Date of visit:
September 29, 2008
For location of this site in NM, click on the map:
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|A Trail town and so much more!
The archaeological record shows that the fertile valley of Nuestra Senora de los Dolores de Las Vegas Grandes - Las Vegas - was occupied as early as 8,000 B.C. by Paleo-Indians. Settled Pueblo Indians were present in the area during the 1100s and 1200s until forced out either by drought or aggressors.
In subsequent years, various nomadic Native Americans, including Comanches, camped in the Las Vegas area. A succession of Spanish explorers, beginning with Coronado in 1541, passed through going east in search of the fabled cities of gold.
By the 1790s an increase of population in the Rio Grande valley caused Spanish settlement to expand out to the eastern face of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. In 1835, twenty-nine individuals applied for and received the Las Vegas Land Grant from the Mexican government. The Alcalde (administrative justice) of nearby San Miguel del Vado accompanied the settlers to "the meadows:' and in Spanish manner according to the Laws of the Indies they laid out a large plaza and surrounding community.
Welcome to Las Vegas!
Whether touring on foot, or by bicycle, car or bus, Las Vegas, New Mexico provides the visitor with an architectural experience perhaps unparalleled in the Great American Southwest.
From the indigenous adobe architecture of New Mexico to the glamorous, machine-age International Style, Las Vegas boasts excellent examples of nearly every important architectural residential style built in the United States between 1840 and 1940. Many of these houses are in pristine condition; some unmodified for over 100 years.
Las Vegas continues to fascinate not only for its architecture, but for its unique city planning. The Old Town Plaza was established on high ground above the Gallinas River for irrigation purposes; the area that is now Bridge Street and Moreno, San Juan and Valencia Streets was used by settlers to grow crops. Streets in Old Town radiate from the Plaza like spokes of a wheel.They tended to follow natural features of the land such as arroyos, hills and cow trails. The Las Vegas Plaza, with these characteristics intact, is probably the best preserved in New Mexico.
In sharp contrast, on the east side of the Gallinas River lies "another" Las Vegas: a logical grid-plan of streets and parks reflecting Eastern United States urban planning sensibilities of the late 19th century. This community sprang up on the arrival of the AT&SF railroad in 1879 and was populated by a high percentage of European immigrants and Jewish merchant families who came west seeking economic opportunity. Until 1970, Las Vegas continued to exist as two separate communities: the City of East Las Vegas, and the Town of West of Las Vegas.
Though the west side had grown steadily due to Santa Fe Trail commerce from the start, the railroad greatly expanded the trade area for both Las Vegases. The census of 1900 shows Las Vegas as the largest city in New Mexico.
Even as Las Vegas prospered through 1905, its trade area was reduced as additional rail lines crossed the territory causing other New Mexico cities to rise in competition. A local agricultural depression in the mid-1920s followed by the Great Depression of the 1930s put an end to Las Vegas's prosperity. A long period of dormancy ensued, with gradual growth and a commitment to historic preservation resulting in present-day Las Vegas.
A Trail marked by chills, thrills and thousand-dollar bills
Begun two decades before the Oregon or California Trails, the Santa Fe Trail was an international route linking the United States and Mexico.
Unlike those northern trails trafficked by settlers, the Santa Fe Trail was a mercantile trail opened by Missouri merchant, William Becknell. Soon after the Mexican war of independence, Becknell transported American goods over 800 miles from Franklin, Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Within a short time, commerce along the Trail grew to a million-dollar-per-year business, trading common items such as needles and nails for Mexican silver coins, mules and raw materials.
It was also a trail of adventure: there were skirmishes with bandits, and with Native Americans resisting white encroachment; early military patrols were needed.Weather was unpredictable. Young Kit Carson ran away from Franklin in 1826 on a wagon train headed for Santa Fe and other adventurers followed suit. The American Army of the West followed the Santa Fe Trail into Mexican Territory to claim the area for the United States. During the Civil War, when Confederate soldiers from Texas made a desperate attempt to gain control of gold fields in Colorado they were met on the Santa Fe Trail by Union soldiers from Fort Union.
Travelling the Santa Fe Trail in New Mexico, now designated a Scenic and Historic Byway, one can still see ruts of wagon trains and visit sites between Fort Union and Pecos that have changed little since trade ended on the Trail near the end of the 19th century.
Exploring Las Vegas
Old Town Plaza and Bridge Street Districts
The first flat-roofed, log and adobe houses stood side-by-side, one room deep around the Plaza, forming a defensive enclosure into which livestock could be herded in case of attack.
