Old Town Albuquerque
Albuquerque, with a population of roughly half a million, is the sixth fastest-growing city in the United States. It was founded long after the state’s capital, Santa Fe, but it still has a history worth uncovering.
History: In a Nutshell
As with much of the Southwest, prior to colonization, there was a thriving Native American culture. From 1100-1300 ACE, the Pueblo tribes clustered around the Rio Grande Valley. Indeed, Albuquerque remains an area brimming with tribal culture, and most of New Mexico’s nineteen pueblos are located within an hour’s drive.
Coronado, a Spanish conquistador, explored the area in 1540, but it wasn’t until 1706 that the initial village was founded. Ranchos de Alburquerque (notice the additional ‘r’ in the name) was named in honor of the Duke of Alburquerque (meaning ‘white oak’), who lived in the Spanish province of Iberia.
This military outpost was located along the El Camino Real (Royal Road) and was surrounded by a farming community. Ranchos de Alburquerque was situated on a branch of the Santa Fe Trail called The Old Chihuahua Trail. This linked the north to Mexico City, allowing for commercial growth.
By 1821, the Ranchos de Alburquerque had expanded into a garrison and the village was laid out in the traditional Spanish model: a central plaza, surrounded by a church (San Felipe de Neri Catholic Church established in 1783), government buildings and shops. That same year, Mexico declared its independence from Spain, so the region fell under Mexican control. It remained so until the United States won the area during the Mexican-American war of 1846.
During the Civil War, the burgeoning city was briefly occupied by Southern troops. The Union army fought back, waging a battle in the plaza and forcing the Confederate soldiers south, before retreating from New Mexico.
In 1880, the AT&SF Railroad bypassed the plaza, heading to a depot two miles east. This became ‘New’ Albuquerque, while the former village became known as Old Town. New Albuquerque was incorporated as a town in 1885, and as a city six years later. Old Town remained separate until the 1920s.
In the late nineteenth century, many tuberculosis patients, including the infamous Doc Holliday, moved westward to drier climates as advised by their doctors. This led to the rise of hospitals in the city: both Presbyterian and St. Joseph’s were founded at this time.
Route 66 rolled into Albuquerque in 1926, forever changing the area. Motels and restaurants sprung up along Fourth Street (the original route) and then moved to Central Avenue when the route shifted in 1937.
WWII and the following nuclear age transformed the city, when Kirtland Air Force Base was established, followed by the Sandia Base and Sandia National Labs.
However, the size of the downtown remained smaller compared to other cities. This is because the soil of the Rio Grande Valley is unable to support larger buildings, restricting the number of stories in skyscrapers. The tallest building is the Bank of Albuquerque Tower at twenty-two stories.
The Armijo Influence
You cannot discuss Old Town without mentioning the Armijo family, who originated from the Zacatecas region of Mexico (near modern-day Guadalajara). They moved into Northern New Mexico in the late 1600s and became prosperous. Vicente Ferrer Durán de Armijo left a substantial inheritance to his children: eight sons and three daughters. One of these sons was Manuel Armijo.
During the 1790s, the family was living near Belen, New Mexico, where Vicente served in the military. The Armijo and Chavez families were the ‘ricos’ of the area, meaning the ‘rich’ or wealthy landholding families that owned large herds of livestock. By the age of seventeen, Manuel himself was also a landholder.
After marrying in 1819, Manuel and his wife adopted a daughter, Ramona. Then Manuel began his service in the Mexican military, primarily defending the area from the Apache tribe. He was elected – along with two of his brothers – as deputy to the congress in Chihuahua. In 1827, he began serving the first of his three terms as governor of the New Mexican territory. At this point, he was also a textile trader and owned large herds of sheep. Manuel had a forty-room hacienda built around the Old Town Plaza. Between 1854-1878, it served as the meeting place for the government. The hacienda was demolished in 1910.
Manuel’s half brother, Cristóbal, also became a wealthy merchant. By the 1860s, he and two of Manuel’s other brothers owned three of the nine stores surrounding the plaza.
Around the Plaza
Today, you can still see the remains of several Armijo homes and stores. The Cristóbal Armijo home rests at the corner of San Felipe and South Plaza – modern stores have now taken over the lower floors.
Construction on the Ambrosio Armijo House began in 1706 and, originally, the buildings connected around the plaza. The structures had adobe walls up to three feet thick as a defense against attack. The Ambrosio Armijo House has been put to multiple uses: it was converted into a fortress during the Mexican-Spanish and Mexican-American wars and today it is the site of a restaurant (La Placita Dining Rooms).
Within the house is an imported staircase, which was crafted in Spain in 1872, then brought over by Ambrosio for his daughter’s wedding. Check out the vendors selling their wares on the house’s portal (covered porch) – it has been used in this way since 1706.
If you move north on San Felipe Street to La Hacienda restaurant, you can see a mural painted by famed artist Ted Schuyler. The artwork depicts the history of the city.
If you wander south, past the plaza, you’ll find Bottger Mansion, on San Felipe Street, just beyond the school. The land belonged to Manuel Armijo and, once his adobe home was demolished, the Bottger family (from New Jersey) bought the property.
The present-day home, designed by architect Edward Buxton Cristy in the American Foursquare style, dates to 1910. Upon Charles Bottger’s death, his widow transformed the place into a boarding house and eventually a B&B. Guests have included Machine Gun Kelly, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, and Janis Joplin.
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Lane & Juliet
The writing and photography team behind Southwest Compass, the travel blog for the American Southwest.