Nuestra Historia - The Americanization of the Old Town Plaza

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Resident scholar and historian Marcus C. Gottschalk has done painstaking and meticulous research into the original layout and early development of the Old Town Plaza. In 2001, he first published Pioneer Merchants of the Las Vegas Plaza, a work that includes the development of the Plaza from its settlement through the territorial period.
Because of his knowledge and expertise on the current subject in our series, I asked Marcus to author this column and the next, in our continuing chronology of Las Vegas history.

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By Marcus C. Gottschalk
Amazingly, it took over 225 years for the Spanish colonists of Nuevo México to move east of the Rocky Mountains to settle Las Vegas. The original settlers of Las Vegas laid out a rectangular plot of land west of the Gallinas River to form a traditional Spanish colonial styled plaza as a foundation for their pastoral town. It was originally built as a defensible enclosure, ringed with adobe residences and a church, with gates located where Bridge St. and National Ave. enter the plaza today. Buildings enclosed the present day corners at North and South Gonzales Streets, Hot Springs Blvd., and South Pacific St.

The residences were all single-story adobe houses, while a few had portals and courtyards made of timbers of stripped bark. Some of the wealthier Las Vegans may have acquired sheets of mica from a quarry north of Ojo Caliente to use for their home’s window openings, but most Las Vegans had to make due with slats of wood or animal furs. Yet within only a decade of its existence, the plaza was converted into a U.S. army fort.

After Kearny’s occupation and annexation in 1846, a large military presence arrived and the town was made into a temporary military outpost called Post Las Vegas, until Fort Union was completed in 1851. A fort on the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains was essential to protect the Territory and the Santa Fé Trail from the Indian tribes of the Great Plains. During this time, a string of adobe huts was put up for barracks (behind what is today Our Lady of Sorrows Parish Hall) that ran down to the acequia madre. Every morning for almost five years, reveille was sounded and the American flag raised in the center of the plaza.

Though the Alcalde Juan de Dios Maese was vindicated of charges that he incited rebellion in 1847, his buildings on the north side of the plaza were evidently confiscated to accommodate the army officers’ quarters and offices. Maese’s grocery, likely the only business on the plaza prior to Kearny’s proclamation, was probably commandeered for use as a commissary run by the Army Post’s sutler, Arthur Morrison. The Maese property on the north side of the plaza, from what today is Hot Springs Blvd. to the Casa de Musica building, was deeded to Hermann von Grolman, an interpreter for the army.

The Americanization of the plaza was dramatic. The Catholic Nuestra Señora de los Dolores church (Our Lady of Sorrows) was given a wooden façade that made it dissimilar from any other New Mexican church. In 1850, after passing through Las Vegas, U.S. Attorney to the Territory W.W.H. Davis said he had “paid a visit to the antiquated mud church, which looked as though it had stood the wear and tear of more years than was likely to be meted out to it in the future.” This was after only 14  years of the parish’s existence. Undoubtedly, the wooden façade was added soon after.

Many a tale has been told regarding the fate of the old church after the Dolds bought it from Archbishop Lamy, from its being torn down to its burning down. The most entertaining of these tales was that “El Padre Polaco,” or the Polish Priest, otherwise known as Alexander Grzelachowski, was a pipe smoker and one night fell asleep in the church with a lit pipe in his hand. The old church, however, still exists to this day buried within the storehouse that John Dold built, where Plaza Antiques today is located. A particularly large room in the building measures nearly exactly 50 feet by 25 feet, the same size that the nave of the old church was said to be. For the local people to have allowed their traditionally constructed church to be covered with milled lumber suggests the level of influence that the newly arriving Americans exerted at the time.     

Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.