Thursday, October 06, 2011

The End of the Aztec Motel, Part 1

The Aztec Motel, which was until recently located along old Route 66, just east of Nob Hill, deserves two posts. This first will be a synopsis of the physical history of the motel. In the next, I’ll try to say a few words about what made the Aztec (and its back parking lot) one of the strangest and most interesting places I’ve ever photographed. That will be more of a metaphysical history, I guess, with the photographs saying more than words ever could. So, without further ado, the late, great Aztec Motel…

Back in the heyday of Route 66 nearly 100 motels lined the stretch through Albuquerque, also known as Central Ave., running from just west of downtown nearly to the Sandia Mountains. The vast majority of those motels are now gone, the occasional vintage sign left standing as a kind of grave marker. Before it was demolished, the Aztec Motel was listed in the National Register of Historic Places, spotlighted in the National Park Service’s Route 66 travel itinerary, and considered to be among the five most historically important motels left standing on Central Ave. But, as we know, the economics of decay trumps history nearly every time.

The Aztec Motel was actually the first motel built on East Central Ave. There seems to be some disagreement as to whether it was built in 1931, 1932, or 1933, but it certainly pre-dated Route 66, which was not designated until 1937. Built in a style known as “Southwest Vernacular” and originally called the Aztec Auto Court, the motel had 13 units and three carports. The carports were walled-in sometime in the 1950’s and turned into four additional rooms. This is also when the original neon sign was replaced with the one that can still be seen beside the now-empty lot.

Like so many old motels, the construction of the interstate (I-40, in this case) pulled the rug out from under the Aztec and it declined for many years until it was frequented mostly by drug users, prostitutes, and the down-and-out. Looking at this area now, adjacent as it is to trendy Nob Hill, it’s hard to believe things were ever that seedy. In any case, in 1991, Mohamed Natha bought the motel and worked to bring it back from the brink. In an effort to cut down on visits by hookers and their clients, as well as drug addicts and petty criminals, Natha began to rent only to long-term residents. A short time later the Aztec began to be extravagantly decorated with found items (of which I’ll say more next time) and underwent a kind of renaissance. The long-term residents were chiefly artists, free spirits, and assorted characters-about-town whose personalities became reflected in the motel itself as a genuine community developed.

Thus the Aztec Motel soldiered on for some years, becoming the longest continuously-operated motel in New Mexico. Then, in 2006, a development company bought the motel with the stated aim of renovating it. What they found was that more was being spent on maintenance than was coming in as revenue and structural problems brought the cost of fully rehabilitating the property to a million dollars. And with that, the decision to demolish the Aztec Motel was made. It finally came down in June of this year, somewhere around its 80th birthday.

Having only been in Albuquerque two years at this point, I don’t recall ever seeing the Aztec Motel actually open. In fact, a lot of the found art had already been removed by the time I got to the place. On my first visit it did appear that people were still living in some of the units. There were a couple lights on and it seemed that a few of the rooms were being maintained in an interesting kind of way (see photo at top of post), but I assumed these folks were squatters. I regret that I ended up taking only a few photos of the Aztec itself that day as my attention was almost immediately drawn to the back parking lot, which we’ll get to next time. Until then, keep on keeping on.

I got some of the information for this post from the National Park Service, KRQE News, and a cool little website on roadside architecture.


Autumnforest said...

That was fantastic! I love seeing your voyages.

Adsila said...

You take such great pictures. I find the smaller hotels sometimes have the best history. I am interested in reading part 2.

jmhouse said...

Thanks for your kind comments, Autumnforest and Adsila! I appreciate them. I hope to have part 2 posted soon.