A Ford in the Rio Grande
El Vado Auto Court’s uncertain but promising future
There is a ghost at the corner of Central and New York, across from the ABQ BioPark: a white, adobe relic of a bygone era languishing behind a chain-link fence. Its neon sign has been dark for half a decade now, its courtyard choked with weeds.
Amid the Spanish Pueblo revival architectural accents and painted figures from Native American mythology that adorn El Vado Auto Court’s peeling walls, a banner announces “The purest Route 66 motel surviving! 70 years of continuous hospitality!” It’s a sad irony for a business that has been shuttered since 2005 and whose ultimate fate remains in limbo.
Built in 1936, the 32-unit motor court actually predates Route 66’s Central alignment by more than a year, but it’s pure New Mexico 66 nonetheless. In order to appeal to Eastern auto-tourists, original owner Daniel Murphy adopted the visual signifiers of the local Pueblo and Spanish traditions: stuccoed adobe walls, exposed vigas, rounded corners and an irregular roofline. He then crowned it with a classic piece of Americana—the neon sign.
For the better part of a century, the motel stood more or less unchanged. Sure, the gas pumps were removed, and at some point, the original sign was replaced by the resplendent six-color neon artwork that graces the court to this day. Still, the building and its architectural style remained the same. As the golden age of 66 faded, El Vado held fast to its legacy even as the new millennium dawned.
But in 2005, with business dropping and the bottom-line increasingly difficult to maintain, the property was sold to a local developer who planned to tear the motel down and erect townhouses in its place. Route 66 aficionados heard about the plan, rallied to save the motel, and eventually the city stepped in and purchased the property in 2010.
Years later, El Vado remains boarded up, seemingly forgotten. But behind the scenes, the gears of government are turning. The motel has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places and named a city landmark. According to Ben Ortega, manager of Metropolitan Redevelopment, the city is working to make El Vado the center of an initiative to fix up the entire area. “We see the El Vado as a catalyst for reinvestment in that part of town,” Ortega says.
In fact, the City Council will be voting soon on the creation of a new Metropolitan Redevelopment Area, the same governmental designation that breathed new life into Barelas and that is helping to restore the De Anza Motor Lodge. If the Council approves the Historic Central MRA, then El Vado proposals will be accepted, which will determine how the auto court can best be used while still retaining its unique historic identity. “We’re open to creative reuse,” Ortega says, adding that it’s absolutely vital that El Vado’s future is respectful of its past. “That’s why we saved it.”