Historic building named for a former Spanish governor of NM

The property where the De Anza Motor Lodge on Central once stood is now a luxury apartment complex. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Editor’s note:

The Journal continues “What’s in a Name?”, a bimonthly column in which editor Elaine Briseño will provide a brief history of how places in New Mexico got their names.

Well-used roads reinvent themselves again and again, existing for decades, sometimes centuries, and changing to meet the needs of their travellers.

Route 66 is one such road and it holds a special place in American pop culture. The route became known as the Mother Road in the early 20th century when travelers began using it for cross-country adventures.

Portrait of Juan Bautista de Anza II painted by Fray Orci in 1774 in Mexico City. (Courtesy of New Mexico Museum of History)

In Albuquerque, motels began to spring up all along Central Avenue, which became part of Route 66 in 1937. One such location was the De Anza Motor Lodge, opened by Charles Garrett Wallace in 1939. Several customs influenced the design of the motel paying homage to New Mexico’s unique cultural soup of Native, Hispanic and Anglo traditions. Wallace named the lodge in honor of Juan Bautista de Anza II, Spanish governor of New Mexico from 1777 to 1787.

The hotel was also listed in the Green Book travel guide, listing it as one of the few places where a black family was invited to stay during the segregation period.

These photos of the Zuni murals painted in the basement of De Anza Motor Lodge and accompanying descriptions were included in the application requesting that the building be added to the National Register of Historic Places. (Courtesy of New Mexico Museum of History)

Wallace himself was a prominent trader with the Zuni Pueblo. The Great Depression had made trade more difficult, and Wallace saw Route 66 and its lodge as a way to bring Zuni products to a larger segment of society, including tourists. The De Anza gift shop served as his outlet, and he stored his own private collection of Native American goods at the motel. Later in life, he donated part of it to a museum and sold the rest at auction.

But under the lodge was a hidden treasure. Painted along two walls of the basement conference rooms, murals by Zuni artist Tony Edaakie Sr. depicted figures participating in the pueblo’s winter Shalako ceremonial line. The 15 characters follow one another from east to west.

Two centuries earlier, de Anza was born into a military family sent to the New World to protect Spanish outposts from native tribes and settlers from other nations. His father Juan Bautista de Anza had been killed by Apaches in 1740 when he was only 3 years old.

Upon becoming governor of New Mexico, de Anza set out to intimidate the Comanche Indians, who had become a “dreadful force east of the Spanish province“, hoping to pressure them into making a treated, according to a newmexicohistory.org essay by Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint.

Predictably, the Comanches didn’t exactly agree with this idea.

De Anza’s massive military force of 800 men, many of them Pueblo Indians, attacked the Comanches near Pueblo, Colorado in 1779. Eighteen Comanche men died that day and many women and children have become captives.

“(De) Anza returned to New Mexico in triumph, showing off the distinctive ‘green horn’ headdress of the defeated leader of the Comanches (Cuerno Verde). The following year, and for at least another thereafter, bands of Comanche on the southern plains were ravaged by smallpox introduced by Europeans. In 1785, one of the three major Comanche divisions, the Cuchanecs, actively sought peace with Spanish New Mexico.

A treaty, which would last 30 years, was finally concluded in 1785.

New Mexico isn’t the only state to honor de Anza.

You’ll also find de Anza’s name scattered throughout California, where he made his mark before coming to New Mexico. De Anza gathered families willing to travel with him to California, settling in San Francisco in 1776. He led over 240 colonists on an 1,800-mile journey from Mexico, which was still New Spain , through what is now Arizona to the California coast and then headed north. They were the first group from Mexico to come to the Bay Area by land. Prior to this, explorers had to travel by sea to reach the Bay Area. They encountered several Native American tribes during their travels that helped them, especially when crossing the Colorado River.

The former De Anza Motor Lodge in 2012 after it fell into disrepair. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

The National Park Service has designated their route as a Historic Trail.

De Anza died in 1788 and is buried in the historic Templo de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción church in Arizpe, Mexico. The exact place where he is buried in the church is somewhat disputed.

In 1963, Californian scientists discovered bones under the church that they believed belonged to de Anza. A glass plate was placed over the remains and surrounded by a rail. However, a few years ago a church priest said that de Anza’s remains were actually buried next to the cathedral and that confusion arose when scientists used the wrong copy of a death certificate to identify de Anza.

In Albuquerque, the De Anza building has been listed on the New Mexico State Cultural Property Registry, the National Register of Historic Places, and designated a historic landmark by the City of Albuquerque.

Wallace owned the motel until 1983, and it changed hands several times after selling it. The area east of Nob Hill went through a period of decline and Central Avenue turned into a motel graveyard. Abandoned buildings have become the abandoned bones of an era that died out with the advent of the highway.

Johnny Plath poses at the base of the restored De Anza Motor Lodge, which was restored in 2020. It was one of the last projects the longtime sign-maker participated in as a member of New Mexico Route 66 Association.

A few years ago developers demolished most of the site and turned it into an upmarket apartment complex with studios, T1s and T2s called The De Anza. The building containing the murals survived the wrecking ball in order to preserve the cherished artwork. This is now the reception and the murals still adorn the basement walls today.

The neon sign bearing de Anza’s name and likeness also survived and continues to light up the night sky along Central Avenue, though weary travelers in need of food and a good night’s sleep will need to look elsewhere for accommodation.

Curious to know how a city, a street or a building gets its name? Email editor Elaine Briseño at ebriseno@abqjournal.com or 505-823-3965 as she continues her monthly journey through “What’s in a Name?”

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