  He told us he averages 90% occupancy it is his hotels which is absolutely amazing.

1907 Postcard of the Castañeda Hotel

The Winslow La Posada Hotel, built in 1929 was his first project. It had long been abandoned although the railroad still operated a depot in one wing. In 1994 before Affeldt and his wife, Tina Mion, made the final decision to acquire La Posada, she insisted that they stay there overnight. So, they took their sleeping bags, broke into the building and slept in an empty room. The next morning, they began negotiations with the railroad, which would take three years, and the restoration would cost 12 million dollars. Ms Mion is an artist and her paintings are hanging throughout their hotels where a section of each is set aside for the owners  quarters and she gets a studio there as well.

Allan Affeldt, Tina Mion and Friends

La Posada and the Castañeda, , were both built as Harvey hotels along the railroad tracks still used by AMTRAK.  Fred Harvey (1835 – 1901), who had immigrated from England at age 15, saw opportunity as the railroad was moving west across the United States. There were no dining cars in those days, so he convinced the railroad company to let him establish restaurants and eventually hotels at the depots. These hotels were on a very grand scale and could no longer be kept up in the smaller towns as railroad travel declined. The Castañeda had been closed for 70 years when the Affeldt/ Mion team acquired it in 2014 and you could see the sky through the lobby roof.

The Castañeda is a boutique hotel with just 20 rooms as compared with La Posada’s 54 rooms.  While they were negotiating for the Castañeda, Affeldt acquired another big historic hotel, the Plaza, in the center of Las Vegas’ old town. That has 70 rooms and is handsomely restored but does not have the same charm and cachet as the former Harvey hotels.

The Castañeda began to open gradually in April this year, a few rooms at a time. We stayed in a luxurious suite created by removing the door between the original rooms.  All the spaces are furnished with an eclectic collection of antiques. When we spoke to Mr. Afffeldt, I asked him about the lack of an armoire or somewhere you could put a hanger in our attractively decorated room. He replied that he is always adding to the rooms and is still finding pieces for La Posada which they opened 20+ years ago.

The restaurants in Affeldt’s hotels are leased so the only risk is the loss of rent if the bar and restaurant fail.  The Castañeda restaurant had not yet opened but they had a food truck and served food in the bar in the evening. The entire hotel and restaurant are on schedule to open during the summer.  Affeldt had a meal he liked in a Santa Fe restaurant and asked the chef, Sean Sinclair and his wife Katie, whether they would like to have their own place.  Sean, age 31, had already worked in restaurants around the country including a Michelin three star in Virginia outside of Washington D.C.  They jumped at the chance and they have leased the bar and restaurant. I asked Sean if he planned to make it a three star and he demurred. He did say, however, that while they would continue to serve bar food out of the same hotel kitchen, they plan gourmet meals with many courses and commensurate prices in the dining room. We are definitely going back to try that out.

Sean & Katie Sinclair

Lest you think there is no adventure anymore out west, on our return from Las Vegas we visited Pecos National Historical Park where we were told to beware of rattlesnakes which we had been told at Fort Union as well.  Sure enough, on our walk around the mission ruins we ran into a couple which we carefully avoided.  In this photo I took you can see the rattles on this one’s tail. Luckily he was a small one.

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