The Old Town Albuquerque Plaza spans all key phases of New Mexico’s historical development, from the Spanish Colonial, Mexican, and Territorial periods, through statehood in the twentieth century. Extensively altered when it was redefined as a tourist destination after World War II, Old Town’s present appearance as a largely homogenous Spanish Colonial settlement obscures its eclectic building history. Even so, Old Town retains its original plan and exemplifies the Spanish Colonial model of a village planned around a centrally situated church and plaza.
The original village of Albuquerque was founded on February 7, 1706 by Don Francisco Cuervo y Valdés, Provisional Governor of the Spanish Province of New Mexico. Spanish colonists had first occupied the area in 1632, when they settled an estancia, a small farming community called El Paraje de Huertas, in the lower Rio Grande Valley. Driven out by the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, they fled south with other Spaniards to El Paso del Norte. After returning to New Mexico in 1692–1693 and reoccupying their capital in Santa Fe, the Spaniards established four administrative centers called villas (the highest classification of Spanish town) in New Mexico. The fourth was the Villa de Alburquerque [sic] de San Francisco Xavier del Bosque, named both for Saint Francis, patron saint of the Indies, and the Duke of Alburquerque, viceroy Fernández de la Cueva Enriques of New Spain.
Cuervo established this villa without consulting the viceroy or the crown and without following protocols prescribed by the Spanish Laws of the Indies, which required a communal land grant of four square leagues granted by the king, a minimum of thirty founding families, and the immediate construction of a church and fortified plaza. At the time, only nineteen families lived scattered along both sides of the Rio Grande Valley. But the viceroy sanctioned Alburquerque’s designation as a villa, recognizing the benefits of establishing an administrative seat in the fertile Rio Abajo or lower Rio Grande. He also ordered that the villa’s name be changed to the Villa de Alburquerque de San Felipe de Neri, in honor of Saint Phillip, the patron saint of King Phillip V of Spain. The villa’s name was spelled “Alburquerque” until the mid-nineteenth century, when the first “r” was dropped during American occupation of the territory.
In 1779, the provincial governor finally ordered Albuquerque’s consolidation into a fortified plaza to resist raids by Apache, Navajo, and Comanche Indians. A rectangular plaza took shape, enclosed by one-story adobe and sod brick ( terrone) houses and oriented toward the original San Felipe de Neri Church on the plaza’s west side. Erected in 1718, this church collapsed in 1790 and was rebuilt at its present location on the plaza’s north side. In 1790, about a third of Albuquerque’s 1,136 inhabitants built their houses around the fortified plaza of this farming and ranching community; every day, they commuted to and from their fields spread along the Rio Grande, which were irrigated by a system of irrigation ditches ( acequias) that drew water from the river.
Mexican independence in 1821 lifted the Spanish restrictions on trade outside its empire, and mercantile activity increased as a wide variety of goods became available from the United States. Albuquerque was positioned along a major trade route as the Spanish Colonial Camino Real, between Mexico City and Santa Fe, became the Chihuahua Trail and was linked with the Santa Fe Trail, between Santa Fe and Franklin, Missouri.
General Stephen Watts Kearney claimed Albuquerque for the United States in 1846, during the Mexican-American War that made New Mexico a U.S. Territory in 1848. An army post was established, with stores and officers’ quarters around the plaza and a supply depot to the west. Albuquerque prospered as it became both the administrative and the commercial seat of the Rio Abajo region. By 1879, businesses around the plaza had grown to include eleven mercantile stores, one drugstore, two bakeries, three butchers, one saloon, a carpenter shop, three blacksmiths, a watchmaker, a tailor, a barber, two cobblers, and two hotels. New materials and styles arriving via the Santa Fe Trail gave rise to the Territorial Style as the one-story, flat-roofed adobe structures around the plaza were accented with whitewashed lumber and Greek Revival details, including squared posts with molding capitals, dentils, and pitched and gabled roofs. The Our Lady of Angels School (1877) is exemplary, its adobe construction finished with pedimented window and door frames as well as carved dentils and Corinthian pilasters.
With the arrival of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad in 1880, development shifted east one-and-a-half miles to the railroad tracks and the New Town. What became Old Town by default remained a primarily Hispano community of about 1,800 inhabitants. Some families continued to prosper in the commercial boom brought by the railroad, and new structures continued to go up until the end of the nineteenth century.
Those built after 1880 increasingly reflected the influence of new materials and styles imported from the Eastern and Midwestern United States. Examples include the Ambrosio Armijo House and Store (1880–1882), which combines adobe construction with whitewashed door and window accents of milled lumber beneath a large pitched and gabled roof, and the Cristóbal Armijo House (1880–1886), originally a two-story adobe structure with Italianate paired brackets under a projecting cornice. The Romero Store (1891–1893) combines adobe with corrugated sheet metal, milled lumber posts, scalloped shingles, and a roof profile that evokes the Queen Anne Style. The Zamora store (1893–1898) introduced brick construction, along with large-paned front windows and brick dentils.
Old Town continued to assimilate popular national styles into the twentieth century. The last private residence built on the plaza, the Jesús Romero House (1915), is a two-story adobe that combines Prairie and Mediterranean influences in its broad horizontal massing and overhanging hipped roof with red clay tiles.
Starting in the late 1940s and 1950s, many buildings around the plaza were altered to conform to the Spanish Colonial Revival that was adopted after World War II, when Old Town was both incorporated into the modern city of Albuquerque and remade as a tourist district. The Herman Blueher House (1898–1902), once a two-story, Queen Anne–style brick structure with a high hipped roof, projecting gable dormers, and upper and lower story porches, was remodeled with Spanish Colonial elements: its roof and porches were removed, its brickwork covered with stucco to imitate adobe, and a new portico ( portal) was applied, with rough-hewn posts topped with corbel brackets, projecting vigas, and a ceiling of latillas. The Manuel Springer House, built around 1913, retains its original Queen Anne–style roof profile and bay window, but these have been obscured behind a commercial front added in 1947–1948 and a two-story portal added in 1969.
Old Town’s postwar reinvention as a tourist destination both substantially altered its historic streetscape, and resisted the forces of urban renewal that decimated downtown Albuquerque in the 1970s. While most of its building fabric dates from the 1870s to the present, the plaza retains the eighteenth-century form of a typical Spanish Colonial village with narrow streets fanning out from a centrally situated plaza and church. San Felipe de Neri Church remains the focal point of the plaza, which itself remains the center of community activities. The plaza’s open green space and bandstand host regular performances and public events. Many of the Plaza’s historic structures today house restaurants, shops, and galleries that cater to visiting tourists.
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Clark, Merle, “San Felipe de Neri Church,” National Register of Historic Places Inventory–Nomination Form, 1969. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
DeWitt, Susan. Historic Albuquerque Today: An Overview Survey of Historic Buildings and Districts. 2nd ed. Albuquerque, NM: Historic Landmarks Survey of Albuquerque, 1978.
DeWitt, Susan, “Old Albuquerque Historic District,” Bernalillo County, New Mexico. National Register of Historic Places Inventory–Nomination Form, 1980. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
Johnson, Byron A. Old Town, Albuquerque, New Mexico: A Guide to Its History and Architecture. Albuquerque, NM: City of Albuquerque, 1980.
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Simmons, Marc. Albuquerque: A Narrative History. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982.
White, Robert, and Mary Davis, “Our Lady of the Angels School,” Bernalillo County, New Mexico. National Register of Historic Places Inventory–Nomination Form, 1984. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
Wilson, Chris, and Stefanos Polyzoides. The Plazas of New Mexico. San Antonio, TX: Trinity University Press, 2011.