Robert Mishler is not a johnny-come-lately in Las Vegas’ historic preservation efforts. He’s been involved for decades.
Recently, the state Historic Preservation Division gave Mishler, a retired Highlands University anthropology professor, a lifetime achievement award for his dedication to the cause of historic preservation for the last 35 years.
When he and his wife, Ann, moved to Las Vegas in the late 1960s, much of the Plaza and Bridge Street areas was boarded up. Most of the town’s business and social activity was on Douglas Avenue.
But Mishler and others wanted to change that. In the 1970s, he became a member of the city Design Review Board, and he helped write the city ordinance for its historic preservation districts.
Around that same time, others worked toward similar goals. Elmo Baca and his Plaza Vieja Partnership provided incentives to renovate buildings. And the Plaza Hotel was renovated in the early 1980s.
Las Vegas now has 900 buildings listed on the state registry, more than any other city in New Mexico. But the historic districts regulated by the Design Review Board are actually quite limited — including a few parks and the core of the Plaza area. In fact, not even the entire Plaza area is included. The buildings on the Plaza’s west side, including the Police Department, are left out.
Mishler, 73, remains on the Design Review Board, serving as its chairman. The board regulates changes to buildings in the designated historic districts, and if some protest the board’s decisions, they appeal to the city Board of Adjustment. The final appeal panel is the City Council.
Mishler said the Design Review Board performs a balancing act — striving to preserve historic buildings but being sensitive to Las Vegas’ character and private ownership.
“This a tremendously difficult balance to maintain,” he said.
In Santa Fe, he said, the last locally owned business on that city’s plaza closed in the 1970s. Locally owned businesses are important, he said.
Mishler also said that he doesn’t want the Design Review Board to be onerous. Indeed, a few years ago, the city dropped the requirement that building owners in the historic districts go to the city for changes in paint colors. Mishler praised that move, saying the Design Review Board doesn’t want to become unnecessarily burdensome.
He said the Design Review Board’s members can’t be purists about historical preservation.
“The owners of the businesses need to make money,” Mishler said. “We’re trying to preserve a way of life and enhance the community.”
Mishler said downtowns are important to communities.
“Humans like to have a home base — a territory that is common and familiar,” he said. “Common places are important to our lives.”
Mishler said Las Vegas had done a “marvelous job” of preserving the structural integrity of its historic buildings. But he said that’s been largely by default, not design. That’s because Las Vegas hasn’t had many resources to change its old buildings much, even if residents had wanted to, he said.
Over the years, Mishler has been involved with the Citizens Committee for Historic Preservation, a local group formed in the 1970s to advocate preservation.
Mishler is also the chairman of the Friends of the Museum. The Rough Rider Museum, owned by the city, focuses on local history.
Mishler spends three or four days a week with Friends activities.
“The museum is treasure,” he said. “It’s been recognized nationally.”