Distance: 67 miles
Elevation: 6,424 feet Population: 13,285
Established: 1835, which makes it the original Las Vegas by seven decades
If you’ve read Chris Wilson’s The Myth of Santa Fe—or felt the difference between mud and stucco—you’re likely aware that the all-adobe downtown is but a brown shell concealing a more complicated history. The Santa Fe Plaza once resembled the square of any Western pioneer town, with wood-and-brick storefronts to match the long porticos. As Wilson details in his book, the district’s current visual identity was largely shaped by Anglo transplants who set a snare for tourists by appropriating Indigenous and Hispanic aesthetics. A candy coating of faux-dobe was their architectural patch atop the troubled facade of Manifest Destiny.
It’s a different story in Las Vegas, New Mexico, which looks much like it did when it was a railroad boomtown in the late 1800s. The village has over nine hundred buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. Its pristinely preserved plaza is where, in 1846 during the Mexican-American War, Stephen W. Kearny declared from a rooftop that New Mexico was a United States territory. This makes it a particularly interesting stop for a modern-day Santa Fean. On my Las Vegas excursion, I drop into a tougher but far more vital version of Southwestern history than Santa Fe is willing to show at first stroll. A small contemporary creative community here has a clear-eyed view of the city’s past—and is in the midst of a radically inclusive effort to bring about a Las Vegas renaissance.
HISTORY, ON FOOT
As I drive into Old Town, it appears that the most popular mode of transportation in Las Vegas is a gleaming motorcycle. Leather-clad bikers zip through the narrow streets that radiate from the central plaza. I’ve arrived at the tail end of the thirteenth annual Rough Rider Reunion, a reboot of an annual gathering of Theodore Roosevelt’s 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry that took place in Las Vegas from 1899 through 1967. Teddy himself attended the first one. For this iteration of the reunion, growling hogs carry on the spirit of Roosevelt’s steeds.
Old Town—also known as West Las Vegas—is the site of the city’s original township, established in 1835 by settlers who held Mexican land grants. The village quickly became a way station on the Santa Fe Trail, and Anglo-American squatters flooded the area. A decade before the Rough Riders started their gatherings here, the city’s true rebels were Las Gorras Blancas (The White Caps). The anti-colonist group battled the annexation of Hispano and Indigenous lands by burning barns, razing fences, and running for local office.
I stop by Mayeur Projects, a contemporary gallery and artist residency on the northern corner of the Old Town Plaza. Its building is a cornerstone of these intersecting histories: Kearny gave his speech from its roof, and a founding family of Las Vegas once lived here. Mayeur has devoted itself to maintaining the building and sharing its history, while exhibiting local and international contemporary artists. One of the gallery’s employees, Roy Montibon, tells me that the legendary outlaw, Billy the Kid, was once imprisoned in Mayeur’s headquarters. Later, after Billy the Kid’s death in 1881, someone allegedly chopped off his trigger finger and sent it to the Las Vegas Daily Optic. Its current whereabouts are unknown.
Down Bridge Street and across the Gallinas River is New Town, or East Las Vegas, which sprang up in 1880, when the Santa Fe Railroad arrived here. New Town was its own municipality, founded by the railroad magnates so that they could dominate development and collect the profits. An era of spectacular wealth followed, and the evidence is all around me as I stroll across the city. Back in Old Town there’s the grand Plaza Hotel, built in 1882, which has a new restaurant called The Range and a haunted room (it’s number 310, if you dare). Ahead is the pocket-sized but opulent Carnegie Library from 1902, at the center of a residential district of eclectic Victorian-era homes.
New Town might look elegant, but its reputation as a turn-of-the-century boomtown made it a magnet for Wild West outlaws. Jesse James, Wyatt Earp, and dentist-cum-desperado Doc Holliday roamed these streets. As I wind into the East Las Vegas downtown, it starts to feel like a dark reflection of the corresponding district across the river. Paint peels from walls and dusty windows reveal the shadowy innards of abandoned buildings. When the railroad industry collapsed in the 1950s, Las Vegas fell into an economic recession that hasn’t ended.
At the northern edge of the downtown, near the railroad tracks, is a ray of hope: the Castañeda Hotel. Entrepreneur Allan Affeldt is in the midst of a five million dollar effort to renovate the sprawling establishment, which was built in 1898 as part of Fred Harvey’s famous hotel chain. The Castañeda is the lynchpin in a shared vision for the district; artist Charles Ross and Assistant District Attorney Thomas A. Clayton are also revamping nearby historic buildings.
ART & ARCHITECTURE
There’s a small solar system of commercial art galleries in Las Vegas, largely orbiting the Old Town Plaza in West Last Vegas. I swing through El Zócalo Cooperative Art Gallery on the Plaza, a sweet haven for local craft and kitsch, and peek into the Las Vegas Arts Council’s Gallery 140 on Bridge Street. The latter is hosting an exhibition of motorcycle art in honor of the Rough Riders Reunion, headlined by a local airbrush artist. Its poster features a pudgy man taking a smoke break on his bike and a blond pin-up in a polka-dot dress, set against a field of red and blue fireworks.
For the contemporary art fan, Mayeur Projects has powerful gravitational pull. Following its lives as a home, Kearny’s soapbox, and a jail for outlaws, the building was a flowerpot store for a time. Its enormous storefront windows open to white walls and an odd-but-cool floor made from squares of plywood. It’s the only white cube in town, and its exhibition program is sharp and egalitarian. Mayeur’s residency program attracts notable contemporary artists from across the world, but the gallery also holds space for local artists both famous (Charles Ross and Jill O’Bryan) and emerging (Shawna Wangseng and Isaac Sandoval, who I meet at the next stop).
