Above: Allan Affeldt stands on the newly built balcony of the Castañeda's library. Photographs by Minesh Bacrania.

WE'VE BARELY TOUCHED OUR Bar Castañeda appetizer—a hush-puppy riff on a classic Fred Harvey corn-fritter recipe—when the third of what will eventually be five diners interrupts us to thank Allan Affeldt for bringing an old hotel back to life. The man says he’s from California, and he sings a familiar refrain: “What you’ve done here is amazing. We’re taking the train to Winslow tomorrow to stay at La Posada.”

Affeldt, who owns both Harvey hotel gems—the 1929 La Posada, in Winslow, Arizona, and the 1898 Castañeda Hotel, in Las Vegas, a 60-mile drive east of Santa Fe—expresses his gratitude, then turns back to me. “Where else does that happen?” he asks.

What he means is: Where else do lodgers groove on a sense of place—of history, craftsmanship, and rescue-level preservation? Where else do they delight in the thrill of 19th-century rail travel, then order a martini made with local spirits served in a hand-blown glass to sip with their oysters Rockefeller and albondigas soup? In a world of branded ubiquity, where any Walmart is every Walmart and the shoelaces are always on that aisle, Affeldt and a team of visionaries, technicians, and blue-collar craftspeople conjure something charmingly different.

This fall, the Castañeda officially opened for business, its 20 boutique rooms tastefully decorated with antique furniture gathered from all across the nation, its lobby’s ceiling tiles reborn, its Mission Revival brick facade sandblasted and tuck-pointed into a handsome elegance. “We love everything you’ve done,” gushes the fourth of five diners. Little does she know what it took to restore this onetime queen of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway: five years of enough obstacles to derail a locomotive and months of booking partial wings of rooms while carpenters, electricians, plasterers, and plumbers clattered away on the rest.

Read more: Las Vegas shows off its historic side.

Saving one of the last of the Harvey hotels from its assured decay breathes new life into the legacy of Fred Harvey, which is having a moment among history nerds. Born of modest means in 1835 Britain, Harvey fairly invented white-glove service in the West, with a string of hotels and eating houses, as well as dining-car service, all staffed by the often romanticized Harvey Girls. New Mexico was a hotbed, with 17 Harvey stops that stretched from Ratón to Deming to Gallup. But car culture outpaced a love for trains. Beginning in the 1940s, the trackside gems began to close and then crumble. In New Mexico, four remain in glorious use—the Castañeda; Montezuma Castle, north of Las Vegas; La Fonda on the Plaza, in Santa Fe; and the Belén Harvey House Museum. A fifth, the mostly abandoned 1912 Gran Quivira, in Clovis, threatens to collapse upon itself. All of the rest have vanished, including Albuquerque’s 1902 Alvarado, a pinnacle of railroad architecture, brought down in 1970.

Inspired in part by author Stephen Fried’s 2010 book Appetite for America, “Fredheads” now embark on Harvey excursions, seeking train stations and hotels that bear the stamps of architects such as Louis Curtiss, John Gaw Meem, and Charles Whittlesey, and of designer Mary Colter, a wealth of which still bedeck Grand Canyon National Park. They gather annually in Santa Fe for a weekend’s worth of lectures and special events. For this year’s Fred Harvey History Weekend, October 25–28, the Castañeda is booked solid, with Affeldt standing as a 21st-century version of Harvey-style hospitality.

Allan Affeldt says the massive Castañeda bakery once fed Harvey guests, plus customers throughout the region.
Above: Affeldt says the massive Castañeda bakery once fed Harvey guests, plus customers throughout the region.

He never saw it coming. A Southern California kid who had to work his way through college, Affeldt held a think-tank job and was toiling on a still unfinished dissertation about semantics at the University of California, Irvine, while also organizing international peace walks, before he fell into a historical rabbit hole. In the 1990s, he, his wife, Tina Mion, and their friend Daniel Lutzick stumbled onto the dilapidated La Posada, bought it, and camped in it while restoring Colter’s Arts and Crafts design on little more than their combined pocket change. Lodgers clamored for rooms even during the renovation, which helped cover expenses. Now it regularly fills up with an international clientele. With its expansive gardens, Turquoise Room restaurant, and Mion’s eerie and witty paintings, it’s the reason to pause in tiny Winslow, which otherwise boasts little more to do than snap your selfie next to the Easy sculpture, a tribute to an old Eagles song in Standin’ on the Corner Park.

