Refreshing history

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Restoration renews former Harvey Girls dorm

By Ryan Lowery

By Ryan Lowery, Special to the Optic

With the restoration of another historic building on Railroad Avenue nearing completion, it could soon feel a bit like 1898 again in Las Vegas, N.M.

Work on the Rawlins Building — a National Register of Historic Places structure — is nearly done, and once completed, it will operate much like it did in the late 19th century, offering commercial space on the main level, and apartments for rent upstairs.

Owners Tom and Tina Clayton said they’ve had a few delays during the restoration, but believe the building will reopen this fall.

“There have been some snags,” Tom Clayton said. “But structurally, the building’s done, and we’ve already ordered the appliances for the apartments.”

Clayton said most of the building’s original footprint has been preserved, but upstairs, the area that was once 14 small rooms has been reconfigured into five modern apartments — three one-bedroom units, and two two-bedroom units.

Built in 1898, the Rawlins Building was the vision of William W. Rawlins, an English immigrant who built his personal wealth as the proprietor of several Las Vegas saloons.

At the time, the Santa Fe Railway had begun bringing travelers to Las Vegas from all over the country, and those rail passengers needed a place to stay while in town. Rawlins opened his new building as a hotel in 1899 with an announcement in the Aug. 18, 1899 edition of the Las Vegas Daily Optic. It stated: “The Rawlins building, opposite the Castañeda hotel, has been fitted up and is ready for renting.”

However, another entrepreneurial English immigrant named Fred Harvey had already opened the aforementioned Castañeda. Positioned right next to the train station, it was the first hotel and restaurant in what would become a hospitality empire of “Harvey Houses.”

Despite the early success of the Castañeda, Rawlins continued to operate the competing hotel across the street. Another announcement in the Daily Optic from Sept. 13, 1898 bragged about the building’s “handsome” brick and stone exterior, its furniture made of fine hardwoods, and its exquisite carpets and lace curtains.

Rawlins’ stint as a hotelier was short lived though. Sometime in the early 1900s, he became ill and left Las Vegas to seek treatment in Philadelphia for stomach and kidney problems. Unfortunately, doctors were unable to help Rawlins, and he died in Philadelphia in August of 1903. His body was transported back to Las Vegas for burial.

Meanwhile, business at the Castañeda was booming. As one of the first major American companies to hire large numbers of women, the Fred Harvey Company sought single, educated women age 18-30 to work at the Castañeda. Along with paid employment, the women received room and board. These employees became known as “Harvey Girls.”

Following Rawlins’ death, control of the Rawlins Building transferred to his wife, Josephine. Instead of competing with the Castañeda, she entered into an agreement with the Fred Harvey Company to use the 14 rooms in the Rawlins Building as boarding rooms for the Harvey Girls.

However, the success of businesses along Railroad Avenue didn’t last forever. New rail lines, along with automobile and air travel, resulted in fewer travelers coming to Las Vegas, and to the Castañeda. When the Castañeda closed in 1948, the Rawlins Building lost its Harvey Girl tenants.

Tom Clayton’s family purchased the Rawlins Building in 1949, and continued to rent rooms until the 1970s. Eventually though, the building was vacated, and over the years, it fell into disrepair.

“It was just falling apart, slowly deteriorating. Demolition by neglect,” Clayton said. “No intention by any of the family members, it was just problematic.”

Clayton said he and his wife decided to begin restoration of the building when they took full ownership of it about four years ago. He admits they didn’t quite know the extent of time, money and energy the project would require though.

“We just didn’t anticipate what we were getting ourselves into, and I think that’s a blessing quite honestly,” he said. “It would have been pretty daunting, so I’m glad we didn’t know.”

Vegas-based Highland Construction has been the lead contractor on the project, and according to Clayton, several other contractors have been hired locally as well.

The restoration of the Rawlins Building joins other recent renovation projects in the Railroad Avenue Historic District, like the restoration and reopening of the Castañeda by Allan Affeldt, and the renovation of the nearby Moonlite Welding building by Charles Ross and his wife, Jill O’Bryan.

Clayton, who grew up on Railroad Avenue — and often visited family at the Rawlins Building — said he’d like to see the area return to the lively place he remembers it being in the 1960s and ’70s.

“It was a vibrant neighborhood, and so, that’s kind of what we’re hoping for: that it returns to that,” Clayton said. “We’re hoping that it helps restore the neighborhood, and I think it will.”