One of Albuquerque’s most iconic buildings was razed in 1970, an event that rankles some buerquenos to this day. The Alvarado Hotel was one of the hotels operated in cooperation between the Atchinson, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, and Fred Harvey. Harvey innovated how rail passengers were fed and created a network of eateries and hotels to serve them.
In the 1870s following the completion of the first transcontinental railroad, people were beginning to travel by rail. There were migrants seeking new lives in the West, adventurers exploring a more accessible world, and businesspeople expanding into new markets. It was an exciting time, but it had its drawbacks.
Trains made brief stops for water for the steam engines and for passengers to embark or disembark. During these short breaks, passengers had to scramble to find something palatable to eat. Unfortunately, at many stops, the food was terrible, and the environment was often not conducive for women travelers.
Fred Harvey and Harvey Hotels
Enter Frederick Harvey, a London-born immigrant, who learned the restaurant business from the ground up. Harvey got the idea of how to change that situation. The system he created was ingenious if nothing else. He knew what passengers wanted: good, hot food at reasonable prices, served so they could eat within the 20-minute scheduled stop. To accomplish this, porters on the train counted passengers who intended to eat, and the number and expected arrival time were telegraphed ahead to the Harvey House so food could be placed on the tables as diners arrived. This necessitated a limited menu, but that was okay so long as passengers had time to eat. As a bonus, the food was good, the restaurant was clean, and the waitresses, dubbed Harvey Girls, were famously gracious.
However, the fascinating story of the famous Harvey Houses is one for another time. This is about the Alvarado Hotel.
The Alvarado Hotel
The Alvarado was built on Route 66 at First Street in 1901 by the Santa Fe railroad. The three-story building was designed in Mission Revival style by Charles Frederick Whittlesey, who also designed El Tovar at the Grand Canyon. Named after Hernando de Alvarado, a lieutenant under Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, the hotel had 100 guest rooms, 20 bathrooms, and a large dining room, lunch counter, barber shop, men’s and women’s parlors, club room, reading rooms, and a shop where tourists could buy Southwestern curios.
The hotel was remodeled and expanded in 1922, increasing the number of rooms to 120. Its interior public spaces were designed and decorated by Mary Colter, the architect who designed La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe, El Tovar with Whittlesey, and other now-historic buildings at Grand Canyon. For many, The Alvarado Hotel was their introduction to the American Southwest.
It continued operating as a Harvey hotel well into the 1960s and was listed on the New Mexico State Register of Cultural Properties in 1969 and the National Register of Historic Places in 1970. But passenger travel by rail was nearly nonexistent by that time, and the Santa Fe Railway decided to cease its operation. It gave the city the opportunity to buy the hotel, but the price was too high — far beyond the willpower of politicians and residents to save it.
End of the Trail
The hotel was demolished in February 1970, which Susan Dewitt, a historic preservationist, said, “was the most serious loss of a landmark the city had sustained.” Although the Alvarado Hotel was not saved, its demolition spurred efforts to preserve other historic landmarks.
Additionally, it became the model for the Alvarado Transportation Center, the multi-modal transit hub now serving Albuquerque. The transportation center was designed to resemble the former hotel, borrowing many of its Mission Revival design elements.
Visitors today can only imagine what staying or dining at The Alvarado Hotel was like. A few people may well remember the famous hotel. For others, it’s just a reference in a museum or a file on Wikipedia.