The problem with hidden gems is that they are hidden. Sometimes buried; sometimes unnoticed yet in plain sight.
Isn’t it ironic that precisely when Albuquerque is searching for its soul, for what makes this city special, we are about to casually brush aside yet another of our genuine relics in favor of some faux Southern California development?
Mayor Martin Chavez stepped in recently to preserve the El Vado motel from the wrecking ball, to his everlasting credit. And his administration has followed up diligently on the efforts started under Jim Baca to save the DeAnza Motel on East Central and the Bell Trading Post on West Central, just as earlier city governments acted to preserve the KiMo Theatre.
Those are steps our children will look back on with gratitude; yet they'll still shake their heads in consternation over the mindless destruction of the Alvarado and Franciscan Hotels in a previous era.
There aren’t many other remaining pieces of the civic landscape from the pre-'50s--the point in our evolution when we started enthusiastically junking quaint Southwestern structures that said “New Mexico” in favor of carbon copies of Phoenix or Los Angeles suburban nightmares.
Last year, the accelerating redevelopment of West Central found the beloved but ramshackle Sunset Inn standing in the way of progress, so Manzano Day School scraped it off the scene before preservationists could get their act together to save it.
The school’s new building may provide a more efficient use of the space than the drafty old adobe structure did, but once it was gone, a hole opened in this community’s links to its historic past that will never be filled. It was a clear example of how preserving our past will never sell to the money lenders—if the criterion for judging is limited to immediate profitability.
Yet when a broader perspective is taken, it truly makes good business sense for a community to deliberately preserve relics. They are, after all, what set us apart from 50 other burgs on the urban wannabe landscape.
If, instead of forgetting and obliterating them, we can figure out how to feature or even enhance them, how to blend them into the new construction that is taking place, we will have added value to the process of physically renewing ourselves by reinforcing our sense of place and time.
That’s the challenge facing two other developments trying to make the leap from inspiration to reality.
The first is the attempt by its new owners to transform the venerable La Posada in Downtown; honoring in the process (not in any way destroying) its very special place in Albuquerque history. They will need financial assistance to realize their plan, in the form of Industrial Revenue Bonds that have been requested from the county.
It will require a truly long-range view to see this project through to completion. The crucial point, though, is that here are business people who are prepared to avoid the short-cuts to financial payoff in order to make sure this priceless gem of a hotel is not bowdlerized, demolished or converted, but brought into the 21st century so we can all appreciate just how beautiful and wonderful the time and the community were that first gave it life.
A few blocks west, however, a group of developers has decided to seek approval to bulldoze both the Sandia Theater (an example of Pueblo deco architecture from the ’30s) and the rear portion of the Horn Oil Company complex next to Garcia’s. That complex is a National Historic and State cultural property, an example of the classic Route 66 filling station/motel combinations that once peppered the entire route.
The developers say they considered preserving both buildings. The Sandia is now a transmission repair shop and the Horn complex is rented for single occupancy apartments in back and a bus station and malt shop in front.
Ultimately, the developers judged the cost of preserving and converting to other uses would be too great, so their plan is to scrape the apartments and transmission shop and preserve a street façade of the filling station, converted to offices.
Two neighborhoods are at odds over the plan, with the Huning Castle group supporting it and the Downtown Neighborhoods Association opposing it, holding out for substituting some way of preserving at least the Horn Oil historic structure.
The entire issue may wind up back at the Environmental Planning Commission, where a hearing officer recommended it should be remanded, or in the City Council’s lap, where only the hottest of potatoes wind up.
At the very least, the issue highlights how difficult it is to balance the twin goals of preserving our history and redeveloping our rundown present. For years, it was easy enough to speak glowingly of our “unique built heritage” when we mostly were busy building strip malls across the Heights.
Urban redevelopment, though, has once again brought us face-to-face with the need for the city fathers to unequivocally state the preeminence of saving our past. Until they do, we’ll see Route 66 gems turned into parking lots for particle board and stucco fabrications from one end of town to the other.
In a crowning irony, the city is preparing to host the 80th anniversary celebration of Route 66, June 23 to 25. Thousands of enthusiasts are expected from around the world … just as the fate of one of the Mother Road’s most unique historic motels is up in the air.