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December 15, 2012
LAS VEGAS, New Mexico, Dec. 15, 2012/ Bon Voyage/ – Las Vegas. The name conjures up powerful images of casino gambling, dramas involving organized crime and glamorous entertainment spectacles. Banish those thoughts from your mind. This article is about another Las Vegas, the one in New Mexico, not the Las Vegas in Nevada.
With just under 15,000 people, Las Vegas, New Mexico isn’t a city; it’s a town and a town somewhat in decline. It wasn’t always so and back in 1900 it was the largest town in New Mexico, ranking ahead of both Albuquerque and Santa Fe. The fortunes of Las Vegas were based on its location on the Santa Fe Trail and, after 1879, on the line of the famed Atchinson, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway.
For a quarter century from 1880 to 1905, Las Vegas enjoyed its economic glory days. Trade, money and people poured in and the town grew. In fact, it grew into two towns, East and West Las Vegas, which only amalgamated in 1970. The newcomers constructed commercial buildings, churches, schools and mansions of every architectural description.
Economic circumstances changed, transportations corridors shifted elsewhere, and depressions both local and national sapped much of the vigour of the town in the 20th century. The recent recession, a two-year drought in the area and a decline in the town’s population have not helped matters.
Las Vegas, New Mexico does, however, possess one outstanding cultural heritage asset. The historical accident of an age of economic prosperity followed by a long period of decline or stability has left the town’s architectural heritage largely frozen in the time period of the 1880s to the 1920s. In fact, this little town has a staggering 900 buildings listed by national, state and municipal authorities for their historical significance.
Las Vegas, New Mexico is 65 miles or 100 kms. east of Santa Fe, easily accessible on interstate highway I-25. The surrounding terrain is a beautifully rugged high desert topography partially treed and otherwise wide open country.
Visitors should stop in at any regional New Mexico State Tourism Office and pick up a copy of the free pamphlet entitled ‘Historic Las Vegas, New Mexico: The Story of an Intriguing Town’. This booklet has self-guided walking tour maps of the town with line drawings of many of the more prominent buildings. It’s quite easy to work your way around Las Vegas in just a few hours to take photos of these architectural treasures. Incidentally, many of them and the Las Vegas area have appeared as backdrops in dozens of movies including Easy Rider (1969) and Red Dawn (1983), and The Astronaut Farmer (2005).
One central part of the town was built around an old Spanish-style plaza. Here you still find the railway company’s grand hotel, the Plaza, the Ilfeld mercantile building and the courthouse. Further off in a park Las Vegas has a public library donated by the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie that still operates as a 60,000 volume library. The building appears to imitate the design of Thomas Jefferson’s house at Monticello in Virginia. That’s the iconic architectural structure depicted on the American five cent piece. On fifth, sixth and seventh streets the wealthy business elite and the professional classes built their mansions with eclectic abandon. As a result Las Vegas has an architectural repository of the tastes of the wealthy at the turn of the 19th century.
This is a small place but one well worth making a little detour to see. Here’s a sample of the sights in a picture gallery. Enjoy.