My trip to Las Vegas is on a Sunday, the only day The Skillet is closed, but Shawna Wangseng and Isaac Sandoval cheerfully show up with an enormous ring of keys in tow. The couple opened the West Las Vegas restaurant last fall, after a year of renovations to the 1924 building that was once a wool warehouse. It reeked of urine when they started, which could’ve been the fault of the building’s last resident: an indiscriminate antiques dealer. Using skills they picked up in art school at nearby New Mexico Highlands University, Wangseng and Sandoval transformed the space into the hippest restaurant in Las Vegas—and its first immersive art installation. The Skillet’s dining room and side patio are filled with massive sculptures and murals in psychedelic colors. The arguable centerpiece is a giant donkey head in the dining room, who brays down at a long bar made from old bowling lanes. The jury is still out on the ass’s name.
Long before they were restaurateurs, Wangseng and Sandoval staged delicious performance art pieces using a giant skillet. Sandoval grew up in Las Vegas—his dad owns Charlie’s Spic & Span, a beloved greasy spoon on Douglas Avenue that’s famous for its cream puffs—so the couple moved back after finishing grad school in Kansas and started a successful food truck. Now, the skillet that started it all hangs above the restaurant’s entrance. While Wangseng whips up some drinks at the bar, Las Vegans periodically stop by and rattle the doors in vain. Between sips of a spectacular piña colada and delightfully smooth gin cocktail called the High Plains Drifter, I read through a menu that still has serious street cred. There’s an orange chicken burrito, a brisket barbecue sandwich called The Yeezy, and a sushi menu that’s only available on Thursdays. Wangseng and Sandoval proudly note that the restaurant has united a cross section of the community; some of their regulars hadn’t been downtown in years before The Skillet fired up.
New Mexico Highlands University
New Mexico Highlands University is deep in summer hibernation; its parking lots are empty, its halls dark. During the school year, the public institution has a little over two thousand students bustling around its West Las Vegas campus. I take a breather on a bench by the Thomas C. Donnelly Library until Karlene Gonzales-Martinez appears and beckons me to its entrance. As NMHU’s Administrative and Gallery Assistant, she’s in charge of the library’s Ray Drew Gallery and the art department’s Burris Hall Gallery. Ushering me into the library, Gonzales-Martinez lists some of the resources available to art students here. The school’s Department of Media Arts & Technology has a recently completed new headquarters, and the Visual and Performing Arts Department is home to a foundry. At Ray Drew Gallery, which is tucked into a corner of the library, there’s an exhibition of cowboy-themed art by local ranchers. Across the street and a few buildings down is Burris, currently hosting a solo exhibition of 3D-printed sculptures. NMHU is also home to an expansive collection of historic prints and paintings donated by Santa Fe art collector Dr. Robert Bell, including works by Rembrandt, Chagall, Durer, and masters of New Mexico modernism. They’re all locked away in Kennedy Hall on this Sunday afternoon. I vow to return someday soon.
Seattle glass artist Dale Chihuly is notorious for embedding his maximalist sculptures in very old settings—see his 1996 takeover of Venice, a bright spot in a garish oeuvre—but I’m still surprised to find two bright green Chihuly chandeliers in the dining room of Montezuma Castle. They are delightful non-sequiturs on my tour of this majestic structure that’s perched on a hillside in Montezuma, New Mexico. The unincorporated community is five miles north of Las Vegas on a gently winding road that follows the Gallinas River. Just as the castle came into view, a dramatic reveal straight out of a Harry Potter film, I swerved to miss two loose chickens. Gallinas, indeed.
Montezuma Castle is something of a real-life Hogwarts. It’s the crowning feature of the United World College U.S.A. campus, a thirty-six-year-old boarding school that selects high school-age students from more than seventy-five countries for a two-year International Baccalaureate program. Enrollment hovers at around 230 students. My tour guide, Christie Baskett, the school’s Vice President for Advancement, assures me that acceptance letters are not delivered by owl.
She explains that the 1885 building was originally a swanky hotel that attracted the rich and famous because of its nearby hot springs. Its second floor burned a few months after it opened, and it took another year to rebuild. The hotel permanently closed in 1901 after an influx of tuberculosis patients scared away the more well-heeled clientele. The first floor, which was untouched by the fire, gives a complete picture of the hotel’s original grandeur. There’s a wraparound porch, a terra-cotta fireplace, an elevator in the lobby, and a bathroom with a tub that piped water straight from the springs. Any secret passages? Yes, Baskett says, there was an underground tunnel to the casino nearby. She claims that the passage is inaccessible, which sounds like a challenge to aspiring detectives on campus.
Dwan Light Sanctuary
St. John’s College in Santa Fe has a curriculum that’s light on aesthetics and heavy on white male–dominated literature. Perhaps that’s why they turned down legendary art patron Virginia Dwan when she offered to build a magical light sanctuary on their campus. Santa Fe’s loss was Montezuma’s gain: Dwan found a home for the project on the United World College campus. She commissioned the 1996 piece from artist Charles Ross and architect Laban Wingert. After the tour of Montezuma Castle, Baskett guides me to the circular stone structure and calls campus security to unlock it. The piece is free to visit and open seven days a week, but you have to check in at the school’s welcome center and get a key card to gain entry. Inside is a round room with a twenty-three-foot ceiling and enormous prisms stretching across skylights and windows. The white walls are filled with ever-shifting rainbows. For what feels like the first time today, I take a deep, meditative breath.
After a whirlwind day of exploring Las Vegas and its surroundings, there’s nothing better than a long soak in the hot springs of Montezuma. The pools are scattered in the forest just past United World College, and they’re still walled with concrete from the days of the Montezuma Hotel. I head straight for the hottest pool, known as the Lobster Pot. Visitors to these springs were once assured of their miraculous healing properties. In this moment, I believe it.