Mesilla Park Historic District
The Mesilla Park Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2016. Portions of the text on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2016, The Gombach Group.
The Mesilla Park Historic District is a small suburb located south of downtown Las Cruces, between the town of La Mesilla and New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, Dona Ana County in southern New Mexico. Mesilla Park includes a commercial strip, an industrial district, and a variety of houses built from 1887 to 1965. The gridiron plan of streets, which parallels the rail line, is laid out 45 degrees from perpendicular. The neighborhood's tree-lined streets are supported by a system of irrigation ditches and most blocks are bisected by narrow service alleys. Commercial buildings line the east side of Main Street, and consist of one- and two-story attached and freestanding buildings. The rail line and Spanish-Pueblo Revival-style depot (1925) are the only structures on the west side of Main Street. The industrial area along Harrelson Street, west of the tracks consists mostly of one-story, wood-frame and concrete-block storage and retail buildings. Houses in the neighborhood, which include mostly single-family houses and several multi-family houses, were built in the Folk Victorian, Spanish-Pueblo Revival, Territorial Revival, Craftsman-style bungalows, and Ranch Houses in revival and modern styles. Community landmark buildings include the St. James Episcopal Church (1911).
The Mesilla Park Historic District is a small suburb located south of downtown Las Cruces, between the town of La Mesilla and New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, Dona Ana County in southern New Mexico. Mesilla Park was planned as an urban town in a rural setting when it was founded in 1887 by the Rio Grande Land Company, a real estate subsidiary of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway (AT & SF). The original Mesilla Park townsite plat is laid out along the east and west sides of the rail line. The townsite was amended in 1894 with the Bowman Addition that expanded the boundaries to the north and west. The major thoroughfare, Main Street, runs parallel to the tracks and is lined with commercial buildings along the east side of the street. The railroad depot and the warehouse district are located on the west side of Main Street. Houses are mostly organized on a gridiron plan of streets laid out forty-five degrees to perpendicular to match the rail line. Neighborhood blocks are bisected by service alleys, which were planned for fifteen of the blocks with smaller lots. Some of these alleys fell into disuse and were incorporated into private property so that they no longer exist. A dozen alleys remain in the east and west residential areas.
Prior to the establishment of Mesilla Park, the land was irrigated farmland. The townsite plat filed by the Rio Grande Land Company on August 25, 1887, is an irregular grid pattern of streets bounded by the meandering curvature of the old Rio Grande riverbed to the east and south, with Sixth Street on the north (Conway Avenue), and a diagonally drawn boundary line on the west. Within the boundaries were forty-four blocks, or portions of blocks, divided into lots of varying sizes based on their use as commercial, industrial, residential, and agricultural property. Two-hundred lots were laid out ranging in size from 25 x 134 feet to several acres. Oak, Maple (Main), Locust (Harrelson), Linden, and Orange avenues paralleled the railroad tracks. Perpendicular to these were Union, Fourth (Bell), Fifth (Manso), and Sixth (Conway) streets.
In 1894, George D. Bowman filed the Bowman Addition to the Mesilla Park townsite, which expanded on the original townsite plat and added two new streets on the north, College and University avenues, and Bowman Avenue (Bowman Street) on the west. In 1906, three years after George D. Bowman's death, the Bowman Addition was amended, by his son, Henry D. Bowman, for the purpose of designating a site for a public school. The Mesilla Park Elementary School was built on this lot beginning in 1907.
Some of the original townsite and Bowman Addition streets were renamed with the annexations by Las Cruces in 1964 and Mesilla in 1989 and the building of Interstate 10 in the 1970s.
In 1968, Max Sanchez, a Las Cruces supermarket owner, filed the Sanchez Addition to Mesilla Park. Located on College Avenue, the addition is south of the Fabian Garcia Science Center. The subdivision includes four houses on the south side of College Avenue and eight on Sanchez Place, a cul-de-sac. The subdivision comprises Ranch Houses built between 1966 and 1989, which are not included in the historic district.
