Armand Ortega Sr., 86, savior of the historic El Rancho Hotel in Gallup, New Mexico, when it faced the wrecking ball during the 1980s, died Wednesday.
An employee at the hotel said Ortega had been in failing health for about a year. His funeral was today at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Gallup, with burial at Sunset Cemetery.
Ortega Family Enterprises, based in Santa Fe, owns several concessions in national parks, Native American-themed gift shops and restaurants in the Southwest, as well as El Rancho.
But Ortega was especially fond of El Rancho, which was opened in 1937 by R.E. “Griff” Griffith, brother of the famed movie director D.W. Griffith. The Griffiths encouraged filmmakers to shoot movies in the Gallup area, and the hotel benefited by having a bevy of stars — including John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Errol Flynn, Kirk Douglas, Gregory Peck and Humphrey Bogart — stay at the hotel during productions up to the 1960s.
The hotel started to decline, especially when Interstate 40 bypassed Route 66 in 1980. But Ortega, who always dreamed of owning El Rancho, bought it in 1986 after it went into bankruptcy and was threatened with demolition. According to an Associated Press story in 1989, Ortega bought the property for $500,000 and spent another $500,000 restoring it. It was reopened in May 1988 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places that year.
Clair Gurley, a salesman who was the hotel’s first guest when it opened in 1937, was invited back to the hotel after it was renovated and charged the original $5-a-night price.
An obituary in the Gallup Independent newspaper (subscription only) said Ortega could be found almost daily in the hotel’s restaurant, drinking coffee while chatting with tourists or buying crafts from Native Americans who lived in the region.
According to an obituary supplied by Rollie Mortuary in Gallup:
Ortega got his start in business selling newspapers and leading a team of shoeshine boys at the age of 10. In his youth he worked for his father at Indian Trails Trading Post in Lupton, Arizona. He graduated from Holbrook High School in 1946, where he played basketball and the trumpet. In 1952, he opened his first store in Deming. He worked to promote Indian Jewelry throughout the U.S. and he was the first Indian Arts and Crafts dealer to market and distribute throughout the United States.
Ortega was born in Holbrook. He eventually opened a slew of businesses in New Mexico and Arizona, including the Indian Ruins Trading Post in Sanders, Arizona, and the Hopi House near Flagstaff.