The Nob Hill Business Center was New Mexico’s first drive-in shopping center.
When the University Heights Addition was platted in 1916 as an extension of the University Heights subdivision, the developer, D.B.K. Sellers, named its eastern end Nob Hill because the steep site reminded him of San Francisco. Residential suburbs began spreading its direction in the 1930s, but Nob Hill itself remained vacant until after World War II. In 1945, the developer, Robert B. Waggoman, partnered with Stromberg’s, a leading downtown clothing store, to plan the Nob Hill Business Center at the intersection of Central Avenue and Carlisle Boulevard. Waggoman anticipated that wartime restrictions on building materials would soon be lifted and commissioned Louis G. Hesselden to design the Nob Hill Business Center. Hessleden completed his plans in January 1946, construction began that fall, and the building opened in spring 1947.
The decision to build New Mexico’s first drive-in shopping center, following precedents that return to drive-in markets built in Southern California in the 1920s, was justified by the automobile and the commercial decentralization it made possible. The partners also recognized that Kirtland Air Force Base and Sandia National Laboratory, located 1.5 miles to the south at the end of Carlisle Boulevard, were destined to play an increasingly important economic role in the city. Their designation after the war as a center of nuclear weapons research brought a flood of federal funding and made the Sandia Corporation (which ran the laboratory) New Mexico’s largest single employer by 1956.
The U-shaped business center faces north onto Central Avenue and is organized around a parking lot for 30 cars, the defining feature of this automobile objective. Anchored by a supermarket (still extant) and a suburban branch of Stromberg’s (now replaced by a restaurant), tenant spaces for what were originally 22 specialty and professional businesses wrap the parking lot and the continuous perimeter of the block as it climbs up to the higher street in back.
The steel and concrete-block structure is punctuated by octagonal cupolas at the outer corners and stepped towers at the inner corners of the parking lot, and is finished with plate glass windows, white stucco, a brown terra-cotta frieze, and brick string courses and cornices. The classically symmetrical composition deftly mediates Streamlined Moderne styling with the regional inflection of Territorial Style brick cornices and reflects Hesselden’s Beaux-Arts training. He had graduated in 1927 from the University of Pennsylvania as a student of Paul Cret, and worked in Cret’s office before returning to Albuquerque in 1932.
At first, the Nob Hill Business Center struggled to find tenants and was ridiculed as “Waggoman’s folly.” By 1949, however, it was fully occupied and so successful that Geoffrey Baker and Bruno Funaro included it in their 1951 book on shopping centers. A decade later, this success was threatened by the more modern convenience and variety of Winrock Center, Albuquerque’s first mall. Stromberg’s opened a store there in 1961, and then closed both its original downtown store and its Nob Hill branch in the mid-1970s.
Like the rest of the commercial strip along Central Avenue, the Nob Hill Business Center went into a period of decline that was only halted after new owners purchased the building in 1983 and undertook its comprehensive rehabilitation in 1985. Awnings were installed and a breezeway opened to a rear parking lot, but otherwise the building, including the original business center and supermarket signs, was carefully restored. This helped stimulate a general revitalization of the Nob Hill neighborhood, although the long-term stability of the shopping center and surrounding business alike remains a work in progress subject to the uncertainties of economic cycles, speculation, and markets.
Baker, Geoffrey, and Bruno Funaro. Shopping Centers Design and Operation. New York: Reinhold, 1951.
Bergman, Edna Heatherington. “The Fate of Architectural Theory in Albuquerque, New Mexico: buildings of four decades, 1920-1960.” Master’s thesis, University of New Mexico, 1978.
Longstreth, Richard. The Drive-in, the Supermarket, and the Transformation of Commercial Space in Los Angeles, 1914-1941. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999.
Sze, Corinne, “Nob Hill Business Center,” Bernalillo County, New Mexico. National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, 1993. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
Wood, Robert Turner. The Postwar Transformation of Albuquerque, New Mexico 1945-1972.Santa Fe: Sunstone Press, 2014.