“We’re celebrating our 20th anniversary, and we still have the same employees,” Affeldt says. “The fastest-growing tourism markets today are heritage and adventure. People crave meaning in their lives, and you can’t get that from a chain hotel.”

The Castañeda had long ago caught his attention, and when its price fell in 2014, his “weird little co-op” bought it. Their Winslow Arts Trust also purchased and buffed up the 1882 Plaza Hotel, on Las Vegas’s town square, and the Legal Tender restaurant, in Lamy.

Recently, Affeldt has been spotted doodling on copies of blueprints for the old El Ortiz, a 1910 Harvey hotel that sat across from the Legal Tender until its 1943 demolition. He and internationally famed architect Antoine Predock have toyed with ideas for reimagining the enormous and largely vacant buildings of the Albuquerque Rail Yards. And he’s teased the notion of a regular train service between Lamy and Santa Fe, in a spirit similar to that of the Grand Canyon Railway, which takes park visitors north from Williams, Arizona, with horseback gunslingers “hijacking” the train.

You could call him a man on a mission; he says he’s “just restless.” But serving as a de facto patron saint of the Southwest’s railroad history rises from a place deep inside of him—especially when it comes to Las Vegas, a town rich with architectural heritage but mired in an economy that never recovered from the railroad slump. “All my good friends said, ‘Don’t do it. It’s a money pit,’” Affeldt says of the Castañeda. “But this is an old town with deeply rooted families who build stuff. We found skilled people. We were loyal to them. I could have the vision, but they knew how to make it work. Today, the whole community knows: This is something special.”

AS SOON AS THE CASTAÑEDA closed in 1948, a wrecking ball awaited. At auction, the buyer wanted to salvage only its bricks, but then sold it for a slight profit to another man who hoped to turn it into apartments. He failed. Decades of deterioration and boarded-up windows followed, along with a bar sketchy enough to earn it an unforgettable local moniker: the Nasty Casty.

“Some friends of mine were skateboarders, and they said the back stairs were great for that, but the woman who owned the bar always chased us off,” says Conor Reichert. He’s lived in Vegas since he was seven and, while earning his architecture degree from UNM, became Albuquerque architect Kelvin Balciar’s on-site eyes, hands, and brain at the Castañeda Hotel. “I never bought into the stories,” he says, “but some people believed it’s haunted.”

Read more: As the treasured Las Vegas of her youth fades, a Meadow City daughter discovers some promising change.

Throughout his time in the 45,000-square-foot U-shaped beast’s suites, storage areas, and yet-to-be-finished basement and attic, Reichert never encountered a ghost. But he did see a lot of workers—a whole town, really—become possessed by the notion that they didn’t have to play the underdog to Santa Fe and Albuquerque. “It’s a buzz,” he says. “Everyone’s excited by it.”

It took a few miracles. Affeldt juggled a renovation at the Plaza Hotel in order to pull it out of bankruptcy and draw enough guests to produce a cash flow for the Castañeda construction. He went through four chefs at the Plaza Restaurant before turning it over, successfully, to Matt DiGregory to expand his Range Café empire. He endured three years of jumping through historical-preservation hoops to wheedle an okay for his plans out of state officials. Only then did his Castañeda financing come through. He unraveled the red tape that limited guest parking. And he worked to win over local doubters who had long wearied of outsiders’ lofty promises to save the town, even as he weathered city politics that were, on their best days, unpredictable.

“People would always say, ‘Vegas has so much potential; we’re just waiting for something to happen,’” he says. “But that’s the problem: They’re waiting. Nothing happens if you’re waiting for it to happen. Sometimes our job is to say, ‘Okay, we’ll do it.’”

At times, he admits, it didn’t make sense. “With the money we spent on this, we could have bought a chain hotel on the highway with three times as many rooms. This is a labor of love. I created 100 jobs in Las Vegas,  which is a complicated thing to do in a poor rural community. Every day, there’s a dozen details to figure out. It’s like a big campaign.”

You can spot some of his foot soldiers if you keep your eyes open around town. They wear “Casty Crew” hoodies, emblems of pride for those who repaired the Victorian-era arched windows, tore apart and rebuilt 500 linear feet of brick walkway, and retrofitted massive pieces of kitchen equipment into furniture for serving a new era of high-end diners. The hotel’s blog has followed their labors, celebrating the men and women, most of them local, who made the magic happen.

