Leba Freed – Albuquerque’s Wheels Museum

Photo of Leba FreedLeba Freed has been recognized by the Albuquerque Historical Society with an Albuquerque History Accolade for her efforts over two decades to preserve Albuquerque’s historic railyards and for creating a museum that honors the nation’s history of transportation.

Leba Freed’s family is one of the mainstay families in Albuquerque’s history. Her father created Freed and Company which had a store on Central downtown for decades. Leba worked there as a child and became the owner/operator later in life. During these years, she rarely gave any notice to the abandoned buildings that were mostly home to pigeons in the 1990s. However, a visit there to the enormous structures caused her to envision turning these industrial Gothic spaces into a world-class museum of transportation. She imagined that the museum would showcase how all forms of transportation have contributed to the nation’s prosperity and the history of Albuquerque specifically. It would pay tribute to the men and women who built the buildings and worked there helping to move people and goods across the country.

The first effort was to protect the buildings from potential demolition under the guise of urban renewal. Most of Albuquerque’s downtown history has been lost forever due to the desire to get rid of old and build new. She wanted to restore the grandeur of these large cathedral-like buildings that are magnificent examples of steel, concrete, and glass in this 27.3-acre site. At the time, the price tag for purchasing the site was $3 million and creating a museum there would cost another $30 million.

Leba decided to use the leadership skills she had gained working to revitalize downtown and in creating the new Urban Council. That group quickly grew to more than 70 who shared the common interest in saving the railyards and creating a museum. They decided to call the effort The Wheels Museum and they raised initial funds to do a feasibility study in 1999. Through many changes in administrations, Leba continued her efforts. Many people encouraged her efforts but money was hard to find. Through fundraising efforts there grew a fund of $500,000 but much more was needed.

In November of 2000, the Urban Council began working on funding a loan but neither non-profit had the means to guarantee repayment. Finally, a group of Albuquerque and Los Alamos underwriters was formed to secure the loan, and they were made board members of the Urban Council and the Wheels Museum. About this time, Burlington Northern and Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway was on the verge of selling the rail yards to a Dallas developer who planned to tear down the massive shops to make way for a residential subdivision. Through Leba’s efforts, the state’s congressional delegation put pressure on BNSF to sell the site to the Urban Council. By the end of that year, BNSF sold the site to the Wheels Museum for $2.5 million. However, things were just getting started. After 2000, there was much interaction with the Urban Council.

In May of 2006, the State of New Mexico provided $2 million to help with the purchase. A year later, the City finally decided to purchase the rail yards and historic buildings from the Urban Council for $8.5 million. Leba began working with city planners on a mixed-use redevelopment plan. In the summer of 2009, the Wheels Museum finally returned to the rail yards and the Albuquerque Journal on August 23, 2009 said, “Like the Little Engine That Could, Leba Freed is a metaphor for optimism, hard work and relentless dedication in her longtime efforts to preserve an important Albuquerque landmark.” A special gala grand opening of the Wheels Museum Warehouse was held on September 26, 2009.

Efforts continue to find ways to preserve the buildings and the site and to discover just the right mix of uses. The Blacksmith shop now serves as the Railyards Market on Sundays in summer. In 2014, the Locomotive Shops were listed on the New Mexico State Register of Cultural Properties. That same year, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Today’s Wheels Museum collection includes more than $2 million in exhibits, 15 automobiles on display, hundreds of thousands of dollars of model trains and layouts, important rail artifacts and books and papers, cast iron vehicles, a Fred Harvey exhibit, video room, conference room for meetings, a new collection of remote-controlled airplanes, two ultra-light planes, a race car from UNM, and a hand-built race car from a board member.