IN SANTA FE, LA FONDA’S HISTORY WALKS THE HALLS

By Anne Z. Cooke peels back the layers of history and romance. Images courtesy of Steve Haggerty/ColorWorld.

Whenever I wander the halls of the historic La Fonda Hotel, at the end of the Santa Fe Trail, I can’t help thinking of the 2006 comedy, Night At The Museum. After the doors are locked and night falls, just-hired security guard Larry (Ben Stiller) discovers that when nobody’s around, the exhibits not only come to life but refuse to behave. When the night is finally over, Larry can hardly wait to leave. The difference at the historic La Fonda, at the end of the Santa Fe Trail, is that guests who are lucky enough to spend a night at this venerable inn never want to leave. And repeat visitors prowling the hotel’s deserted lobby after midnight have been heard to say that the characters in the paintings watch you as you pass by. On moonlit nights you might even hear the echoes of travelers of yore: gun slingers and mountain men, mule-train drivers and fancy ladies.  

According to La Fonda spokesman Ed Pulsifer, not a day passes that the reservations desk isn't besieged by hopeful travelers begging for a room, any kind of a room. No matter that the hotel is sold out. Or that “Santa Fe just won’t feel the same” if they can’t spend the night in the comforting glow of the hotel's "relics" -- paintings, murals, Spanish Colonial figurines, Pueblo pottery, hand-painted tiles, and Navajo weavings.

“We have dozens of guests who reserve the same room for the same dates every year," said Pulsifer.  "They're like family, people that the staff know and look forward to seeing."  Even during the recent renovation of the 167 guest rooms the hotel remained open for business and fully booked. "We couldn't really turn people away, especially for holidays and festival weeks, like Indian Market,” he said. "You have to call months ahead for those dates. Summer and the Opera Season, it's the same. Even during off seasons we average 89 percent occupancy." 

Built on the 400 year-old Plaza in 1922, La Fonda was actually the fourth inn built on the same corner. Four years later, in 1926, the city, looking for a way to boost tourism, leased it to the Fred Harvey Company, owner of the Harvey House Hotels, whose mission was to provide good food and comfortable lodging to travelers arriving on the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railroad. Under the direction of Architect and Designer Mary Jane Colter,  the company enlarged and redesigned the hotel from the inside out, altering the exterior and redesigning the interior, relying on Colter’s choice of artists and her preference for folk and indigenous design styles.         

This fall’s returning guests can expect a nice surprise. In 2009, the Plazuela Restaurant was renovated, modifying the ceiling sky light to admit more light and returning the tiled fountain  to its original location in the center. The hand-painted windows surrounding the restaurant were also restored and new hand-crafted furniture and fabrics reprise the original look. As for the  guest rooms, sorely in need of updating, they were renovated under the direction of Architect Barbara Felix. The new rooms feel like the originals, but can now boast air conditioning, new plumbing, electrical wiring, communications connections and high-test insulation. New walls – moved in some cases—have new paint, custom-designed hardware, bathroom fixtures, replacement wood floors, area rugs and custom-designed fabrics. The double-pane windows crank open to admit Santa Fe’s fresh breezes and views of the hills. Hand-painted designs on every headboard echo Colter's original choices and the art on the walls is original.

As for the public areas, on the ground and second floor, preservation is ongoing, as always. But long-time guests will be pleased to see that nothing seems very different, and that things are in their familiar places. "Do You Wander?" asks the pamphlet suggesting a self-guided art walk. If so, check out the cover image, a photograph of long-time Concierge and Historian Steven Wimmer. Then waste no time, treat yourself to La Fonda's treasures. And for room reservations – and additional information about the hotel – go to www.lafondasantafe.com

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