AT FIRST, THE UNMANNED SHOESHINE STATION in the lobby of Gallup’s iconic hotel—the El Rancho—seems like an out-of-place relic. It’s a hat tip to the humble beginnings of the family that has stewarded the Route 66 inn since 1986 and is bringing it back to life.

Armand Ortega Sr. helped his family make ends meet in Depression-era Holbrook, Arizona, with five-cent shoeshines. The family scrimped all year, in part to treat themselves to a restaurant meal. In 1938, they drove to Gallup to dine at El Rancho, where a wide-eyed, 10-year-old Armand promised to one day buy the hotel for his mother. Nearly 50 years later, with the neglected building threatened with demolition, Ortega made good on his promise. By then he had successfully grown his family’s multi-generation Indian trading businesses, but he passed away in 2014 with a host of potential renovation projects left undone.   

“El Rancho is our hearth. It’s the center of our family culture,” says current owner Shane Ortega, Armand’s grandson. “I used to play hide-and-seek in the basement. I played darts with my uncles in the bar—they still owe me money, by the way.”

Before Grandpa Ortega held court here, the hotel’s twin lobby staircases were a literal and figurative red carpet. After movie theater magnate R.E. Griffith built the hotel in 1936, a star-studded cast of characters bunked there while filming in western New Mexico. The hallways are a quasi-Hollywood walk of fame, with each room named after a star who stayed there—Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Ronald Reagan, John Wayne.

A half dozen owners oversaw the hotel between Griffith’s tenure and the Ortega family’s. Shane bought out his aunts and uncles in 2018. After detours through cancer treatment and the pandemic, he is pouring some $6 million into renovations. He previously owned and operated Ortega National Parks concessions with his wife and father, spending 14 years restoring historic stores, restaurants, and hotels at national and local parks.

El Rancho Hotel's renovated rooms mix streamlined decor with made-to-look antique telephones. Photograph courtesy of El Rancho Hotel.

He’s already transformed El Rancho’s rooms from a garage-sale mishmash of light fixtures, furniture, and art into cohesive, chic lodgings. Bathrooms now feature floor-to-ceiling black-and-white subway tile, walk-in showers, and 1930s-style fixtures. Bedrooms relieved of their popcorn ceilings feature live-edge wooden headboards, Southwest linens, leather occasional chairs, and flat-screen TVs.

A restaurant makeover will return it to its original spot in the Andalusian room, most recently used as a ballroom. Herringbone floors, a historically appropriate backbar, and an outdoor seating area are planned. A custom mosaic-like window will divide the restaurant and the 49er Lounge, where Hollywood star Errol Flynn is said to have once ridden his horse into the bar.

Western motifs play out over the bar’s original stained-glass wall hangings and appear on the hotel’s refreshed facade, where horseshoes are part of the windows’ ironwork. By summer, Ortega plans to expand the hotel’s small retail space and refresh the long-neglected pool and pool deck.

Ortega constantly weighs whether historical details are valuable to the hotel’s character—or just old. The exterior courtyard’s wishing well, next to the former hitching post, has passed muster. Griffith constructed the well around 1940 and used it to collect donations for local charities. “There’s no way I’m tearing that thing down,” Ortega says.

El Rancho Hotel

1000 E. US 66, Gallup