Cindy Kelly: I’m Cindy Kelly. I’m in Santa Fe. It’s Monday, February 6, 2017, and I have with me Jenny Kimball. I would like her to first state her full name and spell it.
Jenny Kimball: Okay. It’s Jennifer Lea Kimball, K-I-M-B-A-L-L. My title is actually Chairman of the Board of the hotel.
Kelly: You might want to say the name of the hotel.
Kimball: La Fonda on the Plaza. There has been a hotel on this site since the 1600s. This is the oldest hotel site in the country. There’s been a hotel here since the 1600s. This building that we’re sitting in was built in the early ‘20s. It went under very quickly in a year or two. Then the Harveys bought it, the Harvey hotel chain. Have you heard of the Harvey hotel chain and the history there?
This was one of the few Harvey hotels that actually wasn’t on the railroad, just because there was a spur. Lamy is the closest railroad to here. But the Harveys bought it, because they were starting to do detours out into the pueblos. They were kind of the first one to do cultural tourism. They needed a hotel to put their tourists up at.
They bought the hotel in the ‘20s. They hired an architect named Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter. She’s probably best known for doing a lot of the buildings at the Grand Canyon, like Hopi House and the Desert Watchtower and Bright Angel Lodge and most of the buildings at the edge of the Grand Canyon. She did that for the Harvey Hotel. They brought her here, and she worked with John Gaw Meem, who is kind of the father of Santa Fe style in Santa Fe, to renovate and add on to the hotel. That was in the mid-‘20s.
The hotel was owned until 1968 by the Harvey Company. Then in 1968, a character, a husband and wife from Dallas, Texas—actually, they were from New York, but they moved here in 1968, Sam and Ethel Bowen. Today is the ten-year anniversary of his death. It’s auspicious that we’re talking about him today. They bought the hotel with a group of investors, and that was in 1968.
In 2014, my brother and I put another group of investors together and bought the hotel. Since this building’s been in existence since the ‘20s, it’s basically had three owners, which is pretty remarkable in this day and age of corporate buyouts and all that. That’s kind of the history of the ownership of the hotel.
Going back to the physicality of the hotel: when the hotel was built—right now, we take up an entire city block. We touch the Plaza of Santa Fe. That’s why we’re “La Fonda on the Plaza.” We’re the only hotel on the Plaza. Today, on the perimeter, we have retail space and we have 180 guest rooms. Fifteen of those are suites above our parking garage, and then we have suites in this part of the building as well.
Back in the day, when the Harveys bought it, they, John Gaw Meem and Mary Jane Colter added the bell tower, which is the fifth story. Right now it’s a bar at southwest corner of the building. And added all of the rooms along Water Street, which is behind. I think there were like fifty-some odd rooms added. The hotel has been added onto in different decades throughout the years.
One of things that’s been a challenge since I’ve been involved for ten years is, how to take different styles at different time periods and make them relevant, and make them cohesive. We have a female architect, which we laugh, kind of akin to Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter, who was very unusual in the day to be a female architect. I don’t know what percentage were female, but it was in the single digits, I feel sure. It’s not a whole lot better today, I don’t think. But anyway, Barbara Felix, she’s local in Santa Fe, and we hired her to do our architecture and our interiors.
One of the first things we did is, we took the train from Santa Fe to Albuquerque and then from Albuquerque to Winslow, Arizona, where there’s another Harvey hotel called La Posada. Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter designed the entire hotel, the interiors, exteriors. We kind of did a Mary Jane Colter tour through the Southwest, of the buildings that were still in existence. We could look at light fixtures, we would look at trim, we could look at colors and try to figure out what was authentic, so that when we started renovating the hotel, we could bring it back to that time period, which is what we thought was the most authentic for La Fonda.
We could have picked the ‘60s, the ‘70s, I mean, this hotel has been added onto almost in every decade. But we really felt like going back to the ‘20s was the bones of the hotel. Because when the hotel was built and redone by John Gaw Meem and Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter, they were the best of the best.
