Building Communities by Creating Special Places
In this article I advocate for the social importance of architectural beauty and community memory. Such investments make communities stronger and healthier, both economically and culturally. The sense of place in many communities is inextricably bound up with historic downtowns and historic architecture, but the importance of historic preservation in community planning and revitalization is often overlooked—largely because it is notoriously difficult to finance and reuse historic properties.
I start with three premises; things we know but too often forget to our great peril when considering investments in our communities:
1) Humans are social and need public, communal, interactive places to thrive.
2) Downtowns were historically important, not just for shopping and entertainment, but also as social places to see and be seen, to meet and work together.
3) Churches, hotels, social clubs, schools, restaurants and employment were primary meeting places for hundreds of years. Much of this social order broke down in the Industrial Revolution and accelerated as jobs became transitory and people moved much more often. Downtowns—with their hotels, clubs, restaurants and work—lost much of their social function, with the void filled by churches for some, online meeting for many, and increasing alienation for nearly everyone.
Sociologists have argued that for a healthy existence, we need three places: home, work and social. Starbucks famously became a social venue—a “third place”—as much as a provider of coffee. Their business plan set out to create meeting places, and thereby drive food and beverage sales. In the words of Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, “Providing the world with a warm and welcoming third place may just be our most important role and responsibility… I’ve never thought of the third place as just a physical environment. For me, the third place has always been a feeling, an emotion, an aspiration that all people can come together and be uplifted as a result of a sense of belonging. This is the cornerstone of our business.”
This seems to have worked for Starbucks as a business, but does a generic meeting place satisfy our need for meaning, or our need for beauty? Instead, it functions more as a place to be among other people but not interacting with them.
In Santa Fe, there is a growing need for more housing that must somehow be met. But “more” can also destroy. In Flagstaff, every new building is five stories, lot line to lot line, crammed with apartments, owned by investment trusts. Traffic patterns have been destroyed. Historic building patterns and scale have been lost. Few if any community spaces are created.
New construction without consideration for interactive social needs does not create community or solve our collective challenges. Theaster Gates wrote: “In my city, Chicago, I have seen firsthand what happened when a focus on housing fails to account for our human thirst for beauty, for the sublime, the emotionally enriching, the spiritual. If we build homes without culture, without a social agenda, we’re simply creating new kinds of problems…” What does help address our social and community needs is the resurrection or repurposing of important buildings in historic downtowns.
A Couple of Case Studies
La Posada Hotel – Winslow, Arizona
The May 6, 1930 edition of the Winslow Daily Mail proudly announced the opening of La Posada and described the grand hacienda-style building as “unique in every detail.” Not only was Winslow gaining a new hotel, but also a first class Fred Harvey restaurant and a base for the famous Harvey Car Detours. The hotel became the center of Winslow’s social life. But in the 1950s, the Interstate highway system bypassed downtowns all over the country. Commerce moved to freeway offramps and downtowns withered.
La Posada was only open 27 years. Mary Colter, architect and designer, had hand-picked or designed all the furnishings. When La Posada closed in 1957, the Fred Harvey Company loaded everything that could be removed into box cars and sent them to Albuquerque for sale at auction. Mary was then 89 years old and living in Santa Fe. She was heartbroken. When asked about the hotel’s demise she said, “Now I know there is such a thing as living too long.”
What was downtown Winslow like when I moved there in 1997? Virtually abandoned. Nearly all the buildings were boarded up. There was no tourism, and nobody wanted La Posada. The Santa Fe Railroad had gutted the building and turned it into offices in the 1960s. When the offices became obsolete, they decided to abandon La Posada and tear it down—as they had done with the Alvarado in Albuquerque and so many other once-grand buildings. The National Trust for Historic Preservation put La Posada on its endangered list in 1994 as one of the most important buildings in the country, about to be lost.
I purchased the hotel and 20 acres for $158,000 in 1997. This was the appraised value of the land. The building was considered a liability, of no value. Over the last 20 years we invested about $12 million to restore the 70,000-square-foot hotel and its surrounding 20 acres. At first no one thought the building could be restored, so no one would give us a loan. We reinvested everything we earned. Aside from grants totaling around $2.5 million, the funds all came from our guests, a couple of friends, personal debt and lots of sweat equity!
