When Allan Affeldt and his wife, artist Tina Mion, first saw the Castañeda Hotel in Las Vegas, it was a train wreck.
Lath and mortar showed through the walls, gutters sagged, part of the foundation had collapsed, and windows open to rain, wind and snow. It had been closed as a hotel for almost 70 years, but there was still a seedy bar on the first floor known as the “Nasty Casty.” The place was worth little more than the liquor license.
The Castañeda was once the linchpin in a chain of architecturally distinguished hotels built along the route of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway and operated by restaurateur Fred Harvey. But assessing its prospects five years ago, Affeldt said, “Who would come here and buy this hotel? There’s no economic justification for it.”
Now, to the delight of visitors, the boards are off the windows. The grand staircase once again rises majestically from the lobby to the second floor, and guests sip mojitos and pisco sours in graceful arched loggias. The old railroad hotel’s two wings open like arms to receive travelers as they did when it was built 120 years ago.
Someone eventually found justification for not only buying but also restoring and reopening the Castañeda.
That someone was Affeldt, an entrepreneur who has a soft spot in his heart for historic hotels of the Southwest.
Harvey House hotels
The Castañeda opened in 1899 just in time for the first reunion of Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. Designed by Pasadena architect Frederick Roehrig, it introduced the region to the Mission Revival building style.
Other AT&SF hotels are as impressive and as evocative of the time when Harvey’s shops, inns and restaurants helped introduce tourists to the scenic wonders of the Southwest, including: the Alvarado in Albuquerque (1883), the La Fonda in Santa Fe, N.M., (1926) and the El Vaquero in Dodge City, Kan. (1896). But the Alvarado was torn down in 1970, and other Harvey Houses, like the Castañeda, were moved, repurposed or left to molder.
There was, however, one exception: the La Posada in whistle-stop Winslow, Ariz., a beauty designed by architect Mary Colter, who also created Hermits Rest, Bright Angel Lodge and the Watchtower at the Grand Canyon.
Affeldt discovered the hotel on a National Register of Historic Places endangered list in 1994 and bought it, although it had been condemned, from the Santa Fe railroad. Three years later, Affeldt, Mion and their partner, sculptor Dan Lutzick, moved in with sleeping bags and about $5,000 to renovate it room by room.
I stayed there for the first time in 1998, getting to know the building and its owners, none of them architects or hoteliers. It was crazy and magical, though I secretly wondered how they would make a go of it.
But they did. Big time. La Posada is now fully restored, surrounded by spicy-smelling gardens, and decorated with a glorious collection of Southwestern arts and crafts, including Mion’s huge paintings.
The hotel is at 90% occupancy, andchef John Sharpe’s Turquoise Room restaurant is one of the most talked-about places to eat in northern Arizona.
Harvey aficionados started coming out of the woodwork with the reopening of La Posada. There were Harvey books, articles, gatherings, re-enactments, ranger talks at the Grand Canyon and renovations to re-emphasize the Harvey era at La Fonda.
Castañeda, however, remained a squalid embarrassment. Whenever Stephen Fried, author of “Appetite for America: How Visionary Businessman Fred Harvey Built a Railroad Hospitality Empire That Civilized the West,” visited Las Vegas, townspeople asked him how to revive the old hotel.
People asked Affeldt too.
By 2014, he’d done all he could at La Posada. Although intriguedby Castañeda’s building, he was unwilling to find $2.5 million to buy the hotel, not to mention the nearly $20 million experts said would be needed to get it in shape.
Then, the owner, who was also a tenant, dropped the asking price to $400,000, plus $350,000 for the liquor license, and Affeldt went for it. At the same time, he bought the 1882 Victorian Plaza Hotel on Las Vegas’ plaza.
The Plaza needed work too but was still operating, with 70 rooms, a grand ballroom and 14-foot ceilings, and it could make money while the Castañeda was being renovated, a three-year process.
Affeldt shuttled between Winslow and Las Vegas, a six-hour drive, or 7½ hours by rail, hotel door to hotel door.
Viva Las Vegas
It wasn’t just the hotel that captivated him. It was Las Vegas, “the prettiest town in the whole Southwest,” Affeldt said. It is home to about 13,000 people and almost 1,000 registered historic buildings, most dating to the 19th century.
Back then, it was more important than Albuquerque, a major stop on the Santa Fe Trail and the railroad when it arrived in 1879.
There were department stores, trolleys, a new depot, banks, a newspaper and a teachers college, now New Mexico Highlands University. Hotels included the Castañeda and the Plaza as well as another landmark Harvey House resort hotel, the Montezuma, at a hot springs six miles outside town on what is now the campus of a small private school.
Characters such as heavyweight boxer Fireman Jim Flynn and outlaw Billy the Kid passed through, followed more recently by filmmakers. The Coen brothers used Las Vegas as a backdrop for their 2007 movie, “No Country for Old Men,” and the cast and crew of A&E’s and Netflix’s “Longmire” spent comfortable nights at the Plaza.
“It’s really a movie set,” said Christian Mayeur, a French art collector who recently turned a historic building on the plaza into a gallery and artist-in-residence center.
The Las Vegas area, about 60 miles from Santa Fe across the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, attracts hikers, mountain bikers, cross-country skiers, horseback riders and other outdoors enthusiasts thanks to forest, mountains and high plains such as the Pecos Wilderness and the Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge.
“Both of Allan’s hotels are miracles,” said Fried. “But La Castañeda is the bigger miracle because he and Tina are grown-ups now and there’s more at stake.” To put it another way, more risk and money were involved.
Financing ostensibly harebrained schemes is an Affeldt specialty. He managed to amass $6 million for the Plaza and Castañeda restorations, a third of which was covered by historic and new market tax credits that had to be expended in 18 months. Then he faced competing demands from the National Register and the federal authorities in charge of compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act, which required him to add an elevator and wheelchair-accessible bathrooms while trying to preserve architectural integrity.
Besides finding ingenious ways to meet official standards, Affeldt also had to shore up the Castañeda’s foundation, replace all the windows and re-configure guest rooms as suites with private baths, which he lined with Mexican tile. He hired local workmen, including one who figured out how to re-create missing stamped-tin ceiling panels.
A new kitchen and 70-seat restaurant, Kin at la Castañeda, has joined the bar on the first floor with New Mexico chef Sean Sinclair at the stove.
To furnish the property, Affeldt dispatched antiques dealers from as far afield as Pennsylvania search for Victoriana and send it to New Mexico in an extra-large semi. Affeldt said the contents barely made a dent in the place.
When La Fonda Hotel started selling furniture during a recent renovation, he bought 1,000 pieces decorated by renowned Santa Fe folk art painter Ernest Martinez.
Mion’s provocative paintings will find room on the walls, and she’s designing stained glass panels for the transoms above the guest room doors. Each one depicts a different endangered Southwestern animal, paired with a plaque describing a Harvey House hotel. It’s Affeldt and Mion’s way of saying that, like animal species, one-of-a-kind buildings full of architectural and historical significance can be endangered too.
If you go
Castañeda Hotel, 524 Railroad Ave., Las Vegas, N.M.; (505) 425-3591. Rooms from $129 a night.
Plaza Hotel, 230 Plaza, Las Vegas, N.M,; (505) 425-3591. Rooms from $89 a night.