Irrigation ditches were in place in Mesilla Park by 1890, when George D. Bowman is believed to have built a bridge over a ditch on College Avenue in order to facilitate travel between Mesilla Park and the new college to the east. By 1915, a formal series of community ditches had been developed and managed by property owners. Irrigation water is distributed from the Elephant Butte Irrigation District via the College and Laguna laterals. Community ditches deliver irrigation water from the laterals to the property owners. The College Lateral serves two ditches: the College Community Ditch and the Fabian Garcia Science Center Ditch. The Laguna Lateral provides water to the Good Shepherd Community Ditch and the Station Master Community Ditch. These ditches are laid along the neighborhood's tree-lined streets.
Residential sidewalks were uncommon in the neighborhood. In 1940, three sidewalks were installed by the National Youth Administration, two on Bowman Street and one on Main Street. The NYA was a New Deal program to provide high school and college students with vocational training. These sidewalks are stamped NYA. A public works project in 2010 installed residential sidewalks on the east side of the tracks.
The commercial strip on the east side of Main Street comprises one- and two-story attached and freestanding commercial buildings constructed between 1920 and 1962. Early buyers of the long narrow lots sometimes combined adjacent lots into single enterprises. Other lots retain their original configurations. The commercial strip included general stores, grocery stores, post office, Wells-Fargo Express, telegraph agent, barber shop, hotels, ice house, and a livery. The rise of the automobile resulted in the transformation of many businesses into auto repair shops, gas stations, cafes, drug stores, and motels. The strip currently includes a cafe, barber shop, an office building, gun shop, and taxidermist. Several buildings are vacant.
The residential buildings in Mesilla Park include a variety of architectural styles, building types, and building materials. The east and west residential sections of the neighborhood are divided by the railroad tracks, commercial area, and the Warehouse District. The first houses constructed by the Rio Grande Land Company and the Bowmans were cottages built on speculation in 1887 on the east side, near the commercial area. Three early adobe houses on Oak Street have L-shaped plans with entrances in the re-entrant angles and were built between 1887 and 1890. Later east-side houses were constructed between 1907 and 2012, mostly of adobe covered with stucco. These were built in various styles, especially the Craftsman-style bungalow, Spanish-Pueblo Revival style and the Ranch House type.
The William N. Hager House on Union Avenue, built in 1890, is among the earliest houses on the west side of the rail line. It is a plain L-shaped house with a stone barn and cottage. The house includes a steeply pitched hip roof, entrance porch, and a two-over-two sash window. A similar house is located one block north at 301 Bell Avenue. It is an L-shaped house with tight massing, a steeply pitched roof, and a brick apron, which was added after the house was completed. Both houses have little ornamentation. Two Queen Anne style houses were built in 1892 by George D. Bowman and Francis E. Lester on Bowman Street, the west side of the neighborhood. These houses feature simplified massing and less elaborate ornamentation.
Bungalows emerged in Mesilla Park as a popular house type in the first decades of the 20th century. Bungalows are one-story, usually wood-framed houses with a low-pitched roof, broad eaves, and porches that provided shelter from the sun. These houses could be clad in brick or stucco. Many were built in the Craftsman style with multiple exterior building materials, brackets in the eaves, and battered porch posts. This style was well suited to southern New Mexico's hot summers, and its simplicity and informality of design were practical and economical. Bungalows were built throughout the neighborhood and especially on Conway Avenue, where J.O. Howker built adobe-clad bungalows during the 1920s and 1930s.
Mesilla Park experienced a building boom in the 1930s and 1940s. During the Great Depression and drought of the 1930s, the New Mexico A&M dramatically expanded course offerings to include the arts and sciences along with home economics and business administration. In the 1933-1934 academic year the chemistry enrollment for a Bachelor's of Science degree was fifty percent of the total enrollment of 475. Also in the 1930s, drama, English, creative writing, and debate were offered. As the course offerings expanded, student enrollment followed with the next year to 558 students, and in the 1938-1939 academic year it increased to over one-thousand students. The college expansion resulted in a need for housing for new faculty, staff, and students. This led to a building boom in nearby Mesilla Park. The most prevalent architectural styles built during the 1930s were the Craftsman, Spanish-Pueblo Revival, and Territorial Revival. The largest concentration of faculty homes was built along Bowman Street. J.O. Howker built smaller bungalows on Conway Avenue. The most popular building material for residential buildings was adobe, concrete block, wood-frame, and brick.
