Harvey Houses once stretched across the western American landscape like a string of pearls. From Kansas City and along railroad stops all the way to Southern California, these stately and sturdy depot hotels became major gateways to, and symbols of, their respective cities. But as highway travel came to supersede rail travel, these grand old places either fell into disrepair, closed down, or were demolished altogether.
But two ex-Harvey Houses have been given new life in recent years. Developer Allan Affeldt and his wife, painter Tina Mion, purchased the Mary Colter-designed La Posada in Winslow, Arizona, and painstakingly oversaw its full renovation. Their most recent project, which opened just last year, is the Castañeda Hotel in Las Vegas, New Mexico.
Since it closed in 1948, the building has been mostly vacant. Its rooms once served as low-rent apartments, and later it was home to a last-resort bar called the Nasty Casty, a direct reference to the down-and-out reputation of the building. The hotel had even become an attraction of sorts for urban explorers—all of which is why its return to life is so extraordinary.
Polished and painted
The Castañeda was built in 1898 as Fred Harvey’s first full-service trackside hotel; previously, the company had managed restaurants inside railroad stations and pre-existing hotels. The hotel was designed by Pasadena architect Fred Roehrig in a C-shape. A large arcade veranda facing the tracks seemed to extend its arms out in welcome to travelers arriving by train. Today, most guests arrive at the new Castañeda by car and enter through the rear of the building, missing out on the welcoming embrace of the grand entranceway.
Even in a town full of historic architecture, the Castañeda stands out as an icon—perhaps rivaled only by the historic Plaza Hotel, a 15-minute walk away, which Affeldt and Mion also restored. When I visit the Castañeda it’s tough for me to believe that this beautifully restored hotel sat uncared for for nearly three-quarters of a century.
Historic details and pieces are everywhere I look: An old fresco mural is painted over the main bar area, the woodwork and floors are original, and rooms come equipped with original radiators and bathtubs. A few of Mion’s surrealistic paintings are carefully placed around the hotel’s public spaces. Everything in sight is polished, painted, or otherwise carefully restored.
“What they’ve done here is unreal—I think it will be a really good thing for the city,” says Castañeda guest Ben Montoya. He was born here in Las Vegas and recently traveled back to his hometown from Los Angeles to visit the restored hotel.
“I used to come here as a kid with my friends and throw rocks through the windows, or what was left of them,” Montoya says. “I’m sure I graffitied the hell out of that wall over there once.” He points toward a neatly-painted patch of paneled wall near the lobby stairway with a life-size cardboard cutout of Judy Garland in front of it. The cutout is a reference to the actress’ 1946 film Harvey Girls, which romanticized the adventures of the thousands of pioneering women who worked with the hospitality company, and were known collectively as “Harvey Girls.”
The revitalized Castañeda also features two new restaurants run by chef Sean Sinclair and his wife Katey. Both serve as a sort of homage to the company that built the hotel. Harvey was known for bringing fresh, quality dining to frontier towns that had previously been grits-and-campfire-coffee towns. Bar Castañeda, which opened alongside the hotel, serves casual breakfast, lunch, dinner, and bar food. It’s a convivial space, with a historic bartop and fireplace, serving a good mix of locally-sourced food and historic hotel-themed cocktails such as the Vieux Carré.
In a more formal space adjacent to the bar and lobby will be a new restaurant concept called Kin. “It’s set to be the most expensive, most quality tasting menu in the entire state,” says Sinclair. “This is something new for New Mexico, and we’re not cutting any corners. We’re in the perfect location to experiment, in this beautiful historic building, right off the interstate between Denver and Santa Fe in a town with a lot of potential.”
The Sinclairs and their team have spent the better part of the past year painstakingly designing, re-imagining, and restoring the space. They had been experimenting with menus in preparation for a planned April opening that was derailed by COVID-19. Local craftspeople and artisans were brought in to build booths, tables, and elaborate new light fixtures. They’ve made impressive use of the historic kitchen, updating the space for modern fine dining, using old implements and surfaces wherever possible.
As of this writing, Kin’s opening date is delayed until further notice due to statewide pandemic restrictions, but the Sinclairs are hopeful that the new restaurant will open this summer.
The story of an ominous ruin transformed into a hotspot seems to be a fairly common occurrence in newly-revitalized towns all across America. Still, well-known examples—such as the Crosstown Concourse in Memphis and The Row in Downtown Los Angeles—are massive, multimillion-dollar projects that both change the original purpose of the building and are centered around retail and office space. For better or worse, these places inevitably change the fabric of their surrounding neighborhoods.
The grand Alvarado Hotel, once located just down the track from the Castañeda in Albuquerque, was demolished in 1970. Built in 1902 and loosely based on the Castañeda’s design, its destruction almost single-handedly inspired a historic preservation movement across New Mexico that was probably at least partially to thank for the Castañeda’s resurrection. The Alvarado was symbolically rebuilt in the mid-2000s, but the building—which has a graphically similar silhouette but no hotel—now serves as a utilitarian Amtrak, Greyhound, and commuter line station.
Where others have failed, the Castañeda Hotel—powered by collaborative entrepreneurs, with a simple, old-fashioned, quality restoration—has succeeded in reclaiming its original spirit. It’s a win for its neighborhood, for its city, for architecture buffs, and for anyone with an interest in visiting a living piece of history.