They used local craftsmen, they had a lot of things commissioned and made for the hotel. In this day and age, most hotels don’t do that. They off to China or India, they mass-produce, they order things from a catalogue, because, frankly, it’s much more economical to do that. We didn’t want to do that. We wanted to try to find local artists and local craftsmen to come in just like in the ‘20s and bring kind of the soul, or keep the soul of La Fonda going.
By doing that, we brought in maybe twelve different artists. Each one painted headboards in the hotel. We have 180 hand-painted headboards by local artists. Some Native American, some non-Native American, each one is different. Each one is a piece of art in itself. We did that because Mary Colter did that back in the ‘20s. We probably have five or six, a handful of those headboards left from the ‘20s, but most of the others had been painted over, had fallen apart, been sold, given away. When we redid all of the guest rooms several years ago, that was one of the first things we wanted to do was try to put hand-painted headboards back into the rooms. We did that.
The room we’re sitting in right now has an original concrete floor, because this whole wing had concrete-poured floors. In 2017, that’s kind of cutting edge to have concrete. Well, who knew it was from the ‘20s? Over all of the decades, it had been covered over with carpet. No one knew that these beautiful concrete floors were underneath the carpet until we pulled up the carpet. Instead of re-staining and fixing them, we have left the cracks. We have filled in some of the holes, and left the concrete floors here. In terms of environmentally sound, I mean, that’s the best we could do. There are a lot of things like that that we have kept and maintained.
Another thing, in our armoire here, you will see that there is a thunderbird carved on top of the armoire. That’s an almost exact replica. Over our guest elevators, is the same thunderbird carved that Mary Colter designed. They’re still over our guest elevators. We took little details like that from the ‘20s. When we replaced all the armoires in the room, we had artists recreate them, so that we carried kind of some of the special things that Mary Colter designed for the hotel through the hotel today. Kind of everywhere you look—I mean, I could spend hours walking you through and showing you these details.
One of the cool things is back in the day, everybody smoked. All of the common areas, the restaurant and the seating areas, all had animal figures at about arm height that were ashtrays. But they were made, you know, cute little animal figures that had an ashtray that you could put your cigar and cigarette and your ashes there. There must have been—I’ve seen pictures—probably fifty or 100 of them in this hotel.
Over the years, they have all been given away, stolen, sold, whatever. We had one original left that it had been handed down to me in my office, which we have on display down in the lobby. But one of them was of a rabbit, kind of a metal rabbit that Mary Colter had forged out of an ironwork shop in Albuquerque. We took that and had a current forger named Ward Brinegar kind of recreate the rabbit for us. We’ve got him, we’ve named him Harvey, and he’s the centerpiece in our bar. Again, you know, trying to reflect back on the ‘20s.
When the terrace was added in the late ‘80s, there’s a handrail going up from the first to the second floor, that’s all of the rabbits that were, again, commissioned. What we have tried to do throughout the ownership is to take things from the ‘20s that Mary Colter and John Gaw Meem did, and then be able to use it, you know, in maybe a more modern or contemporary way. But to take that thread from the ‘20s and bring it through today.
It’s been a lot of fun. We have spent a lot of time researching through photographs at the museums. The [New Mexico] History Museum has been a great partner with us, trying to find pictures of what the lobby looked like in the ‘20s, what the bar looked like in the ‘20s, what the guest rooms looked like. Because through the ‘60s, they were all mod and contemporary, like everything was in the ‘60s. During the ‘80s, everything changed again.
We are trying to piece our archives together so that we actually have a really wonderful history in photos from the ‘20s when the hotel was built until today. We have hired an archivist who has gone through—we have a lot of menus, matchbook covers, “Do not disturb” signs, sales brochures, all kinds of stuff throughout the years that were basically just thrown in boxes. We hired an archivist to organize them all, to put them all in, you know, historically, I don’t know what you’d call—the sleeves, so they wouldn’t yellow, that they wouldn’t degrade.
