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THE NATION | DISPATCH FROM LAS VEGAS, N.M.

No Sin City, This Vegas Savors Its Rich Heritage

History: The small community in northern New Mexico treasures its old buildings, unlike its glittery namesake in the Nevada desert.

June 16, 2002|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAS VEGAS, N.M. — This is the other Las Vegas--not where 40-year-old casinos are imploded because they're no longer fashionable, but where 140-year-old storefronts still have purpose.

The mob missed this place, but not the ruthless Billy the Kid, who was run out of town after pistol-whipping the sheriff, and bank robber Jesse James, who relaxed in its hot mineral baths. Probably neither visited the town dentist, "Doc" Holliday.

Nevada's Las Vegas may have its conventions, but it was here where Theodore Roosevelt and his Roughriders held a reunion, attracting 10,000 admirers, a year after they stormed San Juan Hill in 1898.

Hotel guests in Nevada's Vegas include flash-in-the-pan celebrities, but the old Montezuma Castle mineral springs resort here played host to Ulysses S. Grant and Emperor Hirohito of Japan.

This Las Vegas, in fact, has so much history, the town's not sure what to do with it all.

More than 900 buildings in this city of 15,700 are listed on New Mexico and U.S. registries of historic buildings. Most are clustered downtown, still used as homes, offices and storefronts, just as they were more than a century ago when this was New Mexico's boomtown.

But more buildings were constructed here from 1880 to 1900 than can be used today.

"In other cities, old buildings are torn down in the name of progress and are replaced with big new buildings," Mayor Henry Sanchez said. "But we were too poor to tear our buildings down. Poverty saved our history."

Now the city treasures its old buildings, and it has created a handful of preservation districts where the demolition of historic structures is banned.

The city is struggling to find tenants for the few dozen empty ones, in part because investors wary of water restrictions in the drought-ridden Southwest are afraid to launch businesses here and because of the cost of renovation.

Civic leaders also say they want to preserve the town's heritage and don't want to become another Santa Fe, 64 miles to the west, which is chided by Las Vegans as having forsaken its roots in favor of becoming a tony arts colony.

"Santa Fe is no longer a practicing Hispanic community," said Bob Mischler, an anthropology professor at New Mexico Highlands University here. "Santa Fe has been taken over by outsiders who have created a whole new environment. We don't want to do that."

The challenge here, Mischler said, is to preserve and capitalize on Las Vegas' Latino and European heritage.

Las Vegas was settled by Mexican sheep and cattle ranchers in 1835, attracted by the lush green meadows that gave the town its Spanish name.

Army Gen. Stephen Kearny, following the Santa Fe Trail, arrived here in 1846 and started the Mexican American War by proclaiming the town's residents to be American citizens. No shots were fired, and in time town commerce flourished by trading with nearby Ft. Union.

The economy that traders generated along the Santa Fe Trail through Las Vegas further enriched the town's merchants but was nothing compared to the arrival of the railroad in 1879, fostering 20 years of heated growth.

The town grew as two distinct halves--Latinos around the historic plaza, Easterners and Europeans around the rail district. Entrepreneurs from both cultures profited, and Las Vegas presented a confluence of architectural styles--from adobe and California mission to Queen Anne and Italianate--that grace the town to this day.

"Las Vegas has very few rivals in the West for frontier boomtown architecture," said Elmo Baca, until recently New Mexico's historic preservation officer.

But after the turn of the century, Las Vegas' fortunes waned as railroads expanded their reach to Albuquerque and other Western towns. Baca, a Las Vegas native, said the town still embraced its home-grown values.

"Ever since Kearny came here, we've had a healthy suspicion of outsiders," he said. "We've held on dearly to our cultural heritage, perhaps at the expense of economic development."

The frontier buildings were neither razed nor improved as the city's economy stagnated during the last century. Few businesses moved here; a factory made parachutes during World War II, and today the biggest employer is the government.

Not that progress isn't being made.

The city is renovating the railroad depot, at a cost of $500,000; the Montezuma Castle resort was renovated and is now used as one of 10 Armand Hammer United World College campuses around the world.

And the citizens committee for historic preservation purchased an 1895 mercantile building for its own use, investing about $500,000 to turn it into a Santa Fe Trail interpretive center.

Slowly, building owners are renovating their structures, although some remain empty. Among them: two century-old storefronts owned by the Maloof family, which settled here in 1892 and became wealthy New Mexico business owners and bankers. Today, one branch of the family owns the Sacramento Kings professional basketball team and a Las Vegas, Nev., casino hotel.

Among the town's boosters is Anne Bradford, who moved here from Carlsbad, Calif., nine years ago and spent $150,000 to turn a 109-year-old home into a bed-and-breakfast inn.

Her guests, she said, enjoy this Las Vegas for what it is. "People will always recognize our Las Vegas," she said. "It'll always be a little bit behind. That's part of its charm."

*

Times researcher Lianne Hart in Houston contributed to this report.

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