Some urban neighborhoods view their histories as private matters. Not Huning Highland. This historic district only a few blocks east of downtown Albuquerque wears its colorful and sometimes scandalous past like a badge of honor.
With its little frame houses, hidden gardens, good restaurants and a haunted hotel with a trendy rooftop bar, Huning Highland is a world apart from Old Town where tourists and locals entertaining out-of-town guests tend to congregate.
One of Albuquerque’s oldest subdivisions, the Huning Highland neighborhood is bounded on the north by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue NE; on the east by I-25; on the south by Iron Avenue SE; and on the west by Broadway Boulevard SE. It is a fun and easy neighborhood to explore on foot.
Way Out West
Albuquerque was a dusty, wild west outpost when the railroad arrived in 1880 and brought an influx of railroad workers from the east. Many of them, unprepared for what they encountered in their new home, experienced culture shock as well as location shock.
There were Indians and Mexicans. Not everyone spoke English. The desert was teeming with huge spiders, rattlesnakes and ravenous coyotes. Even the birds were dangerous. The altitude and dry air were uncomfortable. The food was so spicy it was close to inedible and the buildings were ugly. Everything was foreign and strange. Too strange.
Even the most adaptable and adventurous railroad families were homesick. They missed their comfortable houses and familiar neighborhoods back east. When Albuquerque businessman Franz Huning announced he was creating a new Anglos only housing development on the outskirts of the city the newcomers couldn’t buy the lots fast enough.
They set about constructing the Un-Albuquerque. They hoped Huning Highland would be an island of cultural security in the midst of an alien environment. They lined the dirt streets with young shade trees and planned to build frame houses with steeply pitched roofs, wide front porches and rose-covered trellises. There wouldn't be an adobe wall, a kiva fireplace, canale or viga in sight.
And the railroad, the very thing that had brought them west in the first place was what would make it all possible. That and Sears, Roebuck and Company.
Home Sweet Home
Before 1900, houses were built from locally available materials. There were regional differences in terms of style. Houses in Nebraska did not look like houses in Florida. In the early 1900s that began to change when kit houses, also known as mail order homes, took the US and Canada by storm.
Companies including Montgomery Ward and Sears produced lavish catalogues showcasing a wide variety of kit houses. There were models for every taste and budget from tiny bungalows for newlyweds to classic two-story Colonials and elaborate Queen Annes. The catalogues, which were also known as pattern books, included drawings, detailed floor plans and options for those who wanted to customize their selections.
The house kits traveled to their destinations by train. They arrived in pieces. Every component was labeled and numbered from the pre-cut timbers to the stairs, bannisters, window frames, doorknobs, cabinets, nails and varnish. Each kit also included detailed instructions. All the homeowner had to do was hire a crew to follow the plan and put it together, which is precisely what the lot owners of Huning Highland did.
And just like that a little piece of Albany began to materialize on the far eastern edge of Albuquerque.
Huning Highland has had its ups and downs over the years the most notable being the changes caused by the arrival and eventual demise of America’s Mother Road, Route 66, which passes through the heart of the neighborhood as Central Avenue.
The opening of the Interstate Highway system in the late 1950s was the kiss of death for Route 66 as well as the motels, gas stations, hamburger stands, souvenir shops and other businesses along Central that catered to the traveling public.
Unfortunately the decline of Central Avenue coincided with the flight to the suburbs that affected so many cities in the middle of the 20th century. The once fashionable neighborhood of Huning Highland lost its luster and began a slow but steady decline.
When I-25 construction demolished the eastern edge of the neighborhood in the 1960s, things got even worse. Central Avenue became a wasteland of liquor stores, flop houses, pawn shops, condemned buildings and trash-filled vacant lots.
But the residents of Huning Highland did not give up and eventually things started to improve.
In 1978 the Huning Highlands Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places. New people started moving into the area, property values increased and shops, restaurants and other small businesses began opening on Central.
As you walk the neighborhood today, you still see reminders of the bad times. It’s all part of the Huning Highland story, which is in many ways the story of Albuquerque itself. The good news is things have finally come full circle and the area is once again a desirable place to live.
South of Central
Start your tour by traveling along Walter Street between Central and Coal. You’ll pass several wonderful cottages. Head off on any side street that intrigues you.
Some homeowners embrace the district’s history and maintain a traditional decorating style.
Others prefer a more open, contemporary look for their cottages.
Somehow it all works and the old homes blend comfortably with new infill housing that is transforming empty lots and abandoned eyesores to family homes.
