The Other Las Vegas – Las Vegas, New Mexico

Las Vegas’s premier hotel is 123 years old but has only 36 rooms.The town’s main drag is lined with historic Victorian-era buildings.And there’s not a slot machine in sight.

Las Vegas?

It’s Las Vegas, New Mexico, “the original Las Vegas,” according to Henry O. Sanchez, mayor of this largely Hispanic town of some 16,000, founded a good seventy years before the better-known version.Being in Las Vegas, New Mexico, about an hour’s drive east of Santa Fe, is like being on the set of a Western.Not coincidentally, the town has served as a locale for dozens, if not hundreds, of movies, starting with the silents. Actor Tom Mix starred in at least 16 films here, and the 1915-16 The Hazards of Helen, a 119-episode serial, was filmed in Las Vegas, as were such well-known talkies as Easy Rider (1968)and All the Pretty Horses (2000).

For anyone who’s both a movie and an architecture buff, Las Vegas, with an astonishing 918 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, makes a great vacation spot.The town is a veritable catalogue of architectural styles, from early 19th century adobes to many varieties of late 19th century architecture, including Queen Anne, Italianate, Greek Revival (spurred by Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition), and Roman Revival.There’s even a 1938 Modernist house by Edward Durrell Stone.

Historically, Native Americans lived in the area from about 800 A.D.In 1540, Spanish explorer Francisco V�squez de Coronado came through, searching for the fabled Cities of Gold.White men started coming in earnest with the opening of the Santa Fe Trail in 1821.The first settlement that the pioneers came to after hundreds of miles traversing the Great Plains,Las Vegas soon became a hub of commercial activity.In 1846 the area was declared part of the United States.

The arrival of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad on July 4, 1879, marked another new chapter. Railway workers settled near the tracks, about a mile from the old town center, establishing “New Town,” with its grid-like streets (as opposed to the looser design of the Old Town streets) and Victorian buildings (Old Town still had adobes).But despite increasing urbanization, the West was still wild in Las Vegas.Billy the Kid, Jesse James, and Doc Holiday supposedly all were there—at the same time.So was Wyatt Earp. When the locals got fed up with the town’s lawlessness, they dragged outlaws out of the town jail and hanged them from the plaza windmill. “Las Vegas was the ‘hottest’ town in the country,” wrote 19th century businessman Miguel Antonio Otero, Jr.

A good place to start exploring this wealth of history, movies and architecture is the grassy and tree-shaded Plaza (which served as a backdrop for The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez). Its most prominent building, occupying the northwest corner, is The Plaza Hotel, built in 1882 in Italianate style.In addition to a saloon and a good restaurant, the hotel boasts a resident ghost. Right next door, at 244 Plaza, is the Charles Ilfeld Building, once the home of the successful merchandising business of one of Las Vegas’s Jewish pioneers.Number 220 is the building that once housed Ilfeld’s son Louis’s law practice; today, it’s Los Artesanos, a homey 50-year-old bookstore with pictures of the Ilfelds and other pioneers on the walls.

In “New Town,” Amtrak still stops twice a day at the old depot, constructed in 1898 and restored in 2003, another building straight out of a movie set—specifically,All the Pretty Horses.Across the street is the Casta�eda Hotel, originally built in Mission Revival style by the Fred Harvey hotel chain to be a grand railway hotel.Featured in Speechless, starring Michael Keaton and Geena Davis, and the Cold War thriller Red Dawn, the hotel awaits restoration. A few blocks away, at 500 National Avenue, is the 1903 Carnegie Library, one of many built by industrialist Andrew Carnegie in small towns across the country.This one, modeled after Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, still serves as the town’s main library. Also located in New Town is the compact City of Las Vegas Museum and Rough Rider Memorial Collection, which commemorates the volunteer cavalry regiment recruited by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1898.

Worth a detour is the old Montezuma Hotel, a five-mile drive north of town.Designed by Chicago’s Daniel Burnham and constructed of local red sandstone in Queen Anne style, the hotel was the great destination hotel of the Southwest.(It was also featured in the 1978 horror film, The Evil.) Close by the area’s hot springs, it attracted health-seekers, who stayed an average of six weeks in Las Vegas’s salubrious air. Today, the Montezuma serves as the central building for Armand Hammer United World College of the American West, the country’s only campus of an international ten-campus movement to bring 16-to-19-year-old students from around the world together for two years of liberal arts education.

There are plenty of other attractions outside of town in the beautiful hilly countryside: the ruins of an Indian pueblo at Pecos National Historical Park; the ruins of Fort Union, established to protect the Santa Fe Trail; the more than two hundred alpacas (they look like small lamas) raised at Victory Ranch; the Salman Ranch, where you can pick your own raspberries.

Unlike the better-known Las Vegas to the northwest, and more glamorous Santa Fe 64 miles away, Las Vegas, New Mexico, remains authentic and unspoiled. “We don’t want to become another Santa Fe,” says Elmer J. Martinez, the city’s Community Development Director.“We want people to experience us but not try to change us.” It’s a wish worth respecting.

San Francisco, CA
Renata Polt, a freelance writer and critic, is the translator and editor of A Thousand Kisses: A Grandmother's Holocaust Letters.