This new self-sufficient farming village stood on the Santa Fe Trail and was the first New Mexican settlement encountered by supply trains coming from the United States.
The Trail meant jobs and commerce, and Las Vegas grew to over a thousand people by 1860. During the next twenty years its population quadrupled as it became a major trade center, with businesses as well as residences lining the Plaza.
The arrival of the railroad a mile east of the Plaza in 1879 was a mixed blessing. Though a new town was established with a competing commercial district, the entire city's position as a mercantile center was solidified because it was the first large town to be reached by the railroad. At its peak, Las Vegas' trade area expanded into western Texas.
The Plaza, which had long served for parking wagons, also began to change. A windmill, erected there in 1876, served briefly as a vigilante gallows.
This sign of frontier justice was replaced in 1880 by a bandstand encircled by trees and a picket fence.
Today's Plaza, with its gazebo under a canopy of mature trees, reflects efforts of Las Vegas' first historic preservation movement led by Rheua Pearce and Johnny Villegas in the 1960s.
Notable Las Vegas Structures on Register of Historic Places
1805 W. Plaza
By combining classical proportions and detailing of Greek Revival architecture with massive adobe and stone masonry, the U.S. Army introduced Territorial architecture into New Mexico-perhaps the most significant innovation since the Spaniards introduced religious structures and adobe brickto the Pueblos over two centuries earlier. Santa FeTrail Traders Andres and John Dold bought the site from the Catholic Church and built their mercantile headquarters in the military style. Early on, the front sported a two-story portal with balcony above. The building had been altered dramatically when the present owners purchased it in 1995 and rehabilitated it.
1815 W Plaza
To the right, the first Veeder Building, which was built be Andres Dold, is one of the more flamboyant commercial buildings in the Italianate style on the Plaza.
In 1895, the Veeder Brothers added the building to the left - an example of local brickwork with a Moorish flavor. Between 1902 and 1908, a Tudor Revival carriage house was added to the right of their structures. These commercial establishments were built with living apartments on the second stories.
The Plaza Hotel
It was a matter of pride for every railroad town to have a fine hotel in which to house visitors. Local bussnessmen headed by Benigno Romero formed the Las Vegas Hotel Improvement Company in 1880 to provide Las Vegas with the finest hotel in the territory. The hotel has a colorful history: it was home to early silent film producer Romaine Fielding (see the ghost sign still on the west facade) in 1913, and the Mama Lucy Gang of liberal politicians in the 1960s. More than a century after it was built, Plaza Partnership, Ltd., acquired the property and meticulously rehabilitated the building, motivating reinvestment in Old Town and, once again, restoring the hotel as an object of civic pride.
Charles Ilfeld Building
224 N. Plaza
Originally, Charles Ilfeld located his modest dry goods firm in a one story adobe that was later transformed into his son's law office. However, by 1882, he had prospered to the point that he erected the first third of this Italianate building.
He completed it in a larger second stage, on the right, by 1890. The Ilfeld Company continued to grow, becoming the largest mercantile firm in the state between the world wars, with warehouses and stores in every major city in New Mexico.
Louis Ilfeld Building
220 N Plaza
After attending Yale University, Charles Ilfeld's son, Louis C., located his law office here. The one-story red brick building was designed in a mix of periods with crenelated parapets and linteled windows and boasted an early air-cooling system.
This facade, restored in 1975 by early local preservationists, Joe and Diana Stein, shows the restraint of early 20th-century classicism.
Image source: http://www.lasvegasnmcchp.com
Maese House/Dice Apartments
218 N. Plaza
This one-story adobe, although "modernized" on the exterior, is one of twobuildings on the Plaza that pre-dates the Mexican American War of 1846. In that year, General Stephen Watts Kearney, Commander of the American Army of the West, stood on this one-story building on the north side of the Plaza to address the town's male population, claiming New Mexico for the United States.
Image source: http://www.lasvegasnmcchp.com
Desmarais House/Our Lady of Sorrows Parish Hall
1810 E. Plaza
Like the other remaining adobe buildings on the Plaza, the Parish Hall lost its wooden porch and was stuccoed, though it retains Territorial-style lintels over the windows. The curvilinear parapet which now caps its facade dates to the 1930s or later - a piece of folk picturesqueness.
