Who Knew ABQ? Zsa Zsa Gabor, Puccini, Atomic bomb spies, Early female architect, Guinness record contender for longest hand aid textile braid – what we learned on a free downtown walking tour

If you are a fan of underdog cities and their entrepreneurs (as I am, having grown up in the Detroit area with art gallery-owning parents and having lived in places like Royal Oak, MI, Wichita , KS and Des Moines, IA, you will love Albuquerque and its Saturday morning free downtown walking architecture/history tour. Eight people showed up (including a French women living outside St. Louis and new ABQ residents from Wyoming) for a 2-hour walking tour today of a seven-block stretch of Central Ave, aka Route 66, led by two knowledgeable and engaging volunteer docents. Who knew there was so much cool history and architecture in this deserted (on a Saturday) stretch of downtown between 1st and 8th streets?

I had already noticed the multicolored decorative terra cotta facade of the KiMo Auditorium (1927) but had no idea a hotel just north of central was a gem inside, full of carved wood, Native American designs, vintage furnishings and great stories. Zsa Zsa Gabor married her second husband (of nine) in what is now the Hotel Andaluz, one of the first Hilton Hotels, started by San Antonio, NM native Conrad Hilton. Word has it you can stay in the room she and new husband Conrad Hilton stayed in their first night of their marriage (which lasted five years).

Another interesting story: apparently the hotel was the site of an infamous spy exchange involving Ethel Rosenberg’s brother David Greenglass, the atomic spy for the Soviets who worked at Los Alamos, NM, building the atomic bomb in 1944-1946. David was the one who divulged the bomb secrets but implicated his sister and brother-in-law Julius in exchange for immunity. He alleged that Ethel typed up the spy info. Ethel and Julius were executed for espionage/treason in 1953. After jail time, David was released in 1960. In 1996, he admitted to falsely implicating his sister in order to save his wife who apparently had typed up his notes. He died in 2014. What a schmuck, (excuse my Yiddish.)

In 1945, The early atomic bomb (not sure if it was “Fat Man” or “Little Boy”) was also towed through this stretch of ABQ (without any advance warning) to the Trinity Nuclear testing site near San Antonio, NM, where we were a few days ago .

inside the Hotel Andaluz

Further down the street, we stopped at the El Rey Theater built by the cousin of the Italian opera composer Giacomo Puccini, who also visited ABQ. The Puccini family built another building here (and Puccini descendants still live here) but not the stunning Occidental Life insurance building, built in 1917, clad in white terra cotta clad, and designed to mimic Venice’s Doge’s Palace.

Andaluz “curio collection by Hilton” where Zsa Zsa married husband #2 (of 9)

At the former Sears building, we learned of a young girl/aspiring shoplifter who hung out in the building past closing time, got locked inside, freaked out and set a fire, severely damaging the Sears.Another building is still home to a famous hat store, with a sign still touting its “mens hats.”

The imposing 1910 yellow brick building bears the name Rosenwald, for Jewish merchants Aron and Edward Rosenwald. It’s not clear if they are related to Chicago’s Julius Rosenwald, (1862-1932) an early Sears Company leader and doer of good deeds, including funding schools for African American kids in the Deep South. The ABQ building was designed by the same architect as the Doge’s Palace-esque building.

A Maisel building fresco
Art Deco building now a holocaust museum

In an Art Deco storefront that now houses a tiny holocaust museum, we met Hiddekel Sara Burks, a retired Chicago nurse and veteran hair braider/“ethnic folk artist” (Singer Roberta Flack was a braiding client), who was braiding as she explained her quest to break the Guinness record for world’s longest handmade textile braid. She needs to reach 6000 feet and was at 5220. She told us various sections of the multicolored braid were an homage to various prominent African Americans including congresswoman Shirley Jackson. Her handiwork honors Black natural hairstyles (Afros, braids, locks) and aims to combat discrimination against those who sport them. (ABQ passed a measure in 2021 banning discrimination against people with natural hair styles, following LA’s measure.)

On the art and architecture front, we looked more closely at buildings that are easy to overlook but turned out to have spectacular details. The 1930s Maisel Building is the home of an iconic Indian jewelry and craft store run by built by another Jewish entrepreneur. The business recently closed, a victim of Covid. But the building has been bought, with restoration promised. Good to hear. It has spectacular frescoes on its facade by a series of young Navaho, Apache and Pueblo artists.

Going for the world record in braiding
At the Maisel building, a fresco done by a protege of Frida Khalo and Diego Rivera

KiMo Auditorium remains my favorite and it was great to see it up close and personal and learn more about its history. (We had to walk around a homeless man laid out on the pavement and were told someone was en route to provide help. Homelessness is a big issue here.) KiMo is reportedly a Native American word for mountain lion/king of its kind.) The auditorium still hosts concerts but not much during Covid. It’s apparently amazing inside, which we got a taste of from the ornamentation around the outside lobby and office box which we peered in at through metal gates.

We also went to an intersection where Route 66 crossed Route 66. That’s not a typo. Apparently Route 66 through Albuquerque first went north-south but was rerouted in 1937 to east-west.

Outside lobby ornamentation of the KiMo

Now on our list (from what we learned during the tour): a visit to a hotel terrace north of Bernadillo with great sunset views of the Sandia Mountains and to the Castañeda hotel in Las Vegas, NM, (closed 70 years ago, restored and reopened around 2019). It was part of a chain of architecturally impressive hotels built and operated by Fred Harvey along the route of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway, known as Harvey Houses.

The same restoration-minded developer also recently fixed up architect Mary Colter’s self-proclaimed masterpiece La Posada, in Winslow, Arizona. A pioneering female architect, Colter (1869-1958) designed the gorgeous ABQ train station hotel that was ignominiously knocked down in the 1970s and replaced with a less glorious replica. (Why? Why?) Colter was the chief architect and decorator for the Harvey company. Her many other impressive works include: the interior of Santa Fe’s La Fonda Hotel and The Grand Canyon’s Hopi Bright Angel lodge.

The county building and the convention center in ABQ also apparently have great interiors full of artwork and likely an interesting history too. I also heard the city is planning a Sign Museum, which sounds great especially given all the city’s great Neon signs!

More KiMo detail

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