signs of the past/You can still find kicks on Route 66
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Remnants of Route 66 mark the West like Burma Shave signs. Singly, they seem out of context, but collectively they tell a tale.
There’s everything from the famous Richardson Trading Post in downtown Gallup, N.M., to an abandoned gas station piled with tumbleweeds near remote Peach Springs, Ariz.
But nowhere is the architecture and history more collected and well preserved than in Albuquerque. In the Burma Shave world, it’s a whole slogan.
“If you’re only going to see one part of old Route 66, you should see it in Albuquerque,” says Quinta Scott, photographer and author of “Along Route 66,” (University of Oklahoma Press, $34.95).
She’s traveled the length of the Mother Road, as old-timers call it, from Chicago to Los Angeles, photographing old buildings that range from a metal prefab gas station in Carthage, Mo., to the famous La Posada hotel in Winslow, Ariz.
Route 66 was the nation’s first “interstate,” built (along with several others, but not so famous) in 1926 to expedite automobile traffic across the sometimes sparsely settled Western United States.
Its death knell rang in 1956, with signing of the Federal Aid Highway Act. The legislation established our modern interstate highway system, the beginnings of what travelers know today.
Much of the old route is covered now by interstate highways. Chunks are abandoned or have disappeared.
Route 66 has been memorialized in song by Woody Guthrie, in word by John Steinbeck and on film by John Ford. Then songwriter Bobby Troup traveled it in the 1940s and wrote a popular song that ticked off the names of the towns along the way. In the ’60s, it was glamorized in a television series, “Route 66.”
In its heyday, the route was marked by roadside mom-and-pop businesses – motels, restaurants and tourist attractions – some of which remain in well-preserved condition along an 18-mile stretch in New Mexico’s largest city.
“In (some) places, the route has been franchised out of existence,” Scott says. “Albuquerque hung in there in a way other towns didn’t.”
This summer, Albuquerque will celebrate the 75th anniversary of Route 66 with a celebration to include art and film festivals, car and motorcycle shows, and a variety of live entertainment and general merrymaking.
More than 60,000 Route 66 buffs are expected to attend from all over the country.
A drive through history
To the casual visitor, Route 66 – or Central Avenue – which runs through Albuquerque’s downtown and its Nob Hill area just east of there, looks like an urban-renewal project. Some of it is decrepit, some beautifully restored. All of it is interesting, though, says Mike Pitel, a Route 66 devotee.
Pitel, who retired from his job with the New Mexico Tourism Office a few years ago to work as a free-lance consultant, is passionate about pathways.
A casual question unleashes volumes about the Santa Fe Trail, the Goodnight Trail, the Chisum Trail (not to be confused with the Chisholm Trail, he says), or, yes, Route 66.
For him, “getting there has always been at least half the fun.”
Although about 18 continuous miles of Route 66 run through urban Albuquerque, 58 continuous miles actually start out east of town, in Moriarty, and end at the Rio Puerco bridge west of the city. The most condensed look at the old highway is, as Scott says, about five miles that include downtown and around the state fairgrounds, or the Nob Hill neighborhood.
Starting on the east end of the 18-mile stretch at 13001 Central Ave. is the low-lying Canyon Motel. Its pueblo revival architecture is typical of buildings along the highway in this part of the country. In the 1930s, the motel (then the Canyon Lodge) stood alone, surrounded by prairie, at a time when Albuquerque’s population was about 30,000. (Today, it’s closer to half a million.)
“This would have been the first thing you would have found” coming from the east, Pitel says.
Many of these old motels offered gas, food and lodging in one stop.
As the block numbers begin to descend, drivers on the avenue pass ramshackle service stations and buildings that haven’t withstood the test of time.
“This is not necessarily a good place to be at night,” Pitel says by way of caution.
Despite the shabbiness of some properties, priceless old neon business signs glow here by night.
By the time you reach the 6100 block, you’ve arrived at the New Mexico state fairgrounds (built in 1936) and the beginning of one of the richest stretches of the historic highway. It’s also where much of this summer’s Route 66 celebration will happen.
In this area, still heading west toward downtown, it’s worth a stop in the 3500 block, where the Nob Hill Business Center serves as a focal point.
