The Aztec’s neon sign remains at the site of the motel.
The third of three pieces about the life and death of the famed, doomed Aztec Motel, demolished in June 2011.
Albuquerque rose to prominence among New Mexico towns for myriad reasons: access to the Rio Grande, its location on El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (the Royal Road to the Interior), the acquisition of the railroads in the 19th century and an Air Force base in 20th century.
Route 66 tourism also helped the city grow in the last century. One of the oldest landmarks of that era was the Aztec Motel, located on Central Avenue in Upper Nob Hill. A year ago it was demolished, the owner claiming its restoration would cost too much money. The neon sign still stands (among preservationists there are discussions about nominating Nob Hill’s neon for historic designation). Although shops and condos were proposed for development in its place, the dirt lot next to the 7-Eleven where the motel once stood remains empty.
There were, and still are, mixed feelings about the property, a repository of folk art that oozed character. Those that understood it to be a landmark—the nostalgic and history buff types—tend to lament its absence. The less sentimental (such as a friend who owns a home near the site and wrote, “if you miss it so much I can come over to your house and throw trash and bottles on your lawn”) seem to celebrate the removal of the old Route 66 motels. Some call for saving the neon, and removing the buildings.
As we mover further from that mid-century golden age where these places resided, and as the properties fall further into disrepair, there will be more reflection on their value. Younger generations will likely be more captivated by them than older generations. At the same time, the environmentally-minded and proponents of Smart Growth point to the energy-saving value in salvaging any building. So, if they survive the present, unlike the Aztec, the fates of the best the bunch in the next decade or so may be reuse. I hope so.
The second of three pieces about the life and death of the famed, doomed Aztec Motel.
In 2001, then-Alibi-art-director Kirsten Browne collaborated with former NuCity photographer Jennifer Lipow and UNM Internal Medicine Resident Steve Pergam to shoot and edit a 10-minute film which featured interviews with Aztec resident Phyllis Evans and owner Mohamed Natha. “The Aztec” won for best documentary in the Flicks on 66 Wild West Digital Shootout competition and hasn’t been seen for 10 years.
Jen and I made this film for Flicks on 66. We could've picked ANYTHING to shoot a film about. It wasn't my idea to shoot the Aztec and its people—I was a bit intimidated, but Jen was all bitchin' and NYC about it, so three made a team. (At around the same time we did the feature in the Alibi, "Motel Hell," where Noah Masterson stayed a night in a bunch of Route 66 motels. It wasn't your typical sponsored travel story—they all must've been glorious once.)
We didn't have a plan for the film because we didn't know what would happen there or who lived/stayed there. We just knocked on the office door and asked. Phyllis and Mohamed were happy for the audience. And proud of their incarnation of the Aztec. All Jen and I went in with was an agreement to ask questions and stay out of shot so we could be edited out. We didn't need many questions, things just happened.
We won our section of Flicks. And came away with way more than we expected. I lived in Albuquerque for six years (I'll be back!). Now, back in New Zealand for eight years, that experience sticks out for me like climbing Cabezon or Old Town at Xmas. It was a worthy use of time (more so than fluffing round the kids' section of Old Navy or reading magazines with a latte in the Flying Star).
The hodgepodge of paintings, bottles, tile, pottery and tchotchkes that positively bloomed off the stucco was painstakingly installed by Phyllis Evans in the ’90s. She was a professor at Michigan State University who sometimes lived at the motel and treated it like a retirement project.
I’d like to point out that the Aztec is renowned (everywhere but here, it turns out) as a folk art heritage site. It’s featured in art books and tons of websites, and it a was a priority stop on Larry Harris’ Orange Show Eyeopener Tour, a roving event that hits important regional folk-art environment landmarks.
Albuquerque’s Central Avenue, once a significant layover on Route 66, is home to scores of motels. In the ’60s and ’70s many of them fell into decline right alongside the fabled highway and wound up functioning as retreats for unsavory characters. Only in recent years have city officials and citizens taken action to preserve some of these places. Each year there are fewer and fewer.
Back in 1999 Noah Masterson undertook some real investigative journalism in his darkly satirical feature "Motel Hell." He spent a week's worth of restless nights at Central's finest neglected lodging establishments, reporting on the number of crack pipes, roaches, police and prostitutes he encountered.
