By Dave DeWitt
This is an excerpt from my latest book, The Southwest Table, just published by Lyons Press. It details the rise and fall of the Alvarado Hotel, which played an important role in the history of Albuquerque.
After the Homestead Act of 1862 and the arrival of the railroad between 1879 and 1882, settlers from the eastern U.S. flooded into New Mexico. The railroad also led to the establishment of the first “Harvey Houses,” a successful chain of railroad hotels and their restaurants founded by English expatriate and entrepreneur, Fred Harvey. At one point, New Mexico boasted 16 Harvey Houses, including five that were arguably the grandest of the entire chain: Montezuma and Castaneda in Las Vegas, La Fonda in Santa Fe, Alvarado in Albuquerque and El Navajo in Gallup.
To staff the chain, Harvey hired a celebrated crew of female hostesses, ranging in age from 18 to 30, who proved to be quite an attraction on the Western frontier (where women were scarce). American humorist Will Rogers once said that, “Fred Harvey kept the West in food and wives.” One of the overall aims of the Harvey Houses was to bring “civilized” food to the frontier, and early menus reveal dishes such as chicken croquettes, baron of beef, turkey stuffed with oysters, vermicelli with cheese al la Italian and the ever-delectable calf’s brains scrambled with ranch eggs. Interestingly, Mexican food was, at the time, considered to be too “native” for travelers and rarely appeared on the hotel and restaurant menus. Harvey’s Albuquerque location, The Alvarado Hotel, was the lone exception.
This magnificent structure opened in 1902 at a cost of $200,000 — a huge amount then — and was considered to be both the “finest railroad hotel on earth” and Harvey’s lest lodging creation. Located along the railroad tracks facing First Street (now the Alvarado Transportation Center), the Spanish Mission-style Alvarado featured 88 guest rooms, a gigantic dining room, Spanish-tiled roofs, swimming pools, many patios with cascading fountains and the beautiful Harvey Girls, who were the restaurant hostesses and served “all-you-could-eat” New Mexican food for one dollar.
The hotel was named after Hernando de Alvarado, commander of artillery in Coronado’s great Southwest expedition. Charles F. Whittlesey designed the hotel and Mary Elizabeth Colter decorated the Indian building, a museum and store located next to the hotel. Many celebrities stayed at the Alvarado: Rudolph Valentino, Albert Einstein, Charles Lindbergh, Joan Crawford, Katherine Hepburn and Jack Benny, to name just a few. U.S. presidents selecting the Alvarado included William H. Taft (who got stuck in the bathtub), Herbert Hoover, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt, The Alvarado fell on hard times upon the arrival of serious competition, such as the flagship Hilton Hotel. Quite tragically, the Alvarado Hotel was eventually abandoned, and despite commendable efforts to preserve this historic site, an Albuquerque architectural masterpiece (and a significant part of the city’s food history) was torn down in 1970. A train station, built in a similar style, has now replaced the original hotel. A sad loss indeed.