After the Second World War, returning veterans purchased affordable American Small Houses in the late 1940s. These were typically one-story houses built of frame with between four and six rooms. By the early 1950s, the Ranch House emerged as the house of choice in Mesilla Park and throughout the nation. Ranch Houses are long and low with subtypes that vary in form from square, compact houses to long, rambling Ranches. Interiors are typically zoned to include open public rooms that are separate from private areas, such as bedrooms. The Ranch House was among the most popular house types in the decades after World War II. Numerous Ranch Houses in the neighborhood were built in revival styles and the modern Contemporary style.
The commercial buildings along Main Street are characteristic of adobe, brick, and frame commercial buildings constructed throughout New Mexico in the first decades of the 20th century. Some feature stylistic elements of the Spanish-Pueblo Revival style, but most are covered with stucco, which may obscure decorative brickwork. Most feature portals to provide shade for passing customers. The warehouse buildings on Harrelson Street convey the significance of Mesilla Park as an industrial center in the early 20th century. Oil- and livestock feed storage buildings remain intact.
The Mesilla Park Historic District includes a significant number of community landmark buildings. Community landmark resources are buildings or structures that are typically public buildings or other types of resources that because of their location, size, or status have become social or physical landmarks in the community. Historic community landmarks in Mesilla Park include the railroad depot, St. James Church, the Mesilla Park Elementary School, and the Mesilla Valley Alternative Learning Center.
The Mesilla Park Historic District is significant at the local level under National Register Criterion A in the area of community planning and development because Mesilla Park, which is among the first suburbs of Las Cruces, developed as a complete town with commercial, industrial, and residential areas, all organized along the AT & SF rail line that runs alongside Main Street. Mesilla Park is representative of New Mexico towns in which the railroad was constructed before the founding of the town because the plan of Mesilla Park was organized around the railroad. The plats that established Mesilla Park are oriented forty-five degrees from perpendicular in response to the location of the railroad, with rail crossings at University, College, Conway, and Union avenues. The neighborhood was also established with service alleys bisecting most blocks. Most of these alleys remain intact.
George D. Bowman was a banker and landowner, who came to the Mesilla Valley in 1876 as Land Register. He served in that capacity until 1884, when he and his sons, Henry D. and George R. Bowman, founded Bowman and Sons Bank and Trust Company in Las Cruces.
Bowman and Demetrio Chavez, a leading merchant in Mesilla, invested in land, eventually owning the land between the old Rio Grande riverbed (Park Drain) and the town of Mesilla, south for two miles.
The AT & SF tracks passed between El Paso and Las Cruces in 1881. In the spring of 1887, a plan was quickly devised, and the Bowmans and Chavez sold portions of their properties to Edward Wilder, AT & SF Board Director, Secretary and Treasurer, stipulating that the AT & SF would construct a depot that would stop for passengers and freight, install a telegraph operator, and that all the improvements would be made by September 1, 1887. Bowman and Chavez were investing in their land holdings, which were sold as Mesilla Park. To begin, the AT & SF incorporated the Rio Grande Land Company on June 23, 1887 by authorizing $250,000 in capital stock. The Rio Grande Land Company filed the Mesilla Park townsite plat with Dona Ana County on August 25, 1887. The first Mesilla Park depot served from 1887 to 1925, when, to make way for the current brick-and-stucco depot, it was moved to the village of Dona Ana.
The depot served passengers arriving to the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (later New Mexico State University), facilitated freight movement, and influenced the development of the Mesilla Park community as the center of a bustling commercial and industrial area. The Mesilla Park depot was used as a passenger station until it closed in 1966. It later served as offices for the Dona Ana County Sheriff and a children's clothing store. It is owned by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, which uses the depot for offices and maintenance right-of-way. The employees maintain equipment, switch rails, and provide security communications with headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas.
