Albuquerque's Main Street

Central Avenue, Nob Hill Main Street, has a split personality. It was, and still is Albuquerque’s original “Main Street,” like Main Streets all across the country, but its other personality is Route 66, the great Mother Road which carried countless Americans westward to California during the Great Depression. This dual personality has contributed to Nob Hill’s fascinating blend of roadside architecture designed to appeal to the weary motorist, and storefronts designed to appeal to neighborhood shoppers.

Until the mid-1930’s Central Avenue east of the University of New Mexico consisted of a few motor courts, gas stations, campgrounds and one cafe. Albuquerque proper was still to the west, but the city’s street car system didn’t make it out this far.

Although Route 66 had already crossed New Mexico, it was a convoluted path. From 1926 through 1937, when heading west on the route, you turned north near Santa Rosa, made your way through Santa Fe and then turned south toward Albuquerque via Fourth Street. But, in 1937, Route 66 was straightened out and headed directly west across the state, reducing the journey across New Mexico by 107 miles. This realignment allowed motorists to travel from Tucumcari straight to Grants, right down Albuquerque’s Central Avenue from Tijeras Canyon to Nine Mile Hill.

With Route 66 as the only paved road crossing New Mexico, development began to spread east and west along its shoulders. Entrepreneurs sparked into action as the tourist stream flowed down its new course.

Suddenly, travelers were driving through the Highland and Nob Hill neighborhoods on their way to downtown Albuquerque. Central Avenue was no longer just a country road. Motels with neon signs competed for travelers’ attention, and retailers and restaurateurs vied to meet their needs.

Nob Hill Gets Character

Roadside architecture beckoned to drivers; a cafe shaped like an iceberg, selling cold drinks and ice cream cones opened for business on the present site of the Lobo Theatre; a sombrero-shaped restaurant offered Mexican food. The Aztec Lodge and the De Anza Motor Lodge presented pueblo-inspired accommodations, while others such as the Wigwam boasted teepees in which children could play.

WPA projects in the late 1930s, such as the State Fairgrounds and Monte Vista Fire Station, assured more development along east Central.

By 1941 Nob Hill had grown into Albuquerque’s first suburb, a thriving residential community complete with a modern movie theater, pharmacy, numerous stores, restaurants and motels. Construction was halted during WWII, but afterwards the population boomed and building began in earnest.

In 1947 R.B. Waggoman developed `the Nob Hill Business Center, one of the first modern shopping centers to incorporate parking west of the Mississippi. The Center, built in the architectural style Streamline Moderne, quickly became the hub of the most fashionable area of town.

Today, the Center stands as one of the best preserved examples of this type of post war architecture.

Roadside History

Post mid century travelling was changing rapidly. With the completion of Interstate 40 in 1959, Route 66 travelers eventually gave up their slow, romantic journeys through enchanting New Mexico to drive at speeds of 60 to 70 miles an hour. In 1955, Albuquerque’s Route 66 had 98 motels; by 1992, only 48 remained. Today, most hotels/motels on Route 66 are national chains. Only a few family owned motels of historic significance remain.

But Historic Route 66 still remains a beloved image in our collective, American conscious. There are preservation efforts in many communities that still survive along the Road. The Road has been named a Scenic Byway by both state and federal governments. Although many examples of Route 66-era roadside architecture have been lost, many are preserved – or at the least, still exist. As you drive, look for the vestiges of the old architecture in current buildings along the Road. In Albuquerque, our Nob Hill stretch is considered to contain the most of the well preserved buildings in all of New Mexico.

Albuquerque's First Suburb

The settlement of Albuquerque’s East Mesa east of the University of New Mexico began with several homesteads in the 1890’s. Those homesteads became part of subdivision plats in the 1920’s.

In October 1926 the Monte Vista Corporation platted the Monte Vista addition, one of four subdivisions making up the Nob Hill neighborhoods. The land development company was headed by William J. Leveritt Sr., a tuberculosis patient (“lunger” in those days) who had come to New Mexico in search of the cure. The corporation hired a planner from Denver named De Bors to lay out the subdivision. They had wisely recognized that the severe slope of the southern part of the tract (the old drainage of Tijeras Arroyo) posed flood hazards and drainage problems and so required a different treatment than the traditional grid street pattern. The design solution devised by De Bors resulted in the diagonal thoroughfares of Campus and Monte Vista, above and between which were diagonally slanted blocks, maximizing developable land while safeguarding the environment.

Monte Vista Boulevard was planned as a wide boulevard with planted medians down the center. (According to local sources, a rebuffed Mayor Tingley moved the money for medians to the Ridgecrest area.) The original street tree plantings along Campus Boulevard were in a pattern alternating canopied Siberian elms with narrow Lombardy poplars.

A Historic District Develops

The second Monte Vista Corporation innovation was the dedication of land to the Albuquerque Public School system for an elementary school, a masterful marketing stroke. Monte Vista Elementary School, steel-framed and built in California Mission style, is now a beloved local landmark.

Leveritt built his own adobe Pueblo-style home on two lots at Dartmouth and Girard Place. On Monte Vista Boulevard are two very unique homes directly across from each other—the 1920’s Picturesque/Tudor Revival stone house designed by Beula Fleming, and the futuristic home designed by Bart Prince and built in 1983. Look down to find the few remaining driveways installed under the WPA; they can be recognized by the horizontal scoring and the WPA 1941 stamp.

The other subdivision now part of the Historic District is the College View Addition, with its 16 blocks arranged in a classic grid pattern. College View was also platted in 1926 and stretches from Carlisle to Morningside, Lomas to Copper.

Most of the lots within these two subdivisions were developed within 25 years, often by small contractors who built one or two houses at a time under contract or on speculation from a set of standard plans. The vast majority of Nob Hill homes’ details were derived from traditional Southwestern architecture, as well as Mediterranean and California Mission design elements, with a smattering of Streamline Moderne. The earliest were sometimes built of adobe, then came block or “Pen tile” or wood frame, and stucco.

The earliest homes are also characterized by separate garages set back on the property; later garages tended to be attached to the houses with the same front setback. Small casement windows on either side of the fireplace were typical in the 1920’s and ’30’s, as were double-hung windows with three panes set over a single pane. Look for hand-made Spanish roof tiles or colorful Ludewici tiles.

Nob Hill Grows Up

Nob Hill, the hill south of Central was named by entrepreneur and adventurer D.B.K. Sellars to give cachet to his real estate venture. Sellars is that figure with his dog standing on a naked hilltop near the Nob Hill sign in that oft-seen photo. The photo was actually taken for him and sent out as his New Year’s greeting for the year 1937.

One of the more unique homes on the hill is the “Water Tower House,” designed by William Burk Jr. in 1937 around a water tower built in 1916. The two quadrants south of Central were named the University Heights and Granada Heights additions.

The Granada Heights plat, Silver to Garfield/Carlisle to Morningside, filed in 1925, is where homes of a somewhat larger size prevailed. Of note is the “Kelvinator House” on Hermosa SE, built in 1938 in Streamline Moderne style as a “Machine for Living” with all-electric appliances. William Burk Jr’s design evokes the 1939 World’s Fair and was meant to demonstrate that “modern” need not be expensive.