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Living Downtown When Downtown was Albuquerque

By Mo Palmer

Most American towns grew outward from the town square, or plaza, as they were called out here. These squares, commons, or plazas, usually contained the church, courthouse, police station, sometimes the jail, merchants, or some combination thereof. Homes, farms, and villages spread out from these central points.

When the railroad arrived it often created a second “center” and created what John Stilgoe calls “The Metropolitan Corridor.” Sometimes I imagine it was near the center of town but in Albuquerque’s case, it created an entire New Town a mile and ½ East of the original villa. This was to avoid the capricious. frequently flooding Rio Grande, to lay track in straight lines, and to take advantage of cheap land owned by the New Mexico Town Company, formed by three prominent citizens, Franz Huning, Elias Stover, and William Hazeldine.

The terminal and shops would have been in Bernalillo, but landowner and freighter Don Perea of Bernalillo wanted $450.00 per acre for his land and the railroad people said “NOT.” This is how Albuquerque, in a twist of fate, became our largest city.

They located the shops and terminal at First and Central. In time the railroad complex spread about five miles south to the tie-treating plant. It was a huge operation, one of the, if not the, biggest in the southwest. The railroad, then known as the A& P, but a subsidiary of the AT&SF, got here in April of 1880.

In any event, a new town, actually called “New Town” or “New Albuquerque” sprouted in the middle of the desert. Immediately a business and residential center grew up around the railroad, laid out in a grid street pattern.

The first true subdivision was Huning’s Highland, owned by Franz Huning of the New Mexico Town Company. So people started living downtown immediately. The Highland, full of Victorian s t y l e c o t t a g e s a nd “mansions” lay east of the tracks from Broadway to what eventually expanded to High Street, and north and south of Central, called Railroad Avenue until 1912, from around Lead north to Grande, where it ended at Martineztown, one of the Hispanic plazas.

Some people lived in New Town, some still lived in Old Town, which was not annexed by the city until 1949. They walked back and forth from work or took the street railway, drawn by horses and mules.

People lived downtown because that’s where they worked and they could walk. They lived in Huning’s Highland, but homes also were right downtown. At Fourth and Iron was the Romero house, a real mansion that is now the Good Shepherd mission. As well, modest homes developed just south in the plaza of Barelas. Many railroad workers occupied these, and also lived in the modest cottages in the Highland.

Many homes were right downtown. The town was divided into four political districts or wards. This is relevant now because the Fourth Ward is still full of houses. First Ward was Railroad (Central) to Grande (MLK), and the tracks to the city limit at High, more or less. Second was South to about Coal, east of the tracks, and south of Railroad (Central). Third Ward was west of tracks, south of Central, and I forget the southern boundary but you get the idea, it included quite a bit of Barelas. Fourth Ward was the “elite,” the tracks West, Central to probably New York Avenue (Lomas).
Fourth Ward became “Judges Row” because so many doctors, lawyers, and professionals lived there. Some rather huge, grand mansions – almost all gone now.

In the block around Third and Copper were the red light cottages, most notably Lizzie McGrath’s Vine Cottage, which is why McGrath’s at the Hyatt is so named. There were also some rows of “cribs” or little tiny rooms where the ladies of the evening entertained their guests, also existed.)

Railroads bring passengers and passengers need bed, board, and beauties. Hotels were built for travelers, but local people working downtown also lived in them. The European or Hope Hotel, on the SW corner of Central and First (then called Front Street), was a “perhaps house” brought in prefabricated – perhaps these establishments would stay and perhaps they wouldn’t, depending upon whether the frontier town survived or not. It became the Sturges Hotel and was there until it was razed sometime in the 60s. People used to eat in its dining room, and lived in rooms upstairs.

The Armijo House, SW corner of 3rd and Railroad, was the first luxury hotel. It had a boardwalk from the depot so the ladies wouldn’t drag their skirts in the ever present mud, partially caused by the marshy area and partially caused by the fact that the acequia ran right through the middle of town for years and was a big source of irritation to city fathers because folks threw their garbage and sewage into it.

