Roswell’s Downtown Historical District

The Mossman House Courtesy photo.
The Mossman House

Roswell is becoming known for its interesting Downtown Historic District. The District was created by the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico with the aid of a grant from the State Historic Preservation Division in 1983-84. It was named tothe State and National Registers of Historic Places in 1985, along with the campus of New Mexico Military Institute, several outlying ranches, and Chihuahuita, probably the oldest settlement in the Roswell area. Chihuahuita was named only to the State Register.

The Downtown Historic District is large, covering approximately 40 city blocks and contains homes of over 22 architectural styles. Roswell’s early history explains this unusual architectural style mix.

Capt. Joseph C. Lea, an early settler and merchant, first platted Roswell in 1885, and brought stability to the area after the trials of the Lincoln County War. His ranch partner, Horace Thurber, added an additional two blocks on the south to include present Alameda Street. Within five years after the filing of the original plat of the townsite there were four to five additions. The Roswell Historic District covers most of these early 1885-90 additions to Lea’s original plat.

The cattle industry originally sired settlement in the Pecos Valley when John S. Chisum founded the Jinglebob Ranch in 1878, an open-range company that extended along the Pecos River "as far as a long-legged cow can graze," some 150 miles. Chisum established his headquarters on the now-dry South Spring River, six miles from the tiny trading post of Rio Hondo, that became Roswell.

Growth was slow at first. Added to the usual frontier lawlessness of the hostile Comanches east of the Pecos and Apaches to the west, was the violence erupting from the Lincoln County War. Area residents Chisum and John W. Poe persuaded fellow Roswellite Pat Garrett to run for sheriff. In that capacity he tracked and shot Billy the Kid, a large step in bringing respectability to the community.

In 1898 George Slaughter brought New Mexico’s first purebred Hereford cattle into the area. The ever-present challenge of water scarcity seemed solved when Nathan Jaffa sank the first artesian well, causing a spate of well-drilling throughout the valley.

GA Hamilton House Courtesy photo
GA Hamilton House

At about the same time the people of the village of Roswell, population around 900, were still celebrating the arrival of the railroad extension from Pecos, Texas in 1894. Their hope of getting the line extended from Roswell to Amarillo, Texas was accomplished in 1899. Excursion trains began to bring in homesteaders from the Midwest, an influx of ranchers, many of whom filed claims on land which had formerly been open-range for cattle grazing. People were also pouring into the little town for their health. Roswell had become a haven for tuberculars. Many who came recuperated and stayed, contributing greatly to the growing town.

Because housing was critically short, those who could afford it built new homes, usually in the style fashionable in their erstwhile regions. As a result, Roswell’s Downtown Historic District is an exciting and eclectic mix of architectural styles. In this single residential area, only a few blocks west of Main Street, everyone, rich, poor and in-between, lived.

On the night Sheriff Pat Garrett shot Billy the Kid in Fort Sumner, he was accompanied by deputy John W. Poe. Poe later became a prominent banker in Roswell and built for his wife Sophie a Queen Anne Style house on Seventh Street. After his death Sophie wrote Buckboard Days about their early life in Lincoln County (of which Roswell was a part in those days). Their home, although changed somewhat over its 102 years, still sits on a half-block site in the Historic District.  Many of the original trees, the old carriage house, and separate living quarters for the household help are a part of it. Capt. Burton C. Mossman, organizer of the Arizona Rangers, and founder of the famed Diamond A Ranch, later bought this house. (Picture 1)

G. A. Hamilton, a real estate developer who moved to Roswell for his health, built a Greek Revival house in 1910. That home now anchors the northwest corner of the District at 712 North Lea Avenue. Hamilton developed a subdivision northeast of Roswell on the Berrendo River where Dr. Robert H. Goddard later lived and conducted his now famous experimentation with rockets. (Picture 2)

The 400 block of south Lea is dominated by this two-story Hipped Box Style house built pre-1912 by C. F. Joyce. Mr. Joyce was one of the partners in an early mercantile chain, the Joyce Pruitt Company. (Picture 3)

410 S. Lea Courtesy photo.
410 S. Lea

The homes pictured give you a very small sample of the many historic houses on the Historic Walking or Driving Tour in Roswell. The District consists of over 280 contributing houses, all listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places. Many other styles, Bungalow, Mediterranean, California Mission, Pueblo Revival, Southwest Vernacular, Italianate, Tudor, Federal,and Simplified Anne, dot the District eclectically. This Tour also includes one of the oldest public school sites in Roswell in the 300 block of North Kentucky. The Special Education Service Center now located on this site is the third school building built on this site, completed in 1928.

The oldest churches in Roswell were built in this area. The Methodist Church was built in 1888, the Episcopal in 1899, the Baptist in 1895 and the Presbyterian in 1900. All still remain in the District although they have all been remodeled, added to, razed and replaced, or destroyed by fire. The oldest part of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church and its original sanctuary is the back wing along the alley on 5th and Pennsylvania. The First Presbyterian Church, located at 3rd and Kentucky, burned in 1932. It was replaced in 1937 with a Gothic Revival sanctuary, designed by Rapp & Rapp, Architects of Trinidad, Colorado. Its sanctuary is included in the Historic District. This church and the old converted school on North Kentucky have helped greatly to stem the commercial encroachment into this residential Historic District.