Since then, four of the seven places he inspected have been demolished—Sand 'n Sage Motel, Zia Motor Lodges east and west, and the Aztec Motel. (He found the landmark Aztec pleasant, kept up and not deserving of its reputation.) Still standing are Nob Hill Motel (which was smartly converted into offices), The Crossroads Motel (reported to be too nice for his research—his room there was the only one containing a bible) and Prince Motel (now Motel 21—rooms are $35 per night).
Author: Noah Masterson Photos: Kelly Dylan and Noah Masterson Publication date: April 1, 1999
Note: photos do not necessarily coincide with the text.
For a Few Dollars Less
For just under $30, you can get a simple, clean room at one of Albuquerque’s low-end chain motels. Or, for a few dollars less, you can get a seedy room with stained sheets and stale odors at one of many historic motels and motor lodges on Route 66.
After careful research—eliminating any motels that advertise clean rooms, AARP discounts or rates over $25—we settled on seven of the least savory motels on Central. Drug peddlers and prostitutes earned bonus points, as did broken windows. I disguised myself as a trucker, and, on seven consecutive nights, slept one night in each motel.
The motels ranged from uncomfortably creepy to boring and tame, but there were common traits throughout all of them. For starters, it is more difficult than one might expect to register at a motel under a false name; all seven motel clerks asked for a driver’s license; some took down my social security number. Also, motel owners do not condone illegal activity on their premises. Signs clearly state this, and a few times I was given a verbal warning about visitors to my room. But most—to an extent—are willing to look the other way when guests break the law. I should know, given all the whoring and crack smoking I did last week. (That’s a joke, son.)
During my week in Motel Hell, I watched more television than at any other point in my life. And I got to hold a real crack pipe on my first night!
Monday: Sand ’n’ Sage Motel
6522 Central SE • 265-8381 Cost per night: $25 Roaches: 2 Cops: 3 Drugs/Paraphernalia: 1 (crack pipe) Prostitutes: 1 Bibles: 0 Toilet paper: No Cable: Yes Telephone: Yes Demolished: 2000
When I pulled into the lot at Sand ’n’ Sage, I was worried—not because the place looked sleazy, but because it didn’t. The freshly painted yellow and green trim made the brick building appear almost wholesome. My first impression was soon crushed, however, when I stepped out of the car. A guy with a sunburn and open sores approached.
“You goin’ to the Cubanos?” he asked, pronouncing it “kyoo-BAH-noze.”
“Why, what’s going on over there?” I asked innocently. The guy muttered and walked away.
There is no lobby at Sand ’n’ Sage, merely a window. I rang the buzzer and a cardboard partition was slid aside, revealing a scared looking middle-aged woman. She told me the rooms were $25 plus tax. I gave her $30 and waited for my change. She handed me a key. No change. I didn’t ask.
It took me five minutes to open the door to room number 18. The door knob was loose, as if it had once been forced, and the key spun uselessly inside the lock without catching the bolt. I felt the stares from the small community of people who dwell at Sand ’n’ Sage: a mother with two scrawny children, a fat man with a tattooed belly, a guy with a vacant gaze and shriveled, atrophied legs, bundled beneath him in a wheelchair.
The author, in trucker disguise, demonstrating proper crack pipe grip
Once inside, I was surprised by my room’s ample size—I’ve lived in smaller apartments. There was a living room with an old, beat-up couch in front of the television, a kitchen with a stove, oven, sink and refrigerator. The bedroom contained nothing but two full-size beds and a cracked mirror. To get to the bathroom, I had to inch past the refrigerator in the kitchen. The shower had a cement floor and a Sani-Fresh soap dispenser bolted to the stall. The place had been given at least a cursory wipe with a damp cloth; it wasn’t so much dirty as it was merely old.
The thermostat on the wall was broken, hanging by wires and coiled metal. I shook the gas heater, trying to get it to work, and a crack pipe tumbled to the floor. There was still some resin left inside. I finally got the heater to work, but it made the room reek of gas. I couldn’t bring myself to leave a window open that night.
Once I settled in, watching the end of White Men Can’t Jump on HBO (there was cable!), I heard shouting through the walls. I could only make out the bad words.
The cops arrived three times during the night; the second time, I overheard a woman complaining about a stolen wallet. The other two visits were a mystery.