The second big hotel was the San Felipe on the SW corner of Fifth and Gold. It was singularly unpopular because it had a reading room instead of a bar. To the east of the tracks was the Highland Hotel, which also burned but was remodeled and is now the Hudson, still standing. I’m sure people lived there.

As the town grew, a pattern developed. Businesses operated downstairs, and most buildings had upstairs. where proprietors and their families lived, and rented rooms to boarders. As late as the sixties I remember walking downtown and seeing the stairs to the “second floor walkups” with doors that opened from the street.

Hotel living was a perfectly respectable way to live, for single men and women as well as for families. Folks lived at the Combs Hotel, just west of First on the North side of Central. We have photos of one of their rooms. It had a lobby with a piano and loads of chairs so you could hang out and read the paper. Little hotels were everywhere. All you had to do was look up to see them. City directories began to list peoples’ residences as “Rooms, the Combs Hotel,” or “Elms Hotel” and so forth.

Off the top of my head there was the Elgin (still there over the building on SW corner of 5th and Central, not a hotel now). In the 600 Block of W Central, North Side, over what is a just closed pawn shop, was a hotel –. I got to go look at it. They walked down a hall to a shared bath. The rooms were wee, I do not know how people lived in them. They had a built in bookcase, a closet, and that’s about it.
 There’s a LOT more space up above those buildings than you think, because they were built long and narrow, to maximize space on the lots (a style picked up by malls, where smaller stores tend to be long and narrow)

Over time there was the Vera Hotel, the Sun Hotel, the Grand Central, and apartments developed on the upper floors as well. So families lived there. A couple of prominent Italian families lived in the Savoy, that building you asked me about yesterday, and had businesses downstairs. I know a lady whose family owned and lived above the San Diego Hotel on South First. People even lived in the Alvarado, there was a dormitory for workers, like the Harvey Girls, etc., and I’ve seen at least one male clerk listed as living at the Alvarado Hotel.

The Commercial Club was a building at 4th and Central, and bachelors kept rooms there. I have a photo of the interior of one room. My grandmother lived in a hotel downtown.

You went down to the dining room or to one of the many cafes and restaurants for your meals. Even the YMCA, NE corner of Central and First, which was an architectural sister to the Alvarado, had rooms upstairs. Many retired railroad men eventually lived there. On the NW corner of First and Central was the Metropolitan Hotel.

Above the Korber Building on N Second at Tijeras, where the Convention Center East is, was the Angelus Hotel where folks lived. Some of these facilities did have kitchens, I talked to a guy who lived in the Angelus. So they were essentially apartments. So downtown living hotels were pretty ubiquitous and not at all unusual.

Then there were boarding houses all over the place, particularly run by widows who turned the family home into a boarding house after the old man shuffled off. The house at 616 Coal SW, currently being remodeled, was a single family dwelling and a very large one at that, with the owner’s planing mill directly behind.

Researching city directories I discovered that after he died, she started running a boarding house there. All kinds of people lived in it – railroad workers, clerks, etc. There were many boarding houses downtown and again it was normal for singles to live there and take their meals there.

These were south on First and second as well as north. The Lindell Hotel and Boarding House was south of the Alvarado near Lead. Most boarding houses were “mrs so and so’s”

We also had a YWCA on Fourth Street where young women could live, no doubt in a virtuous atmosphere. There is a house at 415 Coal SW I just had a call on, it apparently was a single family dwelling converted to rooms.

Downtown was very dense with buildings, not at all spread out with empty spaces as it is now. (over 150 buildings were destroyed in the 1960’s as part of urban renewal).

There were also apartment buildings and apartment hotels, which means they included cleaning and linen services rather than leaving that up to you. There was one, The Lincoln Apartments, around Fifth and Silver that was still there in the 40s.

