Santa Fe landmark roaring into the '20s again

·6 min read

Jan. 9—The inn at the end of Old Santa Fe Trail still serves as a beacon of activity on the downtown Plaza, just as it did a century ago.

It's a place where people have met and fallen in love, married, drunk, danced and died.

Maybe some were born there. A few others got themselves involved in a situation that led to a divorce.

Just about anything that can happen in Santa Fe has occurred at La Fonda on the Plaza — the ageless adobe abode that has welcomed visitors to the city since those other Roaring '20s.

"[It is] Santa Fe's living room," said Ed Pulsifer, the hotel's sales director and its unabashed cheerleader.

History, both real and imagined, ambles through La Fonda's hallways, ballrooms, bedrooms and lobby. It's possible state secrets were discussed over a bar top during World War II: La Fonda served as an unofficial stopping point for people headed to a mysterious place called Los Alamos. But even without intrigue, the hotel was central to Santa Fe's daily rhythms; former New Mexican society columnist B.B. Dunne made the lobby his unofficial office as he wrote about the people who passed through town.

La Fonda even took its turn on the silver screen: Actor Robert Montgomery got involved in a dark noir scheme in La Fonda's lobby and dining room in the 1947 film Ride a Pink Horse.

But with all that and plenty more as prologue, here's a quick and necessary look forward: La Fonda on the Plaza is observing its 100th anniversary this year.

Though another spike of COVID-19 cases recently caused a celebration planned for this month to be postponed until later in the year, hotel officials are happy to elongate the celebration.

History, apparently, is worth the wait.

"It's always had this amazing life," hotel historian Stephen Fried said.

Of course, La Fonda's first 100 years weren't really the first 100 years of the city's hospitality industry. Other hotels preceded it. Historians say the corner of Old Santa Fe Trail and San Francisco Street hosted the first inn in town, called the Exchange Hotel, sometime in the early 1820s.

But whatever incarnation of that facility was still standing in 1919 was destroyed with the help of a World War I-era tank nicknamed "Mud Puppy" as civic leaders decided it was time to demolish the structure in a victory-bond fundraiser.

Local businesses then raised $200,000 to build a new hotel on the site: La Fonda.

Still, financial success, let alone fame, was not instantaneous. Pulsifer and Fried say the hotel struggled in its early days — until fate booked a room.

In the mid-1920s, restaurateur and entrepreneur Fred Harvey's son, Ford Harvey, decided to make La Fonda part of the renowned Harvey House chain to offer regional tours for visitors and passengers on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe rail line. For more than 40 years it remained a Harvey House — though unlike the vast majority of those hotels, it was not adjacent to the railroad tracks.

Ironically, that may have helped secure its survival, Fried said. When train travel went off the rails after World War II, so did most of the Harvey Houses.

"I think La Fonda continued to be its wonderful self because it had the good luck not to be on the main train line," he said.

Fried said La Fonda became "the immediate center of life in Santa Fe" in the 1920s and remained that way even as the city and the rest of the United States changed through World War II and the advent of the interstate highway system. Regardless of whether the president was Coolidge or Kennedy, Roosevelt or Nixon, Biden or Truman, La Fonda remained.

The five-story, 180-room hotel's tie to the city was so strong that one 1980s-era highway billboard touted: "La Fonda is Santa Fe."

The hotel remained part of the fading Harvey House chain until the late 1960s, when it was purchased by Sam and Ethel Ballen. The couple ran it until 2014, when they sold it to Cienda Partners, a Dallas-based real estate investment company.

Current La Fonda co-owner and board chairwoman Jennifer Kimball, who worked at the hotel when the Ballens owned it, said she rarely goes to dinner without running into someone who tells her about a friend, an aunt, an uncle, a brother or a parent who once worked at La Fonda.

"There's just an intertwine between the city of Santa Fe and La Fonda," she said, marveling that for most of the century, the hotel has had only three sets of owners.

La Fonda was designed by the Rapp, Rapp & Hendrickson architectural firm of Trinidad, Colo. In 1926, famed Santa Fe architect John Gaw Meem and Harvey Co. architect Mary Colter began a three-year redesign.

A renovation that began not quite a decade ago incorporated many of those design elements back into the hotel. Pulsifer and Britta Andersson, director of marketing for La Fonda, say you can find designs and details from the Colter period in the walls, headboards, blanket boxes and curtains of the hotel rooms to this day — just some of the touches that maintain the hotel's backstory.

"It's a historic hotel with modern amenities," Pulsifer said, noting if you removed or covered the television screens in some of the rooms, you might think you were stepping back into the 1920s. "It's open, it's accessible, it has a spirit."

Maybe more than one spirit, actually. Pulsifer happily talks about reported phantoms of the hotel — a spectral bride, a spur-wearing cowboy, a gambler and maybe even the ghost of former owner Sam Ballen — all showing up every now and then to give visitors, locals and longtime employees the heebie-jeebies.

Even if that's all a lot of hooey, it adds to the lore of La Fonda — and, maybe, the fun.

Granted, not all has been rosy. Kimball recalls the dark days of COVID-19, when hotels around the city and throughout the country were closing as the pandemic swept through the nation. The city's living room, it seemed, was in danger of going empty, dark.

"It was so important that our doors remained open," Kimball said. "To me and the other owners, it was ... 'The show must go on.' Whether that made financial sense, I don't know. But in the pillar-of-the-community sense, we cannot close our doors. That would be a really bad symbol."

Fried said given the hotel's long legacy of culture, food, drink and perhaps espionage, particularly during the Manhattan Project days of World War II, it's a little surprising Hollywood hasn't paid a call to make a movie about it.

"The role it played during World War II is twice as important as the role Rick's Café played in the movie Casablanca," he said. "And unlike Rick's Café, La Fonda is real, and everything that happened there is pretty easy to document."