The center was built in 1947 by a man with foresight, Robert Waggoman. He created Albuquerque’s first mall – an enclave of shops around a square. There’s a grocery store, retail stores, a bakery and fine restaurant (Scalo’s) – 22 shops in all, that serve almost every need of the local neighborhood.
It’s a little downtown
When it first was built, downtown businessmen scof- fed at the idea, called it Waggoman’s Folly; they soon viewed it with some anxiety. Was this the wave of the future?
Across the street from this well-preserved collection of shops is the Aztec Motel, built in 1931. Mostly permanent residents live here now and the adobe walls are covered with what loosely could be called art. Very eclectic.
The old Johnson Standard Service Station down the street was built in 1946 and now is the Club Rhythm & Blues. Across the street is the old Jones Motor Co. (circa 1939), now Kelly’s Brewpub – with old gas pumps adorning the outdoor dining area.
The building is typical of those seen all along the route – a corner-facing front has a broad curved window for showing off the newest in Ford motorcars.
One of the nicest-looking renovations is the transformation of the Monte Vista Fire Station, at 3201 E. Central, into the Monte Vista restaurant and bar.
In between these landmarks are an assortment of thrift shops, body shops, Army surplus stores and other retail stores.
A tiny building standing alone surrounded by parking lot now is a police substation. It once was the Little House Diner. Few of these shops still serve their original purpose, but Master Cleaners has been there continuously since 1946.
Continuing west, past the old Albuquerque High School (being converted into apartments), look for the Route 66 Diner on the north side of the street. It’s a classic.
The curvy white stucco building has neon to spare, and inside are black-and-white tile floors, hot pink and turquoise decor, and more neon. A jukebox. Buddy Holly and early Elvis tunes. Old Route 66 and Coca Cola signs on the walls. Burgers and real chocolate malts – creamy and rich, the way they’re supposed to be.
Once, it was Sam’s 66 Service Station (1946), but today it fills up human tanks with fries and the shake of the month: grasshopper.
Continue west to downtown Albuquerque.
Here, there’s a shot of nostalgia: a Kress Building. Nearby is the ornate old KiMo Theatre, its pueblo-deco architecture dressed up with Indian motifs. It’s a performing arts center.
In fact, several theaters include the Hiland, which also serves performing arts these days, to the El Rey, which now offers live concerts.
“Back East, neighborhoods used to be defined by the corner bar or grocery store,” Pitel says. “Here, it was theaters.”
Come nightfall, there’s neon everywhere.
Some of it’s old; some of it’s new.
A big push in town urges local businesses to put up neon when they install new signs or renovate old ones. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell which is which. There’s even a resident neon signmaker – Absolutely Neon, on Central Avenue – which obviously does a brisk trade.
A pedestrian mall and new but old-fashioned looking street lamps lend an air of charm to the once-crumbling downtown.
“When the interstate came through, in the early ’60s, all this died,” Pitel says.
Downtown took a back seat to shopping malls and traffic didn’t come through the business district any more.
But in recent years, there’s been an infusion of new blood – and a fair amount of money, – to bring downtown back to its former glory.
Amazingly enough, only a few landmark buildings were razed – most notably, the Alvarado hotel, part of the Fred Harvey chain.
The renovation project seems to end at 717 West Central, with the Hotel Blue. Formerly the Downtowner Motel (six stories high, and all rooms exit to the exterior), it’s got an art-deco feel, spacious rooms with lots of shades of blue throughout the decor, and live blues music play some evenings in the restaurant/bar.
A few landmarks are farther west, but scattered and sometimes hard to find.
During the Route 66 Festival, brochures will be available at most venues so visitors can take self-guided tours. While you’re in town, Pitel says to try the diner food.
“I always order meatloaf with mashed potatoes and brown gravy,” he says. “You can’t go wrong.”
And, he adds, always patronize diners where the waitress calls everybody “hon.”
“I don’t know why, but they’re always good.”
– Linda DuVal may be reached at 636- 0371 or email@example.com
DESTINATION: ROUTE 66
Getting there: Take Interstate 25 south from Colorado Springs to Albuquerque, about 380 miles, or 6.5 hours driving time. Be warned: Expect major construction at the intersection of I-25 and I-40, with significant construction delays. You may want to exit before I-40 and take a local street to Central Avenue.
