The Montezuma Castle
The story of the Montezuma Castle is one of glory, despair, and glory once again. The tale is fraught with fires, financial instability, neglect—and ultimately, revival.
In its early days, the Castle served as a glorious resort for thousands of well-heeled visitors who sought out the healing waters of the nearby hot springs and the fresh mountain air. By the early 1900s, however, the era of the grand American resort hotel had waned. The hotel closed, and passed through a series of owners before the property was purchased in 1981 by philanthropist Armand Hammer, who transformed the grounds into what is now UWC-USA.
UWC-USA is an international boarding school that serves nearly 240 students ages 16-19 from more than 90 different countries; they come to Montezuma to learn to become tomorrow’s change-agents and peacemakers. The campus is one of 17 United World Colleges around the globe, and the only UWC in the United States.
Here’s a glimpse back at the history of the Montezuma Castle.
1841: Mr. Donaldson becomes the first known owner of the campus area who is granted the rights to the land by the Mexican government. The area is popular because of the hot springs.
1846: The land is purchased by the U.S. Army. The Army builds a military hospital near the hot springs to serve soldiers injured in the Mexican-American War.
1862: The hospital is sold to O.H. Woodworth who converts it into a hotel called Adobe Hotel. The hotel later burns down and closes in the early 1890s.
1879: The property adjacent to the Adobe Hotel is purchased by a group of investors with the hope of developing the hot springs into a tourist attraction. They build a new hotel named the Hot Springs Hotel, which is today’s Old Stone Hotel. It is used by UWC-USA for classrooms, the library, and offices.
1880: The Las Vegas Hot Springs Co. buys the hot springs and the surrounding property, including the Hot Springs Hotel.
1881: A new luxury hotel and the first building in the Southwest to have electric lighting and an elevator is constructed by the Fred Harvey Co. and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. Named the Montezuma Hotel, it opens to the public in 1882. A landscaped park with shops, a water fountain, and even a zoo is created behind the building. The $200,000 structure is “larger, more opulent, and more up-to-date than any like building in the state. Boasting three stories and 270 rooms, it featured every modern convenience, and posh appointments from New York, Boston, and Kansas City made urbanites feel right at home.” (New Mexico Magazine, October 2001)
1884: The Montezuma Hotel burns down because of a clogged gas line.
1885: The second Montezuma Hotel, designed by Chicago architects Birmingham and Root, is built on the site of the current Castle but burns down four months after it opens.
1886: The hotel is rebuilt on the same site under the new name Phoenix Hotel, but it closes in 1903 due to bankruptcy. 1903: The hotel is sold to the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) for $1.
1922: The Castle serves as the site for the Southern Baptist College until 1931.
1937: The Southern Baptist Church sells the building to the Catholic Church. It serves as a seminary for Mexican Jesuits until 1972.
1978: The Jesuits make a little money by renting the Castle out as the set for the low-budget horror flick The Evil. In the years that follow, several other films also feature campus grounds, including Fanboys and Georgia O’Keeffe.
1981: The Castle is bought by industrialist and philanthropist Armand Hammer as the site of the new campus of the Armand Hammer United World College of the American West, now known as UWC‑USA.
1997: The Castle becomes the first historic property west of the Mississippi to be placed on America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Historic places on previous lists included Ellis Island, Gettysburg, and Independence Hall.
1998: The Castle is designated one of America’s Treasures by the White House Millennium Council.
2001: UWC‑USA restores the Castle with the help of philanthropist Shelby Davis. It now houses the school’s dining room, student center, two dormitories, classrooms, and some administrative offices.