We are scanning all of those and we are organizing them. S if a historian or somebody calls and says, “What do you have from the ‘40s? What do you have from the Manhattan Project? What do you have from whatever?” that we can put our hands on it and be a resource for historians, which has been wonderful.
But one of the downsides of that is in doing that, we realized what holes we had in our archives. We are hiring a historian this year to try to pay them to go out into the region and see if they can fill some of those holes. Because for sure, at the history museums and the art museums, you know, the history of La Fonda is out there. It’s just been dissipated from the hotel and our records. We are trying to gather them all in one place, so that we’ll actually have a really great historical connection from the ‘20s, and then we can keep it going forward.
That’s the other thing I would say, that one of mine and our architects driving goals is: when you renovate something and you redo something, you can spend very little. We call it “putting lipstick on a pig.” Or you can do it authentically, and spend a lot of money and have local and artists and craftsmen. This hotel, this is our ninety-fifth anniversary. We’re getting ready to be celebrating 100 years at this hotel. Whatever we’re going to do, we want it to be standing in 100 years from now. We are really trying to spend the money and do it the right way so that 100 years from now, people will look back and have that thread of history still.
Some of our edifices and some of our, the things that surround us need to outlive us and need to be carrying on the tradition and the history. That’s one thing that we’ve really tried hard here at La Fonda to do. We are very aware that we are walking in the shadows of a lot of history. We want to honor that and we want to keep it going. It’s taken a lot of money and a lot of time and a lot of research, but it’s so wonderful.
Another thing that we’ve done, which is really helping us inform ourselves about our history, is we’ve created a docent program. We’ve got forty docents that have volunteered. Most of them are docents at the history museum or at the art museum. They give tours three days a week, free to, anybody that wants.
The first part of it, we asked them to tell them a bit about Santa Fe and the history of the area and the region. Then they can spend the rest of their time talking about the art of La Fonda, the history of La Fonda, whatever. Some of them are more interested in the textiles, some are more interested in painting, some are more interested in the history. I don’t know a whole lot of hotels that have forty experts that are interacting with the public every day, helping preserve our history and helping tell other people about our history.
Part of what has been wonderful about it is, they will find things that we don’t know and come share with us. Then when we find something, we share it with them, so that the history and the holes are getting filled up and it’s still evolving. To have forty experts—these are all volunteers giving of their own time that are just as passionate about La Fonda and our history and our art as we are. It’s really been a magical thing.
When we talked about doing this three or four years ago, you don’t know if it’s going to work, you don’t know if anybody’s really going to want to do it. The tours are sold out or booked up almost every day that we have them. I keep telling my friends from Santa Fe, “If you have friends in town, send them down. Because it’s a great starter of the history of Santa Fe and of this region, because it’s so rich. Then if your house guests are interested in more, we can send them out, whether it’s the Palace of the Governor, or to the history museum, or Museum Hill, depending on what they’re interested in. But it’s a great precursor to Santa Fe, and it’s free.” That’s been another thing that we’ve really done to try to tie the history and to keep it alive and to fill the holes.
We’re constantly thinking of things to do and trying to really honor this grand dame. I think I said to you, one of the things we have worked on the last couple of years was a coffee table book. It’s called Then and Now. It’s 244 pages and it covers art, it covers the history, it covers the food, it covers the graphics, how the graphics have changed over the years. It covers the parties and traditions, like fiesta and Indian market.
What we try to do was “Then and now.” Here’s what were the recipes for chile rellenos in the ‘20s; here’s what they are now. Here’s how it’s changed. Here’s the art that was collected by the Harveys in the 20’s. Here’s the kind of art that we’re collecting now. Here’s what the weddings looked like in the ‘20s and in the ‘50s, where we had the wonderful brides with the cat-eye glasses. Then we got the most handsome gay military couple picture from last year that got married here. So, just trying to show the history in visuals and in verbiage of then and now. I suspect in another fifty years, there will be “Then, Now, and Even Nower Now,” you know.