At 2 a.m., there was a knock on the door. I peered out the window and saw a man and a woman. They looked nervous. The man announced himself as “Carlos.” Carlos had the wrong room, it turned out.
A prostitute knocked on one of my neighbors’ doors and announced herself as “Candy.”
After awhile, I fell asleep on one of the beds, which was stained with hot pink nail polish. The phone rang at 10:30 a.m. It was the manager, asking if I was checking out. Fifteen minutes later, she came by to collect my key.
Tuesday: Zia Motor Lodge (east location)
4611 Central NE • 265-2896 Cost per night: $20 Roaches: 0 Cops: 0 Drugs/Paraphernalia: 2 (pills and syringe) Prostitutes: 0 Bibles: 0 Toilet paper: Yes Cable: Yes Telephone: Yes Demolished: 2005
“We get a lot of bullcrap around here. Drug dealers, prostitutes. I try to keep that sort of thing away, but … you know how it is.”
This from the manager of the Zia Motor Lodge, a middle-aged black man wearing a red jogging suit. Behind him, in room 26, a woman sat on a couch, smoking. A big dog paced around. There hadn’t been anyone in the main office, but a sign directed me here.
Once I gave him my assurances that I would be alone, the manager walked me to my room. On the way, a giant man in a cowboy hat mumbled drunkenly. “He’s such a joker,” the manager said. Inside, he smoked a cigarette while I filled out a registration form.
Like most motel managers, I later learned, this guy wanted to run a clean operation; he took down my driver’s license and social security numbers. But with rooms as dismal looking as this one and rates so cheap (he charged me $20—no tax), there can’t be many respectable people willing to stay here. Torn blue drapes matched the carpet, a bare bulb hung from the ceiling, and the bathroom window offered a view of a narrow alley, filled with trash. I pulled a pillow from its case, and it looked like it had been passed through someone’s digestive tract.
One of the few decorations in the room was a Native American dream catcher, hanging high on the wall, its feathers and beads in contrast to the dingy blue drapes and carpet. A kicked-in heater with exposed coils hovered dangerously over the floor. Snooping through the medicine cabinet, I found a syringe, along with a plastic spoon and some prescription pills. They were Clonodine, which I later found out is a drug used to treat Tourette’s Syndrome. I have no idea what the plastic spoon could be used for; to my knowledge, you need a metal spoon to cook up drugs.
At 7:30 a.m., I was awakened by near-deafening traffic noise. The south window was probably six feet from Central Avenue. Dogs barked, drunks argued, I tried to go back to sleep. At 9 a.m., the manager walked into the room. “Sorry, I thought you’d left. I didn’t see your car,” he said. (I’d switched cars.) He returned at 9:45 to ask if I was checking out. I’d barely slept at all and spent the rest of the day in a sick, hungover funk.
Wednesday: Nob Hill Motel
3712 Central SE • 255-3172 Cost per night: $24 plus $3 deposit Roaches: 3 Cops: 0 Drugs/Paraphernalia: 0 Prostitutes: 0 Bibles: 0 Toilet paper: Yes Cable: Yes Telephone: No Redeveloped:Nob Hill Courtoffice complex, 2009
The proprietor of the Nob Hill Motel took great pains to make sure I wasn’t a bad guy—recording my license plate number, asking if a companion waiting in the car was my wife and demanding a key deposit—then rented me the filthiest room yet.
The defiled, blood-colored carpet was rife with blackish-brown stains. The bedspread was a deep yellow, urine-like color, and it, too, was stained. The medicine cabinet housed a quarter inch of dirt and hair; the cabinet below the sink was worse. There were two items of furniture that were once dressers. Now they had boards nailed over where the drawers once were and served only as end tables. I lay on the bed and nearly sunk to the floor; it felt like being smothered in a corpulent mother’s arms (not exactly a bad thing). I turned on the television, cracked open a beer and scratched at the myriad itchy places on my body. There was a refrigerator, sink and stove present, which were in as bad shape as the rest of the room. I spilled some beer on the carpet and, when I went to clean it up, couldn’t figure out which stain was mine. I didn’t want to touch the door knobs. Only because of the previous two sleepless nights, I managed to sleep soundly here.
