The fabled La Fonda on the Plaza has a storied past interwoven with Santa Fe’s colorful history as the country’s oldest capital and as a world-class tourist destination. Launched in the late 1800s by Fred Harvey, and a real jewel in America’s first and most famous hotel chain, La Fonda opened in 1922 on the oldest hotel corner in the U.S., occupied by one inn or another since Spanish colonists established the city circa 1610.
The fascinating story of the famed hotel, which lives and breathes its history to this day, is chronicled in a gorgeous new coffee table book, La Fonda: Then and Now. The book includes essays by Jenny Kimball, chair of the board of the investment group that owns the hotel, among those by others familiar with and connected to the hotel. Page after page of glorious photography documents life at La Fonda across nearly a century, from its décor to its illustrious guests—presidents and princesses, movie stars, spies from the Manhattan Project era and well-known artists whose work fills every nook and cranny of this grand old dame.
“La Fonda really is the gathering place for Santa Fe—you’ll usually see a friend of yours while you’re here dining or in the bar,” Jenny explains in her second-story office at the hotel—the same space occupied by Sam Ballen when he and his wife Ethel owned La Fonda from 1968 until his death in 2007. The chair where Sam sat is still there, a daily reminder of the couple who purchased the dilapidated hotel in 1968 and rescued it from faded glory.
“My office is one of my favorite places in the hotel because it was Sam’s office,” says Jenny, whose parents were longtime friends of the Ballens when she was growing up in Dallas. Kimball worked for the Ballens as one of La Fonda’s attorneys for a quarter century before assembling a team of investors to buy the hotel from the couple’s heirs in 2014. “I spent 20 years in front of that desk, in the same chair that’s there today, talking to Sam. I don’t think there’s a day when I walk into that office that I don’t think about Sam.”
When the Ballens bought La Fonda for $1 million, the Fred Harvey empire had already been sold to Amfac Inc., a Hawaii-based corporation (now called Xanterra Parks and Resorts). La Fonda had been left out of the deal and was in disrepair. But Ballens “put their heart and soul into the hotel, both its physical building and its employees,” Kimball says, and since taking the helm of the hotel, she’s been devoted to furthering its legacy.
Under Jenny’s stewardship, La Fonda has undergone extensive renovations to recreate the Harvey House splendor provided by the company’s architect Mary Colter during the 1920s. Working with rising Santa Fe architect John Gaw Meem (today considered the father of Santa Fe Style), Colter combined Pueblo and Spanish styles to give the hotel its distinctive look. Thanks to her designs, “La Fonda became an instant classic in American architecture and a monument to the kind of aesthetic coziness for which Fred Harvey was famous,” writes Stephen Fried, award-winning author of Appetite for America: Fred Harvey and the Business of Civilizing the Wild West—One Meal at a Time and contributor to Then and Now. “The hotel was more than just a base for exploring the area’s sights; it was itself one of the sights.”
Recent renovations have returned La Fonda to its Harvey House glory, from the restoration of the La Plazuela restaurant and guest rooms to the lobby, La Fiesta Lounge, retail shop and other public spaces. In a historic city where change can be challenging, the restorations prompted cheers from some and jeers from others who felt the new look departed too much from the familiar. “It’s a real compliment that people care enough about La Fonda to be emotionally involved with it,” Jenny says. “When Sam and Ethel bought the hotel, it was about to be torn down, the rooms were $3 or $4 a night, and they slowly fixed it up as they could. ‘A coat of paint covered a multitude of sins’ was their mentality and that’s how they basically saved La Fonda. When I came in, they had electrical problems, bad plumbing, etc. So I made the decision that when we fixed things, we were going to fix everything authentically.”
The recent renovations took nearly 10 years and included just about every inch of the 300,000-square-foot building. Jenny worked so closely with Santa Fe architect and interior designer Barbara Felix that the two became dear friends. Barbara details the intricate work involved in the renovations in her own essay for the book. She writes: “I loved the way [Colter] mixed architecture, interiors, storytelling, arts and crafts, and design elements from a huge variety of inspirational sources and made them her own.”
One of La Fonda’s most prized possessions is its art collection. “There are 658 original pieces in the collection and it’s still growing,” Jenny says. “I take a lot of pride in the art. We support our local artists. Harvey started that in the 1920s and we maintain it.” That support includes commissions from local artists, with pieces like the 2011 mural “Stormy Canyon” by acclaimed Navajo painter Tony Abeyta, who also penned an essay for Then and Now. “It’s hard not to feel that La Fonda has always been in Santa Fe,” he writes. “ Its legacy is inextricably tied not only to yesteryear but to a creative journey documented by the many interesting and famous artists who have walked through its doors.”
Some of those artists include Santa Fe art colony painter Gerald Cassidy—whose promotional paintings of Kit Carson, Native American dancers and other Southwest icons commissioned by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway are exhibited throughout the lobby—and Ernest Martinez, who hand-painted the renowned windows of La Plazuela.
While La Fonda is a historic gem, it offers guests 21st-century amenities. “We’re not a museum and we shouldn’t be a museum,” Jenny says. “We’re living history, and we’ve got to evolve and remain relevant to today’s traveler. So we have a state-of-the-art key card system that makes it easier and safer for our guests and it doesn’t do anything to denigrate the historical value of the hotel. We’ve had a lot of people asking for flat screen TVs in their room, so we do have them in the rooms but they’re not as big as in other hotels and they’re framed to look like art, even though they’re not. It’s a total balance, and we make these decisions to satisfy our guests.”
Like the Ballens, Jenny is passionate about giving back to the community. “My heart’s in the nonprofit world,” she says. “We host the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts gala and the Institute for the American Indian Arts gala, and we are business members of the Santa Fe Opera, the Museum of New Mexico Foundation and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.” The hotel offers special deals for locals, too, Jenny says — and she’s equally passionate about La Fonda’s employees. “Working with Sam and Ethel for all those years, I do feel an obligation to treat the employees right,” she explains. “I knew that was important to them, just as I knew Native art was important to them. They were such ethical, honest employers. It was a great standard to aspire to. When the hotel sold to our group, not one employee lost their job and all the management was kept in place…. we didn’t let one employee go.”
And Jenny says that’s just “what Sam and Ethel would have done.” Her keen responsibility to continue the La Fonda legacy is the real reason she took over the hotel. “I think that Sam knew that, and he and Ethel were getting older and it was going to take a lot of energy and money to keep La Fonda going,” she says. “And I think that in some respects, they held back to pass the baton on to me…It’s a labor of love. ”
With the publication of La Fonda: Then and Now, Jenny Kimball’s labor of love takes center stage. The essays and photos that fill the book pay loving tribute to this landmark of living history. It’s a remarkable read, celebrating scores of people across the decades who have labored to keep this historic treasure a central part of the community and one of the most striking sights in Santa Fe. And once you’ve finished the book, you’ll agree—it’s impossible to picture Santa Fe without this grand old dame sitting right in the heart of the city.
Books are available for purchase at La Fonda’s gift shop, Detours. To view the collection first-hand, join one of the excellent complimentary one-hour docent tours. The docent tours begin at 10:30 a.m. on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from November through April. La Fonda is on the corner of Old Santa Fe Trail and San Francisco Street at the heart of the Santa Fe Plaza.