There’s Bob Fielding, a jack of numerous trades whom Affeldt all but reveres, calling him “a mad scientist,” one often tasked with the impossible. Take those tin ceiling tiles. Nearly a quarter of them had disappeared from the lobby’s lid, and no one presses them like that anymore. Fielding devised a mold of one, cast them in plaster, and smoothly feathered them into the originals.

Carpenters Phil Wylie and David O’Grady brilliantly mimicked the historic Brunswick bar inside the Legal Tender to craft the new Bar Castañeda centerpiece—which adds a Wild West touch with horseshoe barstools.

Reynaldo Ulibarri, with Affeldt.

Above: Reynaldo Ulibarri, with Affeldt.

A husband-and-wife team of glaziers, Pat and Maria Gonzales, set up shop right there in the hotel to fix every broken pane, often recutting portions of old glass from upper-story windows to keep the street-level look consistent.

Yvonne Hays, a Vegas native, switched from her front-desk post at the Plaza Hotel to the Castañeda before it even welcomed its first guest. In the interim, she scrubbed bathrooms and whisked construction dust, “because I wanted to say I was part of history when we opened.” She also puts in time as one of the retro Harvey Girls for Southwest Detours, a tour company that takes visitors through a Fred Harvey timeline at the hotel and at Montezuma Castle. (That double-turreted darling was Harvey’s first attempt at a Vegas landmark and today serves as a United World College campus.)

“Being able to see how much work they put into the Castañeda was amazing,” Hays says. “Maybe that’s why all these buildings are still standing: because everything was done with love and care.”

MION AND LUTZICK ARE BOTH celebrated artists, and their design skill shows throughout the Castañeda. Mion spent weeks deciding on wall colors with names like “chilled wine” and “washed olive.” She’s also painting stained-glass-style transoms for each room featuring New Mexico birds and animals. The trio invested far more than was likely necessary to outfit bathrooms, parts of the kitchen, and even an ice-machine room near the guest suites with the bold graphics of cement encaustic tiles imported from San Luis Potosí, Mexico. Altogether, Affeldt estimates that the cavernous kitchen, which once pumped out meals for trainloads of guests, cost around $2 million to re-emerge this autumn as Kin.

The brainchild of chef Sean Sinclair, Kin promises to be destination dining for the culinarily obsessed—12-course meals with top-shelf service along the lines of the famed Inn at Little Washington, a Virginia institution that earned its third Michelin star while Sinclair, a Tijeras native, was its sous-chef. Affeldt lured him and his wife, Katey, a front-of-the-house ace, from posts in Santa Fe with the promise of a hands-off arrangement.

Read more: The historic town is making a comeback, spurred by Wild West can-do spirit and the renovation of its landmark hotel.

“We’d been looking for restaurant space for a number of years and were wanting to do something that could be a little opulent,” Sinclair says. “It’s hard to find the structure. Here, with Bar Castañeda on one side, we can serve locals casual food with organic ingredients, and that plays a supporting role to Kin.”

Affeldt bought and renovated a local mansion as a Vegas home for Sean and Katey, one where they also rent rooms to their cooks-in-training. “They’re kids who read cookbooks and watch all the Chef’s Table shows but never had the opportunity to leave Las Vegas or New Mexico to work in a world-class kitchen,” Sinclair says.

Will aiming so high work in Vegas? Affeldt shrugs. “It’s Sean’s dream. But remember: Five million tourists a year visit Santa Fe. Some of them will come here.”

“It’s the Ca-sta-ñe-da,” Sinclair says, his words slow and worshipful. “There’s only one.”

Affeldt and Mion alternate living in apartments at La Posada and the Castañeda, connected by Amtrak trains, plus a home in Sedona, Arizona. (Affeldt usually drives the distance; Mion prefers the train.) The apartments include art studios for Mion, and the one at the Castañeda soars two stories tall, with a catwalk overlook and a Victorian woodstove. The fact that they live in the buildings themselves, Affeldt says, informs every design decision they make. They’re dog lovers, so the Castañeda has a dog yard. They also included four ADA suites, and workers tore up the entire arcade—the covered walkway that encircles the building—and rebuilt it, brick by brick, six inches higher to sit flush with every doorway for easy wheelchair access.

