On a recent day in mid-September, dozens of workers were busy inside and outside the historic Castañeda Hotel as owners Allan Affeldt and Tina Mion prepared to open seven rooms in another month or so. It will be the first time in 70 years that guests have stayed in the establishment at 524 Railroad Avenue in Las Vegas.
The couple seriously dove into the project in mid-January. “We’re trying to do in a year and a half here what we spent 10 years doing in Winslow,” Affeldt said. He was referring to the 1930 La Posada Hotel and Gardens in Winslow, Arizona, which he and Mion, an artist and his wife, own and operate. Mion added, “We’re still working on La Posada after 21 years. We moved in with $5,000 and a chair and my brother and another college friend, so it was four of us and basically no money.”
In the spring of 2014, they purchased both La Castañeda and the 1882 Plaza Hotel in the older part of Las Vegas. They did renovations at the Plaza before starting on the old hotel in the city’s railroad district. One of the first tasks there was asbestos remediation; the hazardous material had been used extensively to wrap pipes. On Sept. 14, one crew worked on the hotel’s south side, painting the flat-roof section above one of the hotel’s loggias or arcades. The U-shaped building designed by Frederick Roehrig has loggias, incorporating more than 50 arched openings, along most of its sides. The open part of the building, with a central tower behind a courtyard, faces the railroad tracks, and its two points — the ends of the building’s south and north wings — terminate with mission-style gable façades.
The Santa Fe Railway built the rather courtly brick hotel in 1898, then contracted with the Fred Harvey Company to operate it. The hotel was named for Pedro de Castañeda de Najera, a man who chronicled Francisco Coronado’s 1540-1542 expedition to what is now the American Southwest.
Roehrig and the builder used steel railroad rails for the joists between the basement and the first floor. Those are still in good shape, but other areas suffered from seven decades of neglect. “This is about 30,000 square feet, less than half of La Posada, which was structurally perfect,” Affeldt said. “This was in much worse condition. The northwest corner failed. We had to excavate that and put in a new foundation and install helical piers to jack it up.”
Updating the electrical system, including accommodations for a new four-story elevator, was a big job. So was the access-rebuilding program. “To give you an idea of how complicated this project was, it was Victorian era, right? So from the outside to the inside, it was a step up, between seven and nine inches. This entire arcade has been redone, 6,000 square feet of brick.” The depth of the entire paved surface under all of the loggias was increased with a concrete pad and then was topped with the original brick. “The main reason was to get rid of the step up. Otherwise, you’d need a ramp at every door, which would look weird.
“Now we’re doing the same thing with the roof; all this white wood you see is new lumber milled here in Las Vegas by Old Wood, LLC. There’s an integral gutter all along the outside edge, and when the gutters failed the water went down into the decking. Every one of the rafter-tails was rebuilt, and many of the boards between them are new.”
Most of the windows on the first floor are eight-over-one, and on the second floor, they’re eight-over-two. And there are second-floor bay windows on every façade. Every window had to be rebuilt. The couple saved a lot of the original glass and actually set up a glazing shop on the premises.
The new owners are building spacious suites out of the old rooms, which shared just a few bathrooms in the hotel. There will be stained-glass transoms at functional room doors and opaque transoms at the fixed doors, which were actual doors to rooms in the old hotel. “Now that we’re combining spaces into suites, only about 40 percent of the old doors are functional,” Affeldt said. The rooms have handsome wood floors and top-down, single-hung windows; workers had to disassemble each window to replace the weight-ropes.
“Each room will be named after a New Mexico animal, and there will be a stained-glass window,” Mion said, standing in one of the new spaces, which showed paint samples on one wall. “This is the Owl Room. There will be fetish boxes, too, inside. In the Bee Room, for example, we’ll have a little bit of a hive, and a story about the bee in New Mexico and whether it’s endangered.” The rooms boast picture rails and thick baseboard moldings; all baseboards and other moldings were removed and repaired. “That’s a level of detail it’s hard to imagine many people would go to, but the end result will be a building with tremendous integrity,” Affeldt said. The new bathrooms will be outfitted with encaustic tiles from San Luis Potosí, Mexico. The patterns are not simply painted on; each tile is manufactured with through-color so that when it wears, the color patterns won’t change.
Areas of the dining-room ceiling, which is composed of distinctive and very detailed stamped-tin panels, have been replaced with plaster. “We have a guy on our crew who’s a mad chemist and he made a mold of the original pieces and cast them in plaster and then feathered them in, to fill in areas where the tin rotted out. Because you can’t buy this anymore,” Affeldt said. “One of the most wonderful things about this program is the incredibly talented local crew.”
“And how proud they are to be working on this building,” Mion said.
“It’s not often that you get a chance to feel like you’re working on history,” construction foreman Jordan Grimm said, “and you want to build something that will last a hundred years.” Conner Reichert, a recent graduate of the University of New Mexico School of Architecture and Planning, produced detailed drawings for the owners.
During the walkthrough, the owners pointed out one of the second-floor windows across Railroad Avenue, where other venerable commercial edifices are under restoration. “When we started looking at this building 15 years ago,” Mion said, “we’d drive by and we’d say, ‘This building is dependent on this part of the street being restored.’ Now there’s a whole renaissance going on here.” Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, which runs between Chicago and Los Angeles, stops twice a day at the 1899 depot right next to the Castañeda. But Affeldt and Mion look to travelers on I-25 rather than those riding the rails for the success of their venture.
At the end of September, Mion said room rates and the menu were still to be determined. The hotel’s dining room will seat about 80, with 50 more in the bar and lounge room. Mion was looking forward to doing some restoration work on a cartoonish cowboy mural they discovered hidden under sheetrock in the bar, which was previously the lunchroom. The couple wasn’t sure where they would display an amazing old bulbous parlor stove with intact mica windows. A future phase of their work on the hotel will involve fixing up the newly insulated attic with a museum. “It will be like a wunderkammer with cabinets of old memorabilia about Fred Harvey in New Mexico,” Affeldt said. The attic will also hold his office, in the south wing, and Mion’s studio in the north wing. “I’ve never had north light before. Look at the size of this wall!” the painter cried. “My knees are getting old, and I’m on my knees all the time in my job because I do work from floor to ceiling and my ceiling’s so low that I have to paint upside-down or on my knees.”
Affeldt will satisfy a longstanding desire to construct a bridge with a structure, built through the middle of a large skylight, that will connect the two halves of the attic realm. “It will be so beautiful,” he said. Mion added, “Instead of going through the hotel, we’ll walk through the attic to get to each other. The elevator will open at Al’s office, and he’ll have a special key that only we can use to go up to the fourth floor.”
The visitor can see massive nuts on bolts in the floor joists of the attic. “Remember that there are no columns in the dining room and kitchen space, so this whole 45-foot-long room is suspended from up here,” Affeldt said. “This compound truss system holds up that ceiling. This was built by railroad engineers.” Interested people can follow the progress of the hotel restoration at castanedahotel.org, and view video clips on various reconstruction projects at hotelcastaneda.blog.
After all this work, do the owners expect to emerge in the black? “This has to be a labor of love first, then what you hope is that other people love it as much as you do,” Affeldt said. “Eventually, like La Posada, it will be very successful. La Posada is 90-percent occupied, but when we started it was just like Las Vegas.”
Will the hotel be open by Christmas? “Theoretically, but we will continue to add on and do furnishings. Eventually, there will be a stair up into the belvedere [the top level of the tower]. There’s no way to get to it except by ladder from the outside.” The couple is also investigating ways to remove calcium stains on the exterior brick. “Basically, it will never be finished,” Mion said. ◀