Our first phase of restoration was mostly archaeology and discovery—undoing the unsympathetic work of the 1960s, reopening windows and doors, removing drop-ceilings and 40 years of HVAC and office cubicles. The Santa Fe Railroad had converted the beautiful ballroom into a meeting room, covering the painted ceilings with acoustic tile, sealing windows shut, filling in arches with stucco walls. Today, the beautiful floors and ceilings have been restored, handcrafted sconces light the columns, the fireplace has been rebuilt and many original furnishings have been returned.
La Posada’s lunch counter had been converted into the railroad’s dispatch center. This we turned into the famous Turquoise Room restaurant, which opened in 2000 under the watchful eye of Chef John Sharpe. In 2009, it was selected as one of the top restaurants in the entire United States.
Colter’s only landscape plan was for La Posada, but the Depression made it impossible to carry out her plans. Her original drawings were lost for decades—but in 1997, a BNSF employee discovered them on microfilm, and we have used them to inspire our new gardens. Simultaneous with restoration work, we had to get the hotel on a firm financial footing. By 2005, the hotel was successful enough to match a Transportation Enhancement (TI) grant to re-imagine the entire north grounds along Route 66. New gardens are underway in the east grounds. Recently, we restored and added to the depot to create a museum dedicated to the history, arts and cultural highway of the Santa Fe Railway and Route 66 through the Southwest.
Historic Hotels in Las Vegas, New Mexico
In 2000, when my wife, Tina Mion, and I came to Las Vegas, New Mexico, there was little tourism or new investment anywhere in the city. Las Vegas was the only city with two Fred Harvey hotels—the Queen Anne-style Montezuma Hot Springs resort on the edge of town, and the Mission Revival Castañeda next to the depot. The Castañeda opened in 1898 and was Fred Harvey’s first trackside hotel in the Southwest. In 1899 it hosted the Rough Riders reunion after the Spanish-American War; there are photos of Teddy Roosevelt on the Castañeda arcade. Like many railroad hotels, the Castañeda closed after WWII. When we arrived, it was mostly abandoned—just a sketchy bar, with the building and neighborhood falling down around it.
In 2014 we purchased the ruins of the Castañeda for $450,000. The community and much of New Mexico celebrated our planned restoration. With the help of historic and new markets, tax credits and a team of 50 local artisans, we spent more than $5 million restoring the hotel. We reopened it in 2019, with a national story on CBS’s Good Morning America. The beautiful saloon and restaurant are helmed by Sean Sinclair—voted best chef in Greater New Mexico.
The Plaza Hotel in Las Vegas—known as the Belle of the Southwest when it opened in 1882—was failing in 2014, so we purchased and restored that too. Boosted by these efforts and many others, the city is experiencing a renaissance. The Las Vegas Community Foundation recently raised $1 million for community revival. There has been a change in the community’s self-image, and Las Vegas’ history and authenticity have been widely promoted by the media. The city recently has the added challenge of recovering from impacts of COVID-19 and the biggest forest fire in New Mexico history. For two months, firefighters were housed at the Plaza Hotel and 10,000 free meals were served at the Castañeda for evacuees and first responders—a true community effort with many restaurants and citizens taking part.
Meanwhile, we also purchased and restored several other buildings, including Frank Springer’s mansion in Las Vegas, N.M. and the fabled Legal Tender saloon—the oldest building in Lamy, just 15 miles from the Santa Fe Plaza. After we reopened Legal Tender Lamy in 2019, George R.R. Martin and friends, purchased the Lamy depot and rebuilt the train from Lamy to Santa Fe to run as Sky Railway. In Lamy, too a renaissance is underway.
What Does It All Mean?
By resurrecting the key buildings and tying these railroad towns of the Southwest together, we hope to give people an authentic experience of the great railroad era at the turn of the last century. A sense of place through historic rehabilitation of important structures connects and grounds us through time and can be the essential catalyst to revitalizing
We all make choices for our communities. In Santa Fe, for example, we still have the Midtown Campus; Albuquerque still has the historic railyards; Clovis still has an abandoned Harvey House!—all unique opportunities for catalytic historic-based and future-focused projects. All of these need and deserve a practical, beautiful, community-creating path forward. But they also need a way to pay for and operate improvements—without a sound business model that inspires and meets community needs, these places will fail again. Without a visionary effort—and soon!—these places will fail too, either being torn down or converted to meaningless and content-less commercial spaces. Will we have the courage and wisdom to repurpose, reimagine and save our important places of beauty and memory, the foundations of our community resilience, or do we let them slip away forever?