Take a moment to notice the brick building on the corner of Coal and Walter. It was a gas station designed to mimic the lines of an English cottage. It is now the H.B. and Lucille Horn Preservation Station and is a meeting venue for community groups. Chicken coops and a community garden are in the side yard.
Even the plants and flowers of Huning Highland tell the story of disparate elements harmonizing. There are gardens that could have been transported directly from the shady suburbs of Indianapolis. They sit next door to yards filled with yuccas and prickly pears. In other spots blooming cacti grow alongside climbing roses.
North of Central
After you’ve explored the south side, cross Central and take a look at the north side of the neighborhood.
Old Albuquerque High School
The brick Gothic Revival building at 401 Central Ave SE, on the northeast corner of Broadway and Central, is the original Albuquerque High School. The main building was constructed in 1914. The neighboring Manual Arts Building was completed in 1927 and the gymnasium on Tijeras went up in 1938. Students attended classes here until the early 1970s. The buildings were empty until 2003 when they began being converted into interesting apartments, beautiful condos and stylish retail and office spaces.
Now called The Lofts at Albuquerque High, the complex is private but free tours are offered regularly. Their website includes tour information.
Special Collections Library
The graceful Pueblo/Spanish Revival building at 423 Central Ave SE, the northwest corner of Edith and Central, was built in 1925. It is now the Special Collections Branch of the Albuquerque Public Library. It is well worth your time to step inside. The library may look familiar if you’re a fan of the TV series Better Call Saul. Both the interior and exterior appear in the show as the Davis and Main Law Firm.
Spy vs Spy
Huning Highland was the scene of one of the most significant acts of espionage in US history. During World War II Albuquerque and Santa Fe were crawling with Soviet spies.
The Soviet Union was an ally, but it was not part of the top-secret Manhattan Project, the massive effort to create the first atomic bomb that was underway at Los Alamos just north of Santa Fe.
One of the people working on the Manhattan Project was a mechanic named David Greenglass. His wife rented an apartment in Huning Highland. David would spend weekends with her there, a typical arrangement due to the extreme housing shortage at Los Alamos.
David Greenglass’s sister, Ethel, was married to Julius Rosenberg who actively recruited friends and family – including David Greenglass - to join his Soviet spy ring. On June 2, 1945 in an upstairs room of what is now The Spy House at 209 High Street NE, Greenglass gave a Soviet courier the plans for the bomb.
When Greenglass was arrested he told authorities everything he knew and named his sister and brother-in-law as accomplices. David Greenglass served 15 years in prison. The Rosenbergs were executed for treason in 1953.
The Spy House is now a B&B as well as a venue for murder mystery dinners, weddings and other special events.
One of Albuquerque’s loveliest hotels is located at 806 Central Ave SE. The Hotel Parq Central was built in the 1920s as a hospital for employees of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. In the 1970s it served as a children’s psychiatric facility known as Memorial Hospital. There are plenty of reports of ghostly activity around the premises, which can probably be attributed to the turbulent emotions of the unhappy young people who spent time within its walls.
The Hotel Parq Central does not try to hide its past. There are reminders of the hospital days scattered throughout the buildings and grounds. The hotel’s trendy rooftop bar, the Apothecary Lounge, employs some of the most creative bartenders in town and the sunset views over the city are awesome. Highly recommended.
Try one of these Huning Highland standouts, all on Central.
The Standard Diner at 320 Central Ave SE, near the southwest corner of Central and Broadway, specializes in comfort food and burgers. It was featured on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive Ins and Dives. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, it has indoor and outdoor seating and full bar service. “A modern twist on diner classics.”
The Standard Diner's deco style building was a gas station and car dealership in the 1930s.
The Artichoke Café at 424 Central Ave SE is an award-winning bistro specializing in new American dishes. Open for lunch and dinner. “Where artisan cocktails meet creative cuisine.”
Farina Pizzeria and Wine Bar at 510 Central Ave SE is open for lunch and dinner and has indoor and outdoor seating. Time Out Magazine named it one of the best pizza joints in the nation. “Artisanal pizza, eclectic Italian wine list and local brews with fantastic daily specials featuring seasonal local ingredients.”
The Grove Café and Market at 600 Central Ave SE was featured in the TV series Breaking Bad. The Grove has indoor and outdoor seating. They specialize in coffee, fresh local food and seasonal specials. “An artisan café serving breakfast, brunch and lunch.”
Although it’s fun to explore Huning Highland any time, each May on Mother’s Day weekend the neighborhood association sponsors a house and garden tour. It’s fascinating to see the interiors and private outdoor areas of these historic homes.
For more information, visit the Huning Highland Historic District Neighborhood Association’s website.