The Desert Sands Motel at 5000 Central Avenue NE, designed by well-known Farmington architect Irving Corywell, was put up in the mid-1950s and shortly became a favorite for both Route 66 travelers as well as local residents.
Owned by businessman Clyde Tyler, who also built the Desert Inn at 918 Central, the Desert Sands featured a front swimming pool, landscaped entrance, and two private dining rooms.
It was those spacious dining rooms that attracted everyone from the Kiwanis Club to the Philatelic Society, and the Bernalillo County Federation of Republican Women to hold their regular meetings there.
But in recent years the motel, after a series of ownership changes, fell on hard times.
This summer three separate fires destroyed much of the U-shaped building, finally prompting Albuquerque’s Safe City Strike Force to take control of the property.
“Prior to the third fire, we had not condemned the property and had not taken administrative control of it,” says Leslie Torres, in the City of Albuquerque’s code enforcement division.
“At that point the property owner did have potentially up to a year to decide what to do with it, as long as it remained secure,” says Torres.
But the third fire last month changed all that.
“At that point it was demonstrated to us that the property had not remained secure,” says Torres. The Safe City Strike force then gave the owner of the property an October 1 deadline to demolish the structure or put in place plans to do so.
Although that deadline was not met, the owner has made what is called a “good faith effort” to finally get rid of the old motel by the end of this year.
The decline of the Desert Sands, which according to one 2014 complaint filed with the local Better Business Bureau had both water leaks in one room and the smell of mold, is also a story of dozens of motels along Route 66 that have fallen into disrepair.
“There are a lot of them,” says Charlie Gray, the executive director of the Greater Albuquerque Innkeepers Association.
“And some of those old Route 66 properties have great value, although many don’t,” Gray adds.
Built before the advent of the federal highway system in the late 1950s and 1960s, the Route 66 motels in New Mexico at one time numbered more than three hundred, although less than a third are left today.
But some of the properties are have survived for a new day.
The late 1930s El Vado Motel at 2500 Central SW is undergoing a $12 million restoration which will see the creation of a boutique property with an outdoor theatre, community food court, swimming pool, and retail space.
The De Anza Motor Court at 4301 Central Avenue, opened in 1939, is similarly seeing an $8 million restoration that will turn the property into an extended stay motel with a restaurant and pool.
“Everything we’re doing on this, the signage, the lighting along the way, the landscaping, we’re trying to stay true to that historic Route 66 form,” Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry declared this summer as the project to restore the De Anza was announced.
Both restoration projects came about through a unique combination of public funding and incentives.
But many others have gone by the wayside, although restoration specialist Doug Reames says even heavily damaged properties like the Desert Sands can be saved.
“You need to preserve the architecture the way it was, and take on the new marketing techniques that we have today to really promote these properties,” says Reames, adding “but that also requires a financial commitment.”
“There is definitely a new interest in these motels among the Millennials, and that’s a good thing,” says Gray.
“The question now is whether there is enough interest to make saving them feasible,” he adds. “And I don’t think we know the answer to that yet.”
By Garry Boulard – Construction Reporter