Saving grand old ladies

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By Sherry Robinson

Every community has old buildings that deserve some TLC, and those of us who value historic preservation hope somebody will come along and restore these grand old ladies.

It happens, just often enough to give us hope. Jim Harris and his properties around the Lovington town square come to mind. So does the Sierra Grande Lodge in T or C.

But I wouldn’t have given the Murray Hotel in Silver City much of a chance. Its size alone would have been daunting – a concrete hulk five stories high and a block long with 100 rooms. And if that didn’t discourage a redeveloper, its condition would have.

Debbie Seibel, former manager of Silver City’s Main Street project, used to give tours of the Murray to outside experts.

For years, it had harbored pigeons, strays and vagrants. You had to look hard to see its original charm. At one point, the city contemplated tearing it down, but found that the structure was so sturdy, imploding it would damage surrounding buildings.

A local Realtor said in 2000, “Nobody is going to ride into town on a white horse and save us on this building.”

But that’s exactly what happened. Architect Kurt Albershardt and his wife Julia visited Silver City in 2004, and it was love at first site. They bought the Murray a year later, after locals assured them of the need for a full-service hotel and meeting facility.

It’s taken seven years to complete enough work to begin renting rooms, and it’s still a work in progress.

The Ryan and Murray families opened the hotel in 1938 with 52 rooms, a dining room, coffee shop, and bar. (The hotel’s namesake was William D. Murray, grandfather of former state Rep. Murray Ryan.)

In 1949 owners added a ballroom and another 48 rooms. The elegant property was the pride of Silver City and the setting for events and parties. The families sold the Murray in the 1960s, and it began its descent into disrepair, neglect and finally abandonment.

The first step in its recovery was a decision by the city attorney to clear the title, which listed five owners, all deceased. He tracked down heirs and paved the way for purchase.

The Albershardts dug in, literally. Workers removed tons of plaster and concrete, pigeon poop, stained ceiling materials, and other debris and installed new energy-efficient windows and mechanical and electrical systems.

Modernizing an old building is both art and science and sometimes calls for some understanding.

Last year, an overly zealous (or conscientious, depending on who’s telling the story) building inspector threatened to delay the work, which can run up costs.

The state Economic Development Department’s Office of Business Advocacy intervened, and the Construction Industries Division replaced the inspector with a different man.

According to EDD, it coordinated a meeting between the owners and CID. “This resulted in a second look and options that would adhere to all safety code requirements without the company having to begin a lengthy variance and appeal process,” says a department newsletter.

After the hotel opened, Economic Development Secretary Jon Barela and Regulation and Licensing Superintendent Dee Dennis got a tour. They praised the Albershardts for tackling a challenging project, and the couple in turn thanked the state for helping them navigate the system.

The Murray is now open with 48 guest rooms, with more under way. Next up is the ballroom, restaurant and bar, complete with restoration of the bar’s old murals. The hotel will employ 50.

The grand old lady is returning to her Streamline Art Deco past, and Debbie Seibel, who greets visitors at the front desk, will be happy to rent you a room. (See www.murray-hotel.com.)

It gives us hope for the Valverde Hotel in Socorro, for the Hotel Clovis, and for all the grand old ladies needing TLC.

Sherry Robinson
New Mexico News Service