Montezuma Relives

A 117-year-old former hotel now serves as an institution where teenagers from around the world can learn about conflict resolution
August 11, 2010

The imposing Queen Anne-style structure in a remote area of New Mexico began life as a fashionable hotel built by the Santa Fe Railway to induce travel by train. A changing society cut short the hotel's place in history, as the pool of wealthy entrepreneurs seeking long-term accommodations dwindled, automobile travel soared, and newer hotels offered other options. The lure of the area's natural hot springs notwithstanding, the hotel closed in 1903.

The building, which takes the name Montezuma from that of the hotel, has had a checkered history since then. It was given by the railroad to the YMCA; sold to the Baptist Church in the 1920s; and served as a Jesuit seminary from the mid-1930s until the late 1960s. Following a $10 million renovation, "Montezuma Castle" is now a key building on the campus of Armand Hammer United World College of the American West, a novel institution that draws teenagers from all over the world to learn about conflict resolution.

This adaptive reuse of a historic structure earned the Montezuma Castle a Grand Award in Building Design & Construction's 19th annual Reconstruction Awards competition.

Renovation of the 117-year-old structure, designed by the legendary Chicago firm of Burnham and Root, was accomplished by a team that included Albany, N.Y.-based A/E Einhorn Yaffee Prescott (EYP) and Albuquerque-based general contractor Bradbury Stamm Construction.

"We knew what we wanted to do," says Mark Thaler, project principal for EYP. "The challenge was to allow that to happen while at the same time meeting life safety and accessibility requirements and — most importantly — the budget, which was very tight. We had to be extremely judicious about where we put the money."

Heavy lifting

Structural deficiencies were among the biggest headaches faced by the building team. The two floors above the present dining room, which originally served as the hotel ballroom, were supported by five 12-ft.-high, 60-ft.-long clear-span wood trusses. "Every one of them had failed over a long period of time," Thaler says.

Support columns had been added during the 1930s in an attempt to correct the problem, but it continued to worsen. The columns redirected forces to the exterior walls, causing them to bulge.

Richard Tavelli, senior vice president with Bradbury Stamm, says the trusses had sagged by as much as 7 in. at the center. The installation of new trusses was not an option. It was thus necessary to jack the truss area upward to level it, and then to encapsulate the wooden trusses by bolting steel to both sides of them. Tavelli says it was determined that the only way to return the building to proper alignment was to coordinate 20 jacks in a "choreographed" lift session. The use of welding to erect the steel trusses was strictly prohibited — and for an understandable reason. Two of the building's predecessor structures were destroyed by fire.

Another structural deficiency was a brick bearing wall in the basement that had been blown out, reportedly by a film crew making the movie "The Evil." This caused the three floors above to slope from 6 in. to 9 in. The grand staircase, which received extensive water damage, had been propped up with 2-by-4s to prevent further instability.

Trim and baseboards inside the building were "in fairly decent shape," Thaler says, although it was necessary to strip and lead-abate them. Plaster damage was extensive throughout the building. Windows were rehabilitated, and replaced only if they were unsalvageable. Original features that were retained include stained-glass windows above the dining room fireplace and a skylight.

 
The renovated Montezuma Castle houses the Bartos Institute for the Constructive Engagement of Conflict at the United World College in New Mexico.


Montezuma Castle was designed in a style that is decidedly Eastern, rather than representative of New Mexico. Thaler notes that this is reflected, for example, in its use of slate and ashlar stone. Since no local residents were experienced in the repair of slate, an expert was brought from New York to show workers how to mix mortar and perform the pointing.




The project attempted to retain similar functions in areas of the building where they had existed in the former hotel, says United World College President Philip Geier. For example, space that was previously public remains public, and former guest rooms are now dormitory rooms.

A Rubik's cube

Tavelli likened many of the construction operations to "manipulating a Rubik's Cube. We'd adjust something in one place and it would spin out in another," he says. Bradbury Stamm worked with local contractor Franken Construction Co. on the basis of a 90%/10% partnership.

The college is five miles from Las Vegas, N.M., which has a population of about 16,000. Because of the remoteness of the site — and at a time of record construction activity in New Mexico — it was not easy to recruit craft employees from metropolitan areas. However, Bradbury Stamm was able to find more than 20 "amazingly good" local craftsmen who were able to refashion existing materials for new applications. For example, 2-by-12 in. floor joists were milled into new handrails for the veranda. In fact, Tavelli largely credits this on-site fabrication capability for keeping the project below budget.

Because its two predecessor structures had both been destroyed by fire, the Montezuma Castle was constructed with triple-thick interior brick walls. Conduit for the entirely new electrical system had to be embedded within them.

Construction work was complicated by the initial presence of thousands of bats. They were evicted at the outset of construction — and again well into the construction schedule — when 5,000 bats were removed. "When we first got there, we found much guano," Thaler recalls. "It was hot, and all the windows were closed. The smell would take your breath away." After the guano was removed, interior surfaces were sprayed with a bleach mixture.

A fascinating client

Thaler describes the college as "probably the most fascinating institutional client I've ever dealt with." It is one of 10 institutions throughout the world under the umbrella organization of United World College. Organized by Lord Montbatten after World War II, its objective is to bring young people from throughout the world together to interact before they reach an age when prejudices develop. About 200 students ages 16 to 19 attend the college. In keeping with United World Colleges' policy, one-fourth of the enrollment is designated for students of the host country.

 
A maroon-colored, terra-cotta fireplace in the Queen Anne style is the centerpiece of the lounge area.


In the early 1980s, Britain's Prince Charles, who then headed the United World College organization, persuaded the late industrialist Armand Hammer to establish a college in the U.S. Hammer, who was chairman of Occidental Petroleum, purchased the property on which Montezuma Castle is located, which now encompasses 150 acres. Because the parent United World College campus in Wales was built around a castle, Hammer wanted his college also to have a connection with a castle-type structure.




No longer endangered

The restoration began in earnest in 1997, when the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the building on its list of the 11 Most Endangered Places. The following year, the college hired Santa Fe-based architect Laban Wingert to prepare a feasibility study for the building's reuse.

Montezuma Castle, not surprisingly, has some interesting historical roots. The original hotel was the first building in New Mexico to have electric lights. Documents held by the New Mexico State Records Center and Archives indicate that the outlaw Jesse James was the first "celebrity" of note to stay at the hotel. The present building reportedly contained the first bowling alley west of the Mississippi River. This area is now part of a student recreation center.

In addition to the Montezuma Castle, the college has a lower campus with buildings constructed in the 1960s for use by a Jesuit seminary.

Construction Costs

General conditions $581,619
Sitework 76,328
Demolition 360,274
Concrete and forms 127,478
Masonry 231,341
Slate 57,943
Iron and steel 148,988
Structural repairs 509,224
Rough carpentry 195,164
Millwork and rough trim 446,780
Wood floors 158,669
Roofing and sheet metal 375,598
Doors, frames and hardware 344,146
Finish hardware 113,985
Windows, glass and glazing 437,474
Plaster and stucco 279,963
Drywall 521,178
Ceramic and quarry tile 187,100
Resilient and vinyl tile 33,126
Painting 235,241
Kitchen equipment 286,254
Carpet 132,867
Elevators 110,000
Mechanical 920,989
Fire protection/sprinklers 216,141
Electrical 905,330
Misc. allowances and costs 1,500,117
TOTAL $9,426,361

         
 

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