That’s the kind of stuff we’re trying to do to keep the history alive and to educate people about how rich this hotel’s history is. Because there are a lot of historical hotels in the country, but this is the oldest hotel site in the country, which is pretty amazing.
To kind of pat ourselves on the back, this year we just won what I call the trifecta. We won from the New Mexico Hospitality Association the best hotel in the state. From the Historic Hotels of America, we won the best historic hotel of our size in the country. In the state, we also won the Hotel Professional of the Year. Our Director of Sales, Ed Pulsifer, won for the State of Mexico, the Hotel Professional of the Year. We won the top three awards this year, for this hotel. I couldn’t be more proud. I think a lot of that is because of honoring the history and being different from other hotels.
Kelly: Tell us about the bar. You renovated the lobby and the bar, and how is it different—
Kimball: The lobby in the ‘20s, you will see the pictures. It was open and it was large and it was gracious. There was a lot of space. Over the years, one of the areas got turned into a gift shop, and then over the years, the front desk got moved out about ten or fifteen feet as technology came in and security systems came in. The front desk becomes more than just give somebody a key. They needed more room, so they encroached onto the lobby. Then the bar got built. During Prohibition, we didn’t have the bar. So, it was a much larger lobby. Over the years, the bar got cut in, the front desk started encroaching, and the gift shop got put in there.
When we decided to renovate the bar and the lobby, what we wanted to do was try to get the lobby back to the dimensions, the graciousness of the ‘20s. We moved the gift shop out of the lobby, and put it in the corner touching the Plaza, and turned that space back into—it’s our concierge area, so it’s open. We pushed the front desk back to where it was, so we took about ten feet back there.
Over the years, between the bar and the lobby, a wall had been put in, I think mainly so the sound from the bar wouldn’t carry into the lobby. But by putting the wall in, it further cut up the lobby. While we didn’t want to do away with the bar, because every hotel needs a bar and it’s now kind of become historical in its own right, we took the wall out so that the bar is now more flowing and open to the lobby. If you stand in the lobby and if you look at the interior wall of the bar to the interior wall of the concierge, that’s exactly what the lobby was when the hotel was built in the ‘20s. We gained back all of that space. It’s the same depth that it was, now that the front desk is put back. To where the restaurant is, that was originally an open-air restaurant, and of course, it’s been roofed over since the ‘70s.
What we did, again, was we got the black and white pictures of the lobby and the bar and tried to take it back to the dimensions and what it looked like in the ‘20s. Our designer even has pictures of the couches from the ‘20s, which has a—I don’t know what you call it—but the lines of the couch. She had them made to replicate the same lines of the couch from the ‘20s. Those are the couches in the middle of the lobby.
The bar originally, when the bar was put in, it was a horseshoe-shaped. The reason I think it was horseshoe-shaped is, if you have people sitting on both ends of the horseshoe, it’s more social, they can talk to each other. Over the years, that horseshoe had come out and it was a flat bar against the wall. You have the bartender here serving, and everyone is facing the wall. We took the opportunity, when we were redoing the bar, to take out the flat bar and to put in that horseshoe bar again.
We’re not exactly sure what year that horseshoe was put in. We think maybe the ‘40s. But we went back to the earliest bar shape that we could find, to put it back in. When you go down to our bar now, even though it’s new, the size of the bar hasn’t changed. It’s what it’s always been, and we have that more social, convivial horseshoe bar now.
We still have live music there six to seven nights a week. We’re one of the few hotels—again, we try to support our local artists, and the local musicians are great. They have their own following. When you have people from all over the world coming to stay at the hotel, it gives them another differing piece of art from Santa Fe, which is the music scene. We have country & western, we have jazz, we have hip-hop. It just depends on who’s playing that night. But La Fonda really does try to support the arts and support the local artists, and that’s another way we’ve done it, with the bar.
Does that answer your question about the bar and the lobby?