Old Elks also lived in the Elks Club, remodeled from the ruins of the burned San Felipe Hotel (Fifth and Gold). It was there into the Fifties or later. The Elks were proud of providing a home for their elderly members.

People even lived above those little buildings still standing on the South side of Gold in the 200 Block. There were also buildings that housed offices and rooms.

My boss, Jim Moore, and his dad even had rooms above the Sunshine Theater. He could hear all the movies playing. This would suggest you could rent rooms in almost all these buildings. But what inevitably happened was suburbs. People think the car led to suburbanization, but it was really the electric streetcar, so the outlying areas were called “streetcar suburbs.” Then people no longer had to walk to work and could live in the hinterlands. I should mention that between Old and New Town, along West Central, a lot of big houses were built. Some smaller ones around Robinson Park were called “Honeymoon Row” since they were sort of “starter” houses for young couples.

Many of the bigger mansions were converted to apartments.

Apartment buildings were built as well, the Washington Apartments at 10th and Central and the Castle Apartments at around 14th and Central, for example. Ask Michael about those, he lived in the Castle for a while. Down around Tijeras and Marquette and 11th, 12th, etc. are still some courtyard apartments, one is the El Portal.

Ok so then after the freeway came 1961- ish, and the suburbs grew, and the malls came in 1961 and 1964, nobody lived downtown anymore. The rooms all became 50 cent or a dollar a night flophouses, and deteriorated. Lots of drunks and fellow travelers. Old railroad men continued to live in the YMCA, as far as I know, until it was torn down in the 70s. Of course by then it was no l o n g e r respectable to l i v e downtown. B o a r d i n g houses and a p a r t m e n t hotels gave way to the modern self- contained apartment complex. Although – some people, in Huning’s Highland, do still rent out rooms.

We have photos of folks hanging out of their second and third story windows watching parades go by. You can always tell it’s a residence because they always have curtains.

—-Mo Palmer, Curator Albuquerque Museum


New Lego exhibit at the Wheels Museum. View The New Mexico Lego Users Group has
partnered with WHEELS to have a beautiful Lego Train layout for children of all ages to enjoy. The exhibit will vary from season to season and we invite you to come see this new Lego train exhibit.

January 8, 15, 22, 29 – Sunday morning admission free from 9 am-1 pm at the Albuquerque Museum and the City’s International Balloon Museum.

Do you have a few hours each month to help the Wheels Museum? Volunteers are needed so the Museum can be open more; run the model railroad trains, also help needed with events, marketing, fund raising. Call Leba Freed at (505) 243-6269.

Febuary 16, 11 am. Bob Bovee Long Steel Rails concert. This program for all ages presents songs and stories about the famous trains, rail workers, hobos, train wrecks and train robbers. Call or email Leba Freed for reservations at (505) 243-6269 or leba4@aol.com.

March 17, Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day at WHEELS. Movie, tours, train ride and food celebration.

April 1, 1 pm. Doug Figgs and Badger. Back by popular demand. By reservations only (505) 243- 6269. Doug’s show was sold out last year, so call early! Donation: $10.00.

April 8, 11 am. “Historic Albuquerque” Ronn Perea will present old Albuquerque anecdotes including delightful stories about our beloved Alvarado Hotel and the politicians, actors and entertainers who stayed there. This is a free event but, of course, donations are always appreciated.

April 22, Wheels Museum Day trip to Rancho De Chimayo Restaurante, El Santuario de Chimayo and the Santa Fe Plaza. Call Leba or Janet at (505) 243-6269 for more information. The museum is a 501C3 non-profit community organization whose mission is to create a transportation museum at the downtown Albuquerque Steam Locomotive Repair Shops.

May 19-May 23, Train trip to the Grand Canyon. Only a few spaces left.Scheduled through Amtrak Vacations, call Leba or Janet at (505) 243-6269 for reservations and more information.