Lodging: Albuquerque has many lodging options. For central reservations, call (800) 466-7829. But if you want to stay on or near Route 66, consider:
The Hotel Blue, 717 Central Ave. N.W., formerly The Downtowner, is a five-story hotel with all rooms exiting to the outside. It has a great art-deco lobby, with black-and-white tile floors and blue upholstery. Blues/jazz music on Friday nights in the restaurant, Corvette’s Cafe. Rooms are spacious. Rates start at $69 a night and include continental breakfast. Call (877) 878-4868 or (505) 924- 2451.
La Posada de Albuquerque, 125 Second St. N.W., was one of the original Hilton Hotels. Lovely Southwestern decor with a Western twist. A block off Central Avenue, with all hotel services. Rates start at $89 per night per room. Call (800) 777-5732 or (505) 242- 9090.
New Mexico has published a “Route 66 in New Mexico” brochure, just in time for this summer’s Route 66 National Diamond Jubilee Celebration. The colorful driving map and guide to the Land of Enchantment’s six stretches of the Mother Road tells you where they are, how to get there, and what you’ll find when you’re on them.
The brochure, splashed with 33 color photographs, pinpoints nearly 300 historic gasoline, food and lodging facilities along the road’s earlier (1926-37) and later (post-1937) alignments.
The brochure also includes a history of the route, a recommended reading list and a roadside-architecture guide. Albuquerque will host the big national celebration July 20-22, but Edgewood, Gallup, Grants, Santa Rosa and Tucumcari also will stage 75th anniversary events this summer.
For information on New Mexico, Albuquerque, the Route 66 celebration or for a copy of the brochure, contact the New Mexico Department of Tourism at (800) 733-6396, Ext. 751.
For information on Route 66, contact Route 66 Association of New Mexico online at www.rt66nm.org or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can get a free, updated itinerary of events.
ALONG ROUTE 66: OTHER THINGS TO SEE AND DO
Here are a few other ways to entertain yourself on or near Route 66:
Albuquerque Biological Park. Includes the Albuquerque Aquarium and Botanic Garden, both at 2601 Central Ave. N.W., and the Rio Grande Zoo, 903 10th St. S.W. All can be reached at (505) 764-6200, www.cabq.gov/biopark.
Old Town, bounded by Central Avenue (Route 66), Rio Grande Boulevard and Mountain Road, with 130 of the original buildings that made up the city, now shops, restaurants and boutiques.
Albuquerque Museum of Art & History, 1000 Mountain Road N.W., (505) 243-7255.
New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, 1801 Mountain Road N.W., (505) 841-5955.
Lodestar Astronomy Center, 1801 Mountain Road N.W., (505) 841- 5955.
There are lots of restaurants – good and bad – along Central Avenue:
SCALO’S: One of the best (and more pricey) dining experiences along the route, it’s an upscale Italian eatery in the Nob Hill area. It offers such inventive dishes with familiar rings as osso bucco made with lamb shanks instead of veal.
VILLA DI CAPO: Right across the street from the Hotel Blue, it offers good, basic Italian spaghetti and meatballs and other favorites (try the ravioli) at moderate prices.
ARTICHOKE CAFE: Said to be one of the five best restaurants in Albuquerque, it serves French-American cuisine in a bistro atmosphere. Upscale prices, but worth it.
66 DINER: Formerly Sam’s 66 Service Station, it’s halfway between downtown and Nob Hill. It offers true diner atmosphere, with ’50s music, lots of neon, fat burgers and real chocolate malts – creamy and rich.
KELLY’S BREWPUB: Also in the Nob Hill area, this transformed car dealership offers home brews and large portions. Try the barbecued pork sandwich.
MEMBER THE ROUTE
Here is a schedule of events for the Remember the Route celebration in Albuquerque, July 20-22. Most events are free, unless otherwise noted.
FRIDAY, JULY 20:
9 a.m.-5 p.m., Route 66 art show at the Albuquerque Museum.
10 a.m.-9 p.m., Nob Hill Route 66 Celebration, in the Nob Hill area. Includes arts, crafts, food booths, vintage clothing sales.
10 a.m.-6 p.m., Route 66 art show, at the Magnifico Gallery, 516 Central Ave.
