Travelling Small Town America: The Other Las Vegas

It may come as something of a surprise (or not, depending on how well you know me) if I declare an eternal fascination for Las Vegas. Not, I might add, the neon glitter of Las Vegas, Nevada, but the understated historic charms of Las Vegas, New Mexico.

This is the place you’d holiday with Bill Collins (in matching salmon-coloured sports coats) rather than Richard Wilkins, where the only peacock feathers can be found on the peacocks they belong on, and finding a Busted Flush may require a trawl through the local thrift store for a John D. MacDonald novel.

The New Mexico version was the original, established in 1835 when this part of the world was the property of Mexico. It was an important link on the Santa Fe Trail and many of the Old West legends, including Wyatt Earp and Billy The Kid, peopled Las Vegas at various times. Doc Holliday ran a saloon there (and killed a man in a gunfight); another bar owner was Robert Ford, who murdered outlaw Jesse James. In its heyday, Las Vegas was not only one of the biggest cities in the region but reputedly one of the roughest, its reputation for lawlessness far exceeding Dodge City or Tombstone.

The city’s fortunes picked up further with the arrival of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad in 1879. It was at this time the town split in two with Old Town based around the original 1835 city square while New Town was anchored by the railway station two kilometres to the east.

The glory days of Las Vegas lasted until the 1950s, when rail travel was supplanted by the automobile and the burgeoning interstate highway system. Santa Fe, that tourist-choked Disneyland of adobe, the town that launched a thousand homeware stores, became the drawcard for interstate visitors and Las Vegas went to sleep, a lucky occurrence for those who enjoy a destination with lashings of history. There are more than 900 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, from richly-ornamented commercial buildings through to the pristine residential streetscapes of Lincoln Park, Carnegie Park and the North New Town district.

One stand-out is the extraordinary Montezuma Hotel, otherwise known as the Castle, built in the Queen Anne style as a luxury spa resort by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad Company. Completed in 1886, it replaced the first hotel, which opened in 1882 and burnt down the same year, and a replacement building that suffered the same fate.

The first building in New Mexico to have electric lighting, it continued as a hotel until 1903, then underwent varying uses including a Jesuit seminary. In 1981, it was bought by American industrialist and philanthropist Armand Hammer as the site of a United World College, which continues to this day.

Las Vegas also stands out as a location for film-making. In the silent movie era, it was favoured by cowboy star Tom Mix (about 30 films he either starred in or directed utilise Las Vegas as a backdrop). More recent films include the 1984 action adventure Red Dawn (Patrick Swayze loved the area so much he bought an 800-hectare ranch nearby, where his ashes were reportedly scattered following his death in 2009), Convoy (1978), John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998), All The Pretty Horses (2000), and Wild Hogs (2007). Actor Val Kilmer also has a 2,000 hectare ranch outside town.

There are two movies that will forever be closely associated with Las Vegas. The main street of Old Town was used in Easy Rider (1969), where Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper ride behind a parade and are arrested, meeting Jack Nicholson in the town jail. And extensive use was made of Las Vegas in the Oscar-winning No Country For Old Men (2007), especially the Plaza Hotel on the Old Town Square.

Built in 1882 in a High Victorian Italianate style, the Plaza Hotel is a stylish and comfortable base from which to explore the town. The adjacent Charles Ilfeld Mercantile Building, which opened in 1891 as the first department store in the southwest, was restored and added to the guestroom inventory in 2009.

Las Vegas is small-town America at its most striking. The locals are friendly and hospitable, there’s a good mix of antique shops, book stores and cafes, and the relaxed pace of life makes it an ideal rest stop on any road trip through America’s southwest. For architecture and movie fans, the attractions are even more compelling.

Words and photos © David Latta


Spirits Of Denver

There were moments, in the historic Oxford Hotel in Denver, Colorado, when I felt like the Jack Nicholson character in The Shining. Not that I expected to see ghosts of past guests although it may be likely, if you believe in such things, as the hotel opened in 1891 and there have to be a few that never officially checked out.

On the ground floor, tucked away behind McCormick’s Fish House and Bar, is the Cruise Room, an atmospheric Art Deco masterpiece and one of the finest reasons to stay at The Oxford. It was modelled on one of the lounges of the stately passenger liner Queen Mary and opened in 1933, on the day after Prohibition was repealed in the United States.

With the indirect lighting casting an eerie pink glow, it had me thinking of Jack Torrance and all things supernatural. Luckily, the jukebox at the end of the room, despite being something of an anachronism, kept me anchored in the here and now even after a couple of seraphic martinis; the only spirits that possessed me that evening were cold and dry and created from my favourite Ketel One vodka.

Like all great hotels, The Oxford has transformed with the times. It was remodeled in Art Deco style in the 1930s and then updated, with a careful eye to regilding its heritage, in the early 1990s.

The lobby of The Oxford is a time capsule of comfy lounges and overstuffed chairs, antiques and vintage artwork. Near the check-in desk, Rocky the canary trills happily from his cage. Sherry is served in the lobby each afternoon. It was here that local newspapermen would wait in days gone by for passengers alighting from trains at the 1885 Beaux Arts-redolent Union Station just down the block, hoping for a good story.

The guestrooms, cosy with antique furniture, nod to the present with such trappings as Bose sound systems with iPod docks. The lushly carpeted hallways and the thick walls cocoon guests and don’t disturb their rest.

The Oxford Hotel is located in the LoDo or Lower Downtown district which, luckily, resisted the urban renewal that decimated the city in the 1970s. Just around the corner is the Tattered Cover bookshop, housed in a former mercantile building. With a satisfyingly well-rounded range, it has bare wooden floors and beamed ceilings, couches and easy chairs to whittle away a few hours. Free wi-fi and an obligatory coffee shop make it popular with the locals.

Across the road from The Oxford on Wazee Street is Rockmount Ranch Wear. Rockmount was founded in 1946 by Jack A. Weil, who worked every day in the store until his death in 2008 at the age of 107. He introduced the first western shirts with snap fastenings instead of buttons as well as the first commercially-manufactured bolo ties. Today, his family maintains the same traditions, creating western gear favoured by bands, celebrities and movie stars.

The original architect of The Oxford, Frank E. Edbrooke, also designed Denver’s society hotel, the Brown Palace, which opened the year after The Oxford. It’s well worth a visit with its nine-storey atrium crowned by a stained-glass skylight. Every US President since Teddy Roosevelt (with the exception of Calvin Coolidge) has either visited or stayed at the Brown Palace. Guided tours are held twice a week.

Thinking it over, though, there’s really no choice. There’s a shining at The Oxford that has nothing to do with Stephen King. And as I sit in the Cruise Room, the spirits of the past are at rest. And if there is the sense of being watched, a movement out of the corner of your eye or the waft of an unknown perfume, it’s just The Oxford letting you know you’re one of the family.

Words and photos © David Latta


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