Forming the core of Old Town Las Vegas, the Las Vegas Plaza is a living snapshot of the social and economic patterns that have shaped the city’s development since the early nineteenth century.
Las Vegas was founded in 1835 with a land grant given to early settlers by the Mexican government. The 34 founding families, who moved from the nearby Spanish Colonial settlement of San Miguel del Bado, conceived Las Vegas as a Hispanic and Catholic community. Following planning models dating back to the Laws of the Indies, the town was organized around a rectangular 320 x 470–foot plaza. From its inception, the Las Vegas Plaza was a both trade stop on the Santa Fe Trail and an entry port for wagon caravans from Mexico, as well as a market for the sale of local agricultural products and imported goods.
The community’s festivals and gatherings all centered on the Plaza, as did its religious life, with Our Lady of Sorrows Church built on the Plaza’s north side circa 1835–1836. While the church is no longer extant, the Desmarais House, on the east side of the Plaza, is still home to Our Lady of Sorrows Parish Hall. Despite the addition of a curved parapet in the 1930s, this single-story, flat-roofed, adobe house is typical of the linear buildings that originally formed a protective perimeter around the Plaza.
On August 15, 1846, Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny announced New Mexico’s entry into the Union from the Las Vegas Plaza. Following the Mexican-American War of 1846–1848, settlers arriving from Fort Union introduced new building materials, techniques, and Anglo-American styles of architecture. Milled lumber, fired bricks, wood framing, hipped and gable roofs, and simplified Greek Revival detailing were added to the local vernacular of adobe construction to produce the Territorial Style. The location of Las Vegas on the Santa Fe Trail drove its development as a mercantile center serving some 30,000 people in the region. By the late 1870s, Las Vegas had grown south of the Plaza, with new housing built along the acequia madre, the town’s main irrigation ditch.
The arrival of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad (AT&SF) in 1879 spurred both the development of a “New Town” in East Las Vegas and the transformation of the Old Town. New buildings went up in styles and materials imported from the eastern United States. The Italianate Plaza Hotel was built on the north side of the Plaza in 1880, and was joined in 1882 by Charles Ilfeld’s Italianate Great Emporium. These new buildings emphasized the role of wealthy merchants in the economic expansion of Las Vegas as an important hub in the trade networks of territorial New Mexico; German-Jewish immigrants like Charles Ilfeld and Emmanuel Rosenwald joined the Romero family as prominent members of the community.
The newly generated wealth of Las Vegas also drew such notorious outlaws as Jesse James, Bob Ford, and Doc Holliday. Bob Ford briefly leased the Plaza Hotel bar in 1884, and Old Town Las Vegas became infamous for its gambling and burlesque houses, its saloons, and a general culture of lawlessness.
In 1880, local merchants financed the construction of the Plaza’s original bandstand, and a park was designed under a newly appointed Park Commissioner, F.O. Kihlberg. This park was enclosed by a white picket fence and planted with cottonwood trees, large flowerbeds, and low-cut shrubbery. Kihlberg also removed a windmill that had been built in 1876 to provide water but was used by the town’s Vigilante Committee for public hangings. A larger bandstand was built in 1887, and in 1910 the park received its present form with the addition of picturesque undulating pathways and plantings.
Because of the railroad, Las Vegas became one of the largest cities in the Southwest, and it began to decline economically after the AT&SF went bankrupt in the Panic of 1893 and its center of activities in New Mexico then shifted definitively to Albuquerque (a designated hub since 1880) with the railroad’s reorganization in 1895. As a result, the town’s historic fabric from the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has remained largely intact, untouched by the investments and construction that would transform Albuquerque.
An economic backwater by the 1920s, the Las Vegas Plaza saw a brief return of activity during the Korean War, when the former Rosenwald Company building became the Jayval and Navajo Textiles Factory and was used to manufacture parachutes; the factory ceased production in 1977. Since the 1970s, however, Las Vegas has recognized its well-preserved historic buildings and has gradually reinvented itself as a destination for tourists. The Las Vegas Plaza was listed as an historic district on the State Register in 1972 and on the National Register in 1974, and is once again a thriving center of town life.
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Lynn, Sandra. Windows on the Past: Historic Lodgings of New Mexico.Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.
Threinen, Ellen. Architecture and Preservation in Las Vegas: A Study of Six Districts. Las Vegas: Design Review Board, City of Las Vegas, New Mexico, 1977.
Wilson, Chris (with Anita Vernon and Hilario Romero). Architecture and Preservation in Las Vegas, Volume II: New Districts, New Developments. Las Vegas: Design Review Board, City of Las Vegas, New Mexico, 1982.
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Wilson, Chris. The Plazas of New Mexico. San Antonio, TX: Trinity University Press, 2011.