11 a.m.-4 p.m., Show and Shine car show, state fairgrounds, displays of classic cars. Judged and non-judged categories.
Noon-2 p.m., Route 66 Expo, sale of Route 66 memorabilia, Exhibition Hall on the state fairgrounds. Admission is $5.
Noon-6 p.m., Collectibles and Memorabilia Show, state fairgrounds.
Noon-6 p.m. Route 66 Photo Art Show, KiMo Theatre, at Fifth Street and Central Avenue, downtown Albuquerque.
Noon-7 p.m. Route 66 Poetry Reading/Book Fair, special collections branch library, 423 Central Ave. N.E.
5-7 p.m., Hardly Angels women’s synchronized motorcycle show, state fairgrounds.
5-7 p.m. Arts Crawl, “Our Living Highway,” Magnifico Gallery.
8 p.m. Neon Nights bus tour, reservations required. Call (505) 224-2802, $9 per person.
7-10 p.m., Mariachi Spectacular, Civic Plaza downtown.
7-10 p.m., Drive-In Movies, Albuquerque Little Theatre.
7-10 p.m., Flicks on 66 Film Festival, at three locations, KiMo Theatre downtown, BioPark Aquarium and the South Broadway Cultural Center.
8 p.m., Neon Car Tour, all vehicles 25 years old (1976) or older can cruise down Central Avenue after dark.
SATURDAY, JULY 21
8-11 a.m., Classic Car/Motorcycle Caravan, along Route 66 (Central Avenue) from the state fairgrounds to Coors Boulevard.
9 a.m.-5 p.m., Route 66 art show at the Albuquerque Museum.
10 a.m., Hardly Angels Show, state fairgrounds.
10 a.m.-3 p.m., Center for Theater’s interactive museum at the Hiland Theater, 4800 Central Ave. S.E. Admission $2.
10 a.m.-4 p.m., Route 66 Author & Artists Fair, state fairgrounds, Harms Hall.
10 a.m-6 p.m., Route 66 Photo Art Show, KiMo Theatre.
10 a.m.-7 p.m., Route 66 Poetry Reading/Book Fair, special collections branch library, 423 Central Ave. N.E.
11 a.m.-6 p.m., Collectibles and Memorabilia Show, and Art Show, state fairgrounds, Lujan Building.
11 a.m.-6 p.m., Route 66 Expo, state fairgrounds, $5.
Noon-6 p.m. Judged Car/Motorcycle Show, state fairgrounds.
6-10 p.m., John Steinbeck Awards Banquet, state fairgrounds, Harms Hall. Tickets are $39 per person; call (888) 339-0794 for reservations.
6-11 p.m. Summerfest Route 66 Celebrations, Civic Plaza, downtown. Celebrating the cultural diversity of Albuquerque with entertainment, food and crafts.
7-10 p.m., Flicks on 66 Film Festival, KiMo Theatre, BioPark & South Broadway Cultural Center.
7-10 p.m. Mariachi Spectacular, the Pit at the University of New Mexico.
SUNDAY, JULY 22:
9 a.m.-5 p.m., Route 66 art show at the Albuquerque Museum.
11 a.m.-4 p.m., Mariachi Spectacular, state fairgrounds, Spanish Village.
11 a.m.-5 p.m., Route 66 Expo, state fairgrounds, $5.
11 a.m.-5 p.m., Judged Car/Motorcycle Show, state fairgrounds.
Noon-5 p.m., Collectibles & Memorabilia and Arts & Crafts shows, state fairgrounds, Lujan Building.
1-6 p.m., Arts in the Park, the Tumbleweed Bar and Restaurant on West Central Avenue.
Historic Old Town Albuquerque, one of the original attractions on the route, will be open and joining in the celebrations.
Students will be working on a public mural in the Nob Hill section of the route, site to be determined.
Visitors also can get self-guided tour maps, highlighting history and architecture of the route, at the state fairgrounds and other festival events.
For information on the celebration, or changes between now and July, call the Albuquerque Convention & Visitors Bureau, (800) 733- 9918. Or contact Deanne Howland at P.O. Box 1293, Albuquerque, N.M. 87103, call (505) 222-4342, or e-mail email@example.com.
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