Chef Sean Sinclair and his wife, Katey, aim to bring destination dining to Kin, a restaurant where everyone is family.

Above: Chef Sean Sinclair and his wife, Katey, aim to bring destination dining to Kin, a restaurant where everyone is family.

More features will come. Affeldt dreams of a basement-level speakeasy where a dumbwaiter delivers drinks and an attic museum with models of all the Harvey hotels. Harvey history needs to be told, he says, both to set the context and to help the next generation appreciate the many people who shaped the region’s stories. Here’s one: Theodore Roosevelt drew heavily on Las Vegas’s cowboy population to fill the ranks of his Rough Riders, the only regiment to see action in the Spanish-American War. In 1899, he held their first reunion at the Castañeda. Its members came back year after year to repeat the huzzahs.

That gives me an idea, which I suggest to Conor Reichert as he pauses between fix-it crises. “How about,” I say, “in coming years, members of the Casty Crew do something like the Rough Riders—gather at the Castañeda and toast all their work?” He laughs. “They already do,” he says. “It happens almost every night at five in the bar.”

And that, he says, underscores their sense of mission. “These people aren’t driving here from out of town. They’re part of the community. Everyone who works here? Yes, they’ve had a hand in improving this building, but also they’ve had a hand in improving our community. That’s the biggest thing of all.”

Story Sidebar

FREADHEAD HEAVEN
Lodging rates at the Castañeda Hotel begin at $129 a night. Learn more about its history, renovation, and bar menus and the opening of Kin. Check out its construction blog, hotelcastaneda.blog, for HGTV-style videos of the work in progress.

Fredheads gather in Santa Fe and Las Vegas October 25–28 for the ninth annual Fred Harvey History Weekend. Events include speakers, a dinner at Santa Fe’s La Fonda on the Plaza, and tours of Montezuma Castle and the Castañeda, including Tina Mion’s art studio inside it.

Schedule a Harvey history tour through Southwest Detours, which includes Las Vegas and Lamy, plus historic homes and the Dwan Light Sanctuary art space (southwestdetours.com).

Mayeur Projects, a contemporary art gallery on the Las Vegas plaza, debuts a new exhibit of Mion’s work, Midnight Muse, featuring 35 noirish paintings inspired by old haunts in the town, October 27 to November 30 (mayeurprojects.com). 

 

LAMY'S NEXT ACT
Murphy O’Brien keeps packing them in at his Café Fina, in Eldorado, about 10 miles south of Santa Fe, so he figures customers won’t mind driving another eight miles south to Lamy, where he reopened the Legal Tender Saloon and Eating House in September. The 1882 building once housed Pfluegger Mercantile and later became a bar, then a restaurant, and finally a train museum. With its purchase by Allan Affeldt and the Winslow Arts Trust, it’s taken on new shine, a full liquor license, and O’Brien’s plans for Fred Harvey–inspired dishes, like shrimp bisque, pan-fried chicken livers, and “a killer bar steak.”

“It’s off the beaten path, but it’s a destination,” O’Brien says. “It always has been.”

The 1884 Brunswick bar is complemented by two indoor dining areas, an oversize kitchen, and patio space that, altogether, will seat up to 200 people—more than currently reside in Lamy, the closest town to Santa Fe that the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway ever reached. A spur line carried passengers the last 18 miles to the City Different, and a pint-size Harvey hotel, El Ortiz, offered overnight lodgings north of the still-standing and still-operating depot.

O’Brien expects to start slowly, with dinners Fridays through Sundays, then phase in Sunday brunches. After that, who knows? Affeldt has ideas for tacking on a 1950s railroad dining car, hosting outdoor music performances, and figuring out what to do with the three empty lots that came with the restaurant purchase. “I had my reservations about taking on another project,” O’Brien says, “but how could you say no to this building and to working with the Winslow Arts Trust and Allan? I love old things, vintage things, and history. It’s fun to be part of a re-creating something out here.”

 

SUGGESTED READING
Appetite for America: Fred Harvey and the Business of Civilizing the West—One Meal at a Time, by Stephen Fried (Bantam, 2010)

Harvey Houses of New Mexico: Historic Hospitality from Raton to Deming, by Rosa Walston Latimer (History Press, 2015)

Fred Harvey Houses of the Southwest, by Richard Melzer (Arcadia, 2008)

The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West, by Lesley Poling-Kempes (Da Capo Press, 1989)