You Don’t Know What You’ve Got

Many mourned the loss of the Alvarado, a beautiful, sprawling Fred Harvey hotel, restaurant, Indian building and museum in Albuquerque, New Mexico, when it was demolished in 1970.  Local residents were unable to raise the $1.5 million the railroad was asking for the empty buildings. The demise of the popular Harvey House reminds me of the chorus of the Joni Mitchell song “Big Yellow Taxi,” written and first recorded the same year the Alvarado was torn down:  Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.

Mitchell was referring to the destruction of the Garden of Allah, a popular Hollywood hotel known for its parties, not the Alvarado, but the song is a reminder that we often take things for granted and don’t realize their value until something is gone.

Advertised as the “finest railroad hotel on earth” the luxury hotel and eating establishment served train passengers and locals for over sixty years. The original hotel had 75 guest rooms, a restaurant, large lobby, two parlors, a reading room and barber shop. At a time when Albuquerque businesses and residents were still using gas lamps, the Alvarado had electric lights throughout.

The mission style building with a dramatic red tile roof cost $200,000 when it was built in 1902. The interior, designed by Fred Harvey architect Mary Colter, was distinguished by carved beams, massive fireplaces, black oak paneling  and Spanish and Indian decorative features.  

The Alvarado was a popular “stop-over” for many celebrities who for decades traveled by train from Chicago to Los Angeles. “I waited on lots of famous people: Jack Benny, Will Rogers, Jeanette MacDonald. It was a wonderful life. I loved being a Harvey Girl,” recalled Opal Sells Hill, a Harvey Girl veteran of forty-five years. “When Amfac took over Harvey, everyone was told, ‘Throw out them Harvey Girl uniforms.’ And they did. What a shame.” In a sense, Opal felt the Alvarado was thrown away, too.

“In 1970, when they tore down the Alvarado Hotel, I went and watched,” Opal said. “Cried and cried. I felt ashamed of myself until I looked around and saw other people doing the same thing.”

Former Alvarado Harvey Girl Jean Begley Bluestein ate at the hotel the last day of food service. “It’s too bad they let that one get away.”

The loss of the Alvarado is often discussed when New Mexico history buffs gather. While they grieve the loss of the historically significant structure, most agree that the demolition of the Harvey hotel sparked pride in historic sites and buildings in the state and influenced the preservation of many other historical buildings.

 Of the original fourteen Harvey House locations in New Mexico, only five are still standing:  the Gran Quivera in Clovis; the Harvey House Museum in Belen; La Fonda on the Plaza in Santa Fe; the Montezuma and the Castaneda in Las Vegas. All have common Fred Harvey history; however, a future without Harvey oversight has brought mixed outcomes and it seems the Gran Quivera may soon go the way of the acclaimed Alvarado.

Rosa Walston Latimer is the author of a series of books about Harvey Houses available on or on her web site