Former ‘Harvey Girls’ dormitory once again welcomes residents

Former ‘Harvey Girls’ dormitory once again welcomes residents

Restoration of the Rawlins Building — a National Register of Historic Places structure — is almost done, and it will soon function much like it did in the late 19th century, with commercial space on the main level and apartments for rent upstairs. In fact, owners Tom and Tina Clayton expect to start renting rooms within weeks.

“This fall is the target. Covid kind of put us in a holding pattern for a period of time, especially with supplies and equipment,” Tom Clayton said. “It’s been a long project, but it’s something we’re excited about.”

The Rawlins Building is located on Railroad Avenue in Las Vegas, New Mexico. It’s a part of town that roared to life after the arrival of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad in 1879.

When the first locomotive rolled into Las Vegas on the Fourth of July that year, a brass band played and hundreds of people showed up to celebrate its arrival. Over the next few years, the railroad brought new goods and visitors to the Meadow City, boosting the town’s prominence, making it comparable in size to Denver, Colorado, or El Paso, Texas.

The historic Rawlins Building in Las Vegas, New Mexico. (Photo courtesy of Tom Clayton)

Within a short few years, the area along Railroad Avenue was bustling with activity and the construction of new buildings, giving birth to a second business district that rivaled the well-established one just a mile east around the town plaza. By 1889, a new railroad depot had been built, and just across the street, local entrepreneur William W. Rawlins was overseeing the final touches to the construction of his latest venture, a two-story building called Rawlins House.

With the new building finished, Rawlins — an English immigrant who built his personal wealth by operating saloons in Las Vegas — entered the hotel business, renting out the building’s 14 top-floor rooms.

An announcement in the Las Vegas Daily Optic boasted of the building’s “handsome” brick and stone exterior, furnishings made of fine hardwoods, and its exquisite carpets and lace curtains. And by at least September, Rawlins’ hotel was ready for guests, noted by an ad in the Daily Optic that proclaimed: “The Rawlins building, opposite the Castañeda hotel, has been fitted up and is ready for renting.”

A year later, the Optic announced that Rawlins had “completed the task of moving today into his new home on Railroad Avenue, in the Rawlins block.” A previous announcement detailed the main level of Rawlins’s building, boasting of the main floor’s “two large business rooms facing Railroad Avenue,” and stated that “Mrs. Rawlins is occupying these rooms as a residence.”

Las Vegas Daily Optic, Sept. 13, 1889.

Subsequent Optic articles and ads indicate that at some point before 1900, Rawlins abandoned the idea of running a hotel. The reason could be the aforementioned Castañeda, a Harvey House located across the street from Rawlins’ building, and right next to the train depot.

All across the Santa Fe Railway line, the Harvey House chain provided travelers with quality track-side dining and comfortable hotels. The Castañeda was no exception, and it had become well known to passengers arriving in Vegas from all over the country.

Health problems also contributed to shortening Rawlins’ stint as a hotelier. He fell ill with stomach and kidney problems in the early 1900s, and he left Las Vegas to seek treatment in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Unfortunately, doctors were unable to help Rawlins. He died in Philadelphia in August of 1903, but his body was transported back to Las Vegas for burial in the Masonic cemetery on the town’s west side. Following his death, control of the Rawlins Building transferred to his wife, Josephine.

The Castañeda Harvey House, meanwhile, thrived. As one of the first major American companies to hire a large number of women, the Fred Harvey Company specifically sought single, educated women, age 18 to 30, to staff its Harvey Houses. Along with paid employment, the women received room and board.

These employees became known as “Harvey Girls,” and the Castañeda employed many of them over the years, which turned out to be a bit of a boon for Josephine Rawlins. She entered into a contract with the Fred Harvey Company to rent the 14 rooms in the Rawlins Building, and for years, the building operated as a dormitory for Harvey Girls from the Castañeda.

This era of economic success in Vegas would not last forever though. As railroad lines were extended into Albuquerque, the appeal of Las Vegas waned for many travelers. The invention of the automobile soon diminished the importance of train travel even more, and resulted in most travelers bypassing Vegas altogether.

Decaying history

Tom Clayton’s grandparents purchased the Rawlins Building in 1949, and by the 1960s, they were renting rooms on a weekly basis. The original 14 rooms remained from the Harvey Girls days, but tenants shared one washroom.

“I was able to find the receipt book from back in the late ’60s, maybe early ’70s, and they were renting rooms for $7.50 a week,” Clayton said. “They ran it as a rooming house until the mid ’70s. At that point it got shuttered because my grandmother died.”

Share of ownership in the building transferred to 10 family members, including Clayton, and with so many owners, no one was charged with maintaining the building, causing it to fall further into disrepair.

Clayton said when he returned to Vegas after attending law school in California, he and his wife discussed renovating the building and envisioned living on the top floor while operating a law practice on the main level. The Claytons purchased the building from the other family members, but ultimately, the scope of the work and financing needed to restore the building was too great. They soon purchased a home they loved, and the Rawlings Building again sat vacant and in bad shape.

But in 2014, the Castañeda Hotel was purchased by Allan Affeldt, an entrepreneur known for restoring historic properties. Clayton said this bit of good news encouraged banks to finance other projects along Railroad Avenue — projects like the restoration of the Rawlins Building.

The Rawlins Building today. (Photo courtesy of Tom Clayton)

New Life on Railroad

Following several inspections and a feasibility study, the Claytons moved forward with restoration work in 2016. Extensive roof and brickwork repairs were needed, but inside, they were able to salvage lots of the original trim work.

Though the 14 small bedrooms have been converted into five larger rooms, the building maintains a footprint similar to how it looked in the 1800s, with bedrooms upstairs and retail space on the main level. With a total of 3,500 square feet, the main level can be leased as one large commercial space, or easily divided into two 1,700 square foot spaces. Clayton said he hopes to see the space occupied by retail stores, a coffee shop, or perhaps an art gallery.

Clayton is open to leasing it as office space, too, and thinks any commercial tenant will help other nearby businesses.

“The more foot traffic you create, the more opportunity for everybody,” he said. “Instead of fighting over the same piece of pie, you create more pies.”

Upstairs restoration of the Rawlins Building. (Photo courtesy of Tom Clayton)

Pricing for the vacation units has not been determined, but once available to rent, travelers will be able to find them on popular vacation rental apps.

Affeldt’s restoration of the Castañeda is complete as well, and rooms can be booked through the hotel’s website or by calling 505-425-3591.

Meanwhile, anyone looking to live in a piece of history will soon be able to rent an apartment in the Rawlins Building. Clayton expects rates for a one-bedroom apartment to be around $950 per month, with a two-bed unit renting for $1,100 per month.

Because of the historic nature of the building, the Rawlins Building does not have an elevator. Clayton said it’s the question he’s most often asked.

“There’s 24 steps,” he said with a chuckle. “I’ve taken those steps almost every day over the past four years, and it’s good exercise.”

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