After my departure, I realized that I’d left two beers in the fridge. I returned the next night, after checking into the Aztec, to ask for them. They were, after all, decent beers. Naturally, the proprietor claimed to know nothing about them. But I think I smelled Guinness on his breath.
Note syringe perched atop matchbook.
Thursday: Aztec Motel
3821 Central NE • 254-1742 Cost per night: $22 Roaches: 0 (1 hopping spider thing) Cops: 0 Drugs/Paraphernalia: 0 Prostitutes: 0 Bibles: 0 Toilet paper: Yes Cable: Yes Telephone: No Demolished: 2011
The Aztec was the exception. I didn’t choose it based on sleaziness, but rather because of its quirkiness and landmark status. Built in 1931, it is the oldest continually operated motel on Central. You’ve noticed it before: It is the motel on Central and Aliso, elaborately decorated with pinwheels, plastic flowers, green glass bottles and all sorts of other knickknacks.
Inside, the room wasn’t much better than the others. The curtains were nailed to the walls, and the heater was stuck on “3.” But there was a decided sense of well-being here. When so much effort is put into appearance, a more desirable clientele is attracted. A lovely Japanese print adorned the outside of my door, and big, leafy plants—both real and fake—lined the windows and walkways.
Most of the guests at the Aztec seemed to be semi-permanent residents; high quality mountain bikes were locked outside the rooms, and some guests had added their own decorations. Sure, there was a hole in the bathroom wall, cigarette burns on the shower curtain and television and a weird, hopping spider-like thing on my pillow, but, for once, I didn’t feel like some gun-wielding maniac was going to kick down the door and murder me. I slept like a baby.
Motel life was getting to me, though. I got up in the middle night and walked to 7-11 to buy a pack of cigarettes. Then I chain-smoked Camels and watched “Danny Sisneros’ 8-Count Boxing Hour” on public access channel 27. I don’t even smoke.
Friday: Crossroads Motel
1001 Central NE • 242-2757 Cost per night: $26 plus tax Roaches: 0 Cops: 0 Drugs/Paraphernalia: 0 Prostitutes: 0 Bibles: 1 (Gideon’s) Toilet paper: Yes Cable: Yes Telephone: Yes Demolished: no
The Crossroads Motel has a reputation for sleaze that it does not deserve. For $26 a night—just a couple bucks more than a room at that squalid pit known as the Nob Hill Motel—you can get a clean room with two beds, cable television, a desk, night stand, tub and telephone. I knew from the moment I walked into the lobby that this place did not meet my sleaze requirements; there was a rack of brochures and maps for visiting tourists. Bad sign. The only elements of sleaze in my room were a hole in the bathroom door and a missing knob on the desk drawer. Otherwise, it looked like a room at Holiday Inn—for half the price. There weren’t even any creeps lurking out front that night, although, granted, it was that unseasonable night in March when snow dumped down like monkey shit.
One quirk: I was charged for two local calls that I did not make. And, incidentally, the Crossroads was the only motel on my stay equipped with a Gideon’s Bible.
Saturday: Zia Motor Lodge (west location)
400 Central SE • 764-8870 Cost per night: $22 plus $3 key deposit Roaches: 1 Cops: 0 Drugs/Paraphernalia: 0 (plenty of junkies outside) Prostitutes: 0 Bibles: 0 Toilet paper: Yes Cable: Yes Telephone: Yes Demolished: 2002
When we scouted for sleaze on Central, the Zia’s west location topped the list. The two-story motel on Central, between Broadway and Edith, is notorious for the drug-dealing riffraff that skulk about in the parking lot. And on a Saturday night? There’s sure to be some action. I checked in early, after cruising the hallways to search for an employee. The guy I found was almost too friendly—and clean cut, too. He could have been a desk clerk at the Hilton. I almost expected him to say, “Enjoy your stay.” He did not.
The Zia’s office doubles as a convenience store, which offers everything from laundry detergent to Twinkies. I made some asinine comment about the variety of goods in the store, and received a curt nod of agreement.