The urgency to build the depot by the beginning of September corresponded with the opening of the first Southern New Mexico State Fair. The Land Company built houses financed by the Bowman Bank and planned to market them at the fair. On September 14, 1887, the partnership ran trains from the Las Cruces depot near the fairgrounds to the Mesilla Park depot throughout the day to lure potential buyers to the new community. To further promote sales, the Land Company hired agents, such as William N. Hager, a Station Agent in 1890. As a Land Agent, he developed a significant portion of Mesilla Park.
In 1894, George D. Bowman expanded the original Mesilla Park townsite to include part of his land holdings by filing the Bowman Addition, which added Bowman Street to the west, and College and University avenues to the north. In 1906, three years after George D. Bowman's death, his son, Henry D. Bowman, modified the Bowman Addition plat to include a parcel identified for a public school.
New Mexico A&M is one the important factors that influenced the growth of Mesilla Park. As early as 1886, Las Cruces leaders and education advocates spoke out for the creation of an agricultural college in southern New Mexico. This resulted in the creation of the Las Cruces College on September 17, 1888. Less than a year later, the legislature authorized the creation of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, the school of mines in Socorro, and the insane asylum in Las Vegas. New Mexico A&M merged with the Las Cruces College and opened its doors on January 21, 1890 to the east of Mesilla Park.
The Mesilla Park townsite became the residential community of choice for college faculty, staff, and students because of its tree-lined streets, and its housing stock of small cottages. In a 1949 newspaper interview with Sid Howard, former ward of Preacher Lewis and an Oak Street resident, he recalled that there were eleven mail-order houses built in Mesilla Park, and that seven of them remained. Adding to the attraction of Mesilla Park was its close proximity to campus, a half-mile trip on a good dirt road that led from the depot to the college. Las Cruces was a three-mile trip on a rutted road. The road from Mesilla Park to the college campus was College Avenue, locally known as "the Pike." College commuters arrived at the depot and headed east to campus.
Irrigation was an essential factor in the establishment and growth of Mesilla Park. In 1853, the area known as the Mesilla Civil Colony Grant included what is now Mesilla Park. When a flood caused the Rio Grande to change course in 1864, the old river bed became Park Drain that borders the east side of Oak Street. The land grant had been improved by irrigation systems fed by the Rio Grande as early as 1844. In 1898, F.C. Barker wrote in Irrigation in Mesilla Valley, New Mexico that "the methods of irrigation and agriculture as practiced in the Mesilla Valley are . . . the oldest that exist in the United States." From 1880 to 1903, approximately 10,000 acres were irrigated in the Las Cruces and Mesilla areas.
By 1905, the Leasburg Dam had enabled the creation of two main canals, the Las Cruces Town Ditch (Acequia Madre), and the Laguna Lateral. By 1915, a formal series of community ditches had been developed and managed by property owners. Mesilla Park is currently served from the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, by two main laterals which branch into smaller ditches. The Laguna Lateral forms the Good Shepherd Community Ditch and the Station Master Community Ditch. The College Lateral forms the College Community Ditch and the Fabian Garcia Science Center Ditch. Residences on the north side of Conway Avenue are supplied by the College Community Ditch. Households from Conway Avenue south to Manso Avenue are supplied by the Good Shepherd Community Ditch. Union Avenue residences are supplied by the Station Master Community Ditch. The irrigation ditches provided water for the trees that line the streets of Mesilla Park, provided residential landscaping for homeowners, provided for the local agricultural industry, and enabled crop experimentation at the Fabian Garcia Science Center.
The Mesilla Park Historic District is significant because the commercial strip represents the efforts by business persons to provide basic goods and services for the residents of Mesilla Park. One of the major commercial enterprises that helped Mesilla Park thrive was the Francis E. Lester Company Catalog of Mexican and Indian Handicrafts. This Mesilla Park mail-order business was advertised in major publications, such as the Saturday Evening Post. The commercial district included businesses to accommodate day-to-day life in Mesilla Park. These were one-story attached and free-standing commercial buildings constructed mostly in the 1930s and 1940s.
† Janet Clements and Dave Clements with Steve Moffson, State and National Register Coordinator, New Mexico Historic Preservation Division, Mesilla Park Historic District, Dona Ana County, New Mexico, nomination document, 2016, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.