The well-preserved center of Old Town Albuquerque offers at least a hint of surviving evidence of its Spanish colonial heritage, featuring one building from the late 18th century: San Felipe de Neri church.
Settlers constructed this church approximately 90 years after the original founding of the Spanish villa of Albuquerque in 1706—a hamlet using the conventional configuration of gridded streets, a central plaza, and a church fronting the plaza (part the Christian mission), which at the time accommodated approximately 250 people in a smattering of largely transient homes. (Most settlers’ primary residences were low density farmsteads that surrounded this compact, urban hub.) As the 18th century advanced, the villa of Albuquerque matured into a more cohesive, urbanized settlement, first under the colonial efforts of Mexico in the 1820s, and then, a quarter century later, as American settlers claimed the territory after the Mexican-American War. But the town remained locked at just a few thousand inhabitants until the 1880s, when railway expansion in the area forged the growth of a truly American central business district about 1.5 miles to the east-southeast of Old Town Albuquerque. As the old Spanish mission’s population jumped beyond the 10,000 mark around the turn of the century, new residences fanned outward around this rail-oriented node, absorbing Old Town amidst all the decentralizing development and, over time, to fall into comparative neglect.
To this day, Old Town Albuquerque hosts some of the earliest structures in New Mexico’s largest city. Or, rather, “structure” (singular).
There it is, fronting Old Town Plaza: San Felipe de Neri Church, built in 1793, as a replacement to the original Spanish Villa of Albuquerque from 1706, which collapsed earlier that year. Though not as old as Albuquerque itself, San Felipe de Neri is the only surviving structure from the Spanish colonial period. The rest of Old Town’s .8 square miles is a smattering of styles splayed across the Spanish colonial street grid, mostly accommodating small shops that either feature local artisans or proffer tourist tchotchkes (candy, ice cream, local books, t-shirts). The entire Old Town environment is pleasantly shaded and pedestrian scaled, offering meandering walkways with unpredictable turns into courtyards far more intimate and less formalized than the Old Town Plaza.
Many of these niche spaces are undoubtedly charming, but the entire experience lacks tourist magnetism, and thus conveys little energy or excitement. It’s an affable way to spend part of an afternoon for those arriving in New Mexico to vacation, especially if through the Albuquerque International Sunport (ABQ). But it’s not a must-visit attraction. The Spanish Colonial architecture is more abundant and more authentic in New Orleans (something many people aren’t aware—that Spain briefly owned the Louisiana territory and were quite prolific in construction from 1763 to 1803, before it returned to French control). Old Town Albuquerque isn’t just small, it’s underwhelming from an architectural standpoint. Only four other structures outside of San Felipe de Neri have achieved recognition on the National Register of Historic Places, and the remaining structures either underwent significant and insensitive modifications in the 20th century, or the developers constructed them anew with only marginal fidelity to the vernacular of the original Spanish villa and nearby missions scattered throughout the colony.
The end result is a verdant, cozy, pedestrianized streetscape with the plaza and San Felipe church as its epicenter, where the generous shade and civic spaces provide a reprieve from the auto-oriented expanses of asphalt that comprise much of Albuquerque, roasting everyone in the desert sun.
But, aside from a few choice views of that church from the plaza, Old Town doesn’t exactly take its visitors back to the era of the Spanish villa, when Albuquerque was a relatively minor mission within Santa Fe de Nuevo Mexico, nor does it particularly set itself apart from the rest of contemporary New Mexico. Construction from the last sixty years just seems secondhand. One encounters structures like this:
The fact that Plaza Don Luis features its own discrete name and a store directory is evidence enough that the developers conceived this two-story commercial structure in the era of the suburban shopping mall. Some of the ornamentation and color choices are faithful to the spirit of Old Town Albuquerque, but the overall impression is of a nice suburban office complex. It just doesn’t align with views of the 225-year-old church.