Cigarette burns in the comforter are a common motif at sleazy motels. Are people who rent cheap rooms more likely to smoke in bed? Do nicer motels sell their linens to cheap motels the moment an indelible stain or burn shows up? (There is evidence of hand-me-downs in the motel industry; the Aztec used a Days Inn television, and Howard Johnson’s soap was de rigeur at the Zia’s east location.) Other than the cigarette-burned bedspread, there were relatively clean sheets, a wood-paneled wall with notches carved in it like someone was counting days, a chain lock on the door— which dangled uselessly with no place to fasten it—and an ugly print of some tulips placed next to the sink as an afterthought. The TV got decent reception, and there was even a smoke alarm. Someone left a copy of John Jakes’ North and South on the night stand. I didn’t take it.
I left for awhile to buy groceries (the convenience store, unfortunately, was closed). I returned around midnight and, when I pulled into the lot, saw a half dozen loiterers—presumably drug dealers—eyeing me suspiciously. They were half hidden behind pillars, corners and cars, wanting to be noticed, but avoiding scrutiny. I trotted up the stairs to my second floor room and, like true bourgeois, dined on brie and crackers.
In the morning, a guy camped out at the foot of the stairs mumbled something as I passed. When I got to my car, I realized he had asked for a cigarette. I remembered my impulse purchase from the other night, turned back and gave the guy a smoke. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone more thankful for one lousy smoke. I wish I’d given him the whole pack.
Sunday: Prince Motel
2411 Central NW • 247-2751 Cost per night: $30 Roaches: 0 Cops: 0 Drugs/Paraphernalia: 0 Prostitutes: 0 Bibles: 0 Toilet paper: Yes Cable: Yes Telephone: Yes Demolished: no, now operating as Motel 21
On my final night of sleaze, it was obvious—the manager of the Prince Motel didn’t like me. He told me that the only room available contained a king-size bed, so he’d have to charge extra (an unheard of $30!). This claim was dubious, as there were only two cars in the parking lot. He told me checkout time was 10 a.m., an hour earlier than anywhere else in town. He was abrupt and mean.
So I smuggled a dog into the room.
Inside, the room reeked of Lysol. There are worse smells, I suppose, and you do get used to it. The shower curtain was decorated with cartoon frogs—swimming, playing volleyball and all sorts of other things. Aside from a few tapioca-colored stains on the sheets, the place was clean. I should have gone across the street to El Don Motel. When I drove past, four cop cars were parked out front, amidst a sea of people.
Magda (the dog) and I woke up twice in the night and early morning. At 4 a.m., Magda woke to bark furiously at something. I tried to calm her down, but I didn’t try very hard—she could have been saving my life! At 7 a.m., our neighbors decided to hold a conversation right outside the door. I couldn’t decipher much, but I could swear I heard a small child ask his mom for a drag on her cigarette.
Promptly at 10 a.m., the manager pounded on the door. “We’re checking out!” I hollered. It was a mistake to say “we’re,” instead of “I’m.” He demanded the key. I cracked the door and handed him the goddamn key. Magda stuck her nose through the opening and sniffed his crotch in defiance.
Hotel, Motel or Motor Lodge?
I used to work at a Howard Johnson Lodge in Miami, Fla. Even at a reputable chain in a nice suburb, I enabled countless one-night trysts and solicitations of prostitutes, was robbed at gunpoint, evacuated the building due to fire and hurricane, and I called the cops numerous times on assholes who beat their wives and girlfriends. More importantly, though, I learned the difference between a motel, hotel and motor lodge. A hotel is usually one building, with the lobby on the ground floor and elevators leading to the rooms. “Motel” simply means that the rooms are separate from the lobby; you must drive or walk outdoors to get to your room. A motor lodge is a one-story motel, at which you can park your car directly in front of the door to your room. The difference between a Howard Johnson Lodge, a Howard Johnson’s (with possessive s) and a HoJo Inn are more difficult to delineate, and I will not attempt to explain it here.
Art Director: Kirsten Browne
The original print layout was experimental, garish and deliberately sleazy.
El Vado Auto Court’s uncertain but promising future
By Ty Bannerman
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.
A piece of Americana was lost last week as the Aztec Motel, which once stood at Central and Aliso in Nob Hill, was demolished. According to this KRQE report, owner Jerry Landgraf, said it would have cost too much—an estimated $1 million (which, in the scheme of things, seems like an insignificant amount of money)—to restore the memorabilia-bedecked landmark, built in 1932. Landgraf now intends to erect lofts or shops at the site. On the bright side, the City of Albuquerque owns El Vado and the De Anza, and plans to restore those historic Route 66 motels.