Trail Dust: Once grand Alvarado Hotel now a fading memory

Caption as published: Courtesy of Marc Simmons Albuquerque's spectacular Alvarado Hotel was built in 1902 and was a center of the city's social life. But railroad traffic waned throughout 1920s and 1930s, and the hotel was eventually torn down in 1970. Raw caption: Albuquerque's spectacular Alvarado Hotel, 1902-1970 Courtesy of Marc Simmons

Scattered across the Southwest one can find historic hotels, relics actually of an earlier age when people mainly traveled by train and needed lodging accessible from a railway station.

Several that come to mind are the Strater Hotel in Durango, Colo.; La Fonda on the Plaza in Santa Fe; and Socorro’s Valverde Hotel, named for a nearby Civil War battlefield.

On the other hand, many famous hostelries of yesteryear succumbed to fires or the wrecking ball. They remain now only as fond but faint memories.

Albuquerque’s Alvarado deserves top billing in that unhappy category. Built in 1902 at trackside facing First Street downtown, it was touted on completion as “the finest railroad hotel on earth,” perhaps a slight overstatement.

Part of the Harvey House chain across the Southwest, the Alvarado was one unit in a complex that included the train depot and between them, the Harvey Curio Museum and its Indian arts shop. A long arcade with arch supports ran parallel to the tracks and tied all the elements together.

The Alvarado and its companion buildings, roofed with red tiles, were designed in the California mission style of architecture, which had become popular on the West Coast during the previous decade.

The hotel contained 75 guest rooms (the most expensive $5 a night), a restaurant, large lobby, two parlors, a reading room and barber shop. It also boasted the latest conveniences, such as electric lights. Most of Albuquerque was till using gas lamps.

The interior was distinguished by carved beams, massive fireplaces and black oak paneling in the dining room. Throughout were Spanish and Indian decorative features, tastefully provided by noted Southwest architect and designer Mary Colter.

Even the hotel’s name was linked to Spanish history. Hernando de Alvarado, Coronado’s lieutenant, and his scouting party were the first Europeans to enter the Albuquerque valley in 1540.

From its opening on May 11, 1902, the Alvarado was an instant success with Albuquerque residents. Indeed, it became the city’s social and political center.

The highlight of each year was the glamorous Montezuma Ball, held during the territorial fair. Staged with abundant glitter and pomp, it brought to the Alvarado the city’s best dressed socialites.

But the hotel also drew more humble folk, such as veterans of the Civil War and the Spanish American War who scheduled annual reunions in the Alvarado’s meeting rooms.

Albuquerque’s premier inn received the most attention on those occasions when a touring U.S. president stayed there and delivered a political address.

President Theodore Roosevelt made a memorable stop in Albuquerque in 1903, giving a speech from a special platform erected near the Alvarado’s main door. Afterward, he climbed in a carriage and was escorted through downtown by a brass band and cavalry from Ft. Wingate.

President William Howard Taft made a brief stopover in Albuquerque on Oct. 15, 1909. Late in the day he gave a speech outside the Alvarado, then was led to the hotel’s formal dining room for a banquet.

Attending were 65 leading Democrats and Republicans — all men. Women’s suffrage was still years away and not a single lady had been invited.

After-dinner speakers lauded the president, and all urged him to support statehood for New Mexico, locally the burning issue of the day.

In fact, two years later, Taft would sign a statehood bill paving the way for New Mexico’s admission in 1912.

But presidents were not the only celebrities coming in on the transcontinental passenger trains. Albuquerque was a regular stop for meals at the Alvarado.

A popular pastime for townsfolk was watching the parade of movie stars and other notables descending daily from the rail cars to eat, stretch a bit, and perhaps purchase items from the Indians selling their wares outside the museum.

The Alvarado’s acknowledged prominence as New Mexico’s grandest hotel began to wane in the 1930s. The increase of auto traffic and the building of motels along popular U.S. 66 steadily drew travelers away from passenger trains.

Urban renewal in the 1960s gutted many historic buildings in downtown Albuquerque. But it was the Santa Fe Railway itself that decided to demolish its aging gem, the Alvarado, in 1970, to be replaced by a graveled parking lot!

Numerous defenders of the historic hotel made vigorous efforts to save it, but failed in the end. So the Alvarado, a valuable piece of New Mexico’s past, itself became a part of history.

Now in semi-retirement, author Marc Simmons wrote a weekly history column for more than 35 years. The New Mexican is publishing reprints from among the more than 1,800 columns he produced during his career.

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