But this two-story retail structure, constructed (my guess) in the 1970s or 80s, directly abuts the Old Town Plaza, meaning that even in the heart of Albuquerque’s oldest neighborhood, it’s easy to find structures that are completely incompatible with the historic character. And, because of this incompatibility, the neighborhood really doesn’t stretch very far. Here’s a map with my own efforts to draw boundaries around what could most credibly fall within the purview of Old Town, indicated by the purple line.
Not only is the area tiny, but the edges are rarely what one might call “soft”. The old neighborhood sits cheek-by-jowl with modern urbanization. I didn’t photograph that southern edge of Old Town Albuquerque, but the Google Street View link captures it well enough; it’s a huge parking lot along Central Avenue, a four-lane highway with Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in the median. And here’s the eastern edge of the district.
It includes the Albuquerque Museum, devoted to preserving the history and cultural heritage of Central New Mexico through the state’s largest city, This is a fitting attraction for Old Town Albuquerque from a thematic angle, and the both the building and its attractive sculpture park offer a tasteful contemporary architectural counterpoint to Old Town’s fine-grained urbanism. But the museum features yet another big surface lot.
It’s one more hard edge with a car-centric orientation that gives the preservation efforts within Old Town the air of contrivance, or even desperation.
The northern boundary of Old Town Albuquerque, at Mountain Road, also reveals a clear distinction between the cottages on one side of the road and the large institutions immediately opposite. The newness of all these buildings north of Mountain Road suggests that whatever historic structures fell right outside Old Town as a putative historic district got demolished long ago. But, for my money’s worth, the western boundary of the neighborhood is the most glaring contrast. Here’s the opposite side of Rio Grande Boulevard:
Yep, it’s a Walgreens. And I’ll concede that, in its defense, it seems to adopt at least a few of the ersatz adobe features common throughout New Mexico: the mud-painted stucco with an extra-smooth veneer, the pedestrian archway (which doesn’t seem to connect to a crosswalk for traversing the busy Rio Grande Boulevard).
Despite a few atypical features, it’s still a modern smack on the face to contrast with the kiss of antiquity in Old Town. After all, it’s every bit the standard suburban Walgreens archetype, complete with a setback for the generous parking lot and drive-thru prescription service. Pivot a bit to the right along Rio Grande Boulevard, and the other structures are better, with much smaller setbacks and some evidence of engagement with the street.
And what’s worse? From within the heart of Old Town, that windowless Walgreens façade serves as a terminating view.
The structures on the left and right margins of the above photo are every bit within the Old Town Albuquerque district. Stepping back even further, this is the view from Old Town Plaza.
Even from the neighborhood’s historic core, all one has to do is pivot slightly and WHAM—a national chain drive-thru pharmacy. Features like these undoubtedly vitiate Old Town’s capacity to rate on the National Register of Historic Places. Simply put, the prominent viewsheds rarely capture more than a smattering of structures that historic preservationists would classify as contributing features to a larger historic district. Though Old Town Albuquerque meets the State of New Mexico’s classification of a historic district, national standards articulated by the Department of the Interior are much more stringent.
And, lacking any guidance for the development of structures abutting this tiny historic enclave, Old Town Albuquerque feels adrift: an pre-vehicular island floating amidst car-clogged highways, parking lots, and development that might as well have broken ground last year. To an extent, I feel like I’m being unduly harsh on the original settlement that has bloomed into a city of over a half-million people. After all, it’s a pleasant enough place to sip an iced latte on a hot afternoon, and the aesthetics of the plaza with San Felipe de Neri as the backdrop are undeniable. That, at least, is a viewshed that works. But there’s little else about the district that asserts or distinguishes itself, and, given the surrounding development, I see no evidence that things will ever change. I’m not sure Old Town rates powerfully even among the locals, and the population of permanent residents couldn’t be more than a hundred. It’s fortuitous for the cultural heritage of the city and state that Old Town Albuquerque survives in its current form, but that serves more as a lesson for what other places can avoid—if they choose to work within a historic preservation framework—while the activists behind Old Town had best concentrate on maintaining what they’ve got. And in keeping CVS out.