Image source: http://www.lasvegasnmcchp.com
178 Bridge St.
Built by Secundino Romero, a local political leader and member of the wealthy Romero family, this was the last large new building constructed on the Plaza. The California Revival styling of stepped parapet and corner pavilions with the red tile is similar in design to Murphey's Drug Store building at Sixth and Douglas, east of the river
Aniceto Baca Building
144 Bridge St.
The Baca Building and Estella's to its side are characteristic of Italianate Commercial which predominated on Bridge Street and the Plaza in the 1880's.
Loosely modeled after the palazzos of Italian Renaissance merchant princes, the style is distinguished by heavy, decorative hoods over arched windows and by ornate cornices supported by brackets.
Stern and Nahm Building
114 Bridge St.
This building was originally occupied by the office for the Stock Grower weekly newspaper before being taken over by the Stern and Nahm dry goods firm in 1897.
It is a typical commercial building with large display windows and cast iron columns on the first floor, and pressed and folded sheet metal ornamentation above.
Chapman Hall/Winternitz Block
125 Bridge St
Built ca. 1870
The Winternitz Block is a good example of local decorative brickwork with its vertical piers, recessed panels and stepped brick. In the teens, part of the building was converted for use as an early movie theater.
The Citizens' Committee for Historic Preservation acquired this building in 1999. It has been partially restored with the help of volunteers, donors, and a Scenic Byways grant. Since 2003 it has housed the Santa Fe Trail Interpretive Center and the CCHP office.
Image source: http://www.lasvegasnmcchp.com
E. Romero Hose and Fire Company
155 Bridge St
An original wood frame fire house was replaced by this brick building. Its banded piers capped by pressed-metal "capitals" and its modest cornice with dentils (not brackets) make it Neo-Classical in style.
The 1913 Sanborn insurance map notes for the building "2 horses owned by members, 25 volunteers, 1 paid man, 1500' of 2 ½ inch cotton hose, 130' of ladder, 2 extinguishers."
157 Bridge St.
While the Hedgcock Building has lost its bracket ed metal cornice, its arched window hoods still reveal its original Italianate Style. It has been home to Stern's Famous Dry Goods, Charles Hedgcocks's boot and shoe factory, a saloon and "lunch."
It was also once home to the city police station and jail. The jail sequence in the movie "Easy Rider' was filmed in this historic building.
First National Bank
SE corner Plaza & Bridge St
Incorporated in 1876 by the Raynolds Brothers, the First National Bank occupied an adobe building across the Plaza before moving to this new building in 1880. Most Italianate buildings employed mass-produced, cast-iron or pressed-metal ornamentation such as the First National's pressed-metal cornice. However, the remainder of this building's ornamentation was fashioned out of contrasting shades of local sandstone.
213 S. Plaza
From 1882-1885, this building served as a courtroom, Like many buildings of the 1880's the Courtroom Building used readily available local stone for its side wall, reserving brick, which had to be shipped in by rail, for its facade. The arched recesses framing the second-story windows are the inventive touch of a local builder.
An acequia (ah-say'-kee-ya) is a man-made earthen channel, or ditch, which conveys water to tracts of land. Several of these ditches function as a highly efficient, simple irrigation system.
Traditionally, acequias are plotted to follow the contour of the land, diverting water upstream and winding around trees, large boulders and hills to utilize gravity flow as an aid to irrigation.They are dug using shovel, spade, pick, hoe, knife or bare hands by the men who plan to irrigate with the system.These landowners, or propietarios, make up the acequia association.
In early Spanish towns and in Mexican villages modeled after them, such as Las Vegas, residents lived clustered together surrounded by cultivated land that grew nearly everything they needed. Hardly a settlement existed in early New Mexico that didn't rely on acequias to irrigate crops. Prior to the development of acequias settlers had to cultivate dry land or carry heavy buckets of water, often suspended from yokes across their shoulders.
The establishment of acequias was so important to the success of a new settlement that they were often dug before any buildings were finished.
A main ditch is dug first, diverting water from a stream. A headgate is located at the point of diversion. Smaller ditches called laterals branch off the main ditch, threading their way to and across pastures and cultivated fields. Gates of timber, brush, rocks, concrete or masonry are built at every point of diversion throughout the system. The gates allow the equitable allocation of water among ditches, each branch being opened and flowing for a specified period of time according to the amount of acreage to be irrigated and established rights to the water. Finally, a wasteway channel, or desaguo, may wind its way back to the water source.
The allocation and distribution of irrigated water among members of the association is governed by an acequia commission including one man who is selected as steward, or mayordomo, of the ditch. Everyone who irrigates with the system has an obligation to help maintain the ditch. Each spring all association members join to clear accumulated natural and man-made debris from the temporarily dry ditch and to rebuild its banks.
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