Kelly: That’s great. Tell us about the clientele. Are people, I mean, demographically are they—you say they’re international. What percentage is international versus—
Kimball: I don’t want to give you a number, because we can’t really drill down that way. The largest markets for us are just like they are for Santa Fe, which is Texas and California and New York. But one of things we have, we have a lot of repeat guests. We have guests that have been coming for fifty years, and staying in the same room. They won’t stay in any other room. Now we’re starting to see the second generation come and stay. We have a lot of family reunions here. It’s nice to see them passing the baton to the younger generation that’s coming and starting that same kind of history, to have their reunions here year after year.
I don’t know the percentage. Mainly, it’s feedback from our concierge and our front desk, in terms of the languages spoken. But it’s hard to tell.
Kelly: Just curious. I think at Los Alamos, there’s something like 30% of the visitors are from foreign countries.
Kimball: That doesn’t surprise me. I would say our guests probably are not that high. I would venture to say 10 to 20% maybe, and that’s just a total shot in the blue, because we don’t really have any way to track that. So many of the international visitors speak English, so you can’t even tell anyway. You have the Canadians here, and they have no accent. It’s hard to tell.
The Harveys were probably the first branders in, if the world, in the United States for sure. Fred Harvey came from England in the late 1800s and leased along the railroad the eating houses, and was serving food along the railroad, which was back in the day pretty inedible. Because they had fifteen minutes to serve, pick up the plates, and then the train was heading out. The food was horrible. The guests had no recourse. You didn’t have any choice. The quality of the food was pretty pathetic.
Fred Harvey came in and saw that, and really did an about-face and changed it. They had silver service on the trains. He had international chefs that came in that did the food. They started taking the food in freezer cars along the railroad, so that they had Oysters Rockefeller, they had Lobster Thermidor, they had the best beef from Kansas City coming down. I mean, really changed it.
That’s how Fred Harvey got his start was by upgrading and serving the feeding houses along the railroad, and eventually then started leasing from the Santa Fe Railroad the houses, and then that evolved into hotels. Most of the hotels were from St. Louis to California, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona. They were all along the Santa Fe Railroad.
When I say “branded,” they were all Harvey hotels. This was before Howard Johnson. Howard Johnson was probably the next largest one that people would hear of. The Harvey hotels are kind of making a resurgence, because there was a book published by Steven Fried called Appetite for America, which was a fabulous book, such a page-turner, all about the Harveys, and about this whole history.
Part of the reason that a lot of this was lost, is most of these historic hotels have been torn down over the years. The ones that are left are the ones that are at the Grand Canyon. El Tovar, the famous El Tovar was a Harvey house, the Bright Angel. The Harveys controlled the Grand Canyon lodges, and La Fonda was a Harvey hotel, La Posada in Winslow. There’s a Harvey house in Belén, New Mexico. Some of them are still around, but very few of them are still operating as hotels. Unfortunately, a lot of them got torn down.
One of the things we’re trying to do: the owner that owns the one in Winslow, Arizona, just bought one in Las Vegas, New Mexico, called the Castaneda, and it’s right on the railroad. It has not been operated as a hotel in probably fifty years. He is slowly putting the money in to do kind of what we did at La Fonda, and get the Castaneda up and running as a hotel. That’s in Las Vegas, New Mexico. We have La Fonda here. We have La Posada in Winslow, Arizona. Then the Harvey houses that are run by Xanterra at the Grand Canyon. All of the owners of these hotels have been in a lot of communication about how to kind of brand the Harveys, so that we can send our guests from the Grand Canyon to Santa Fe to Winslow to Las Vegas, New Mexico.
The Harvey history is rich. When you read about—I’ve forgotten how many hotels they operated at one point, but it was the largest hotel chain in the United States for sure, and very, very lucrative. Then as train travel slowed down and the interstate highway system and the cars came in, that’s when they kind of folded and went out of business, which is why then the Howard Johnsons and the motor lodges and all of that took over. What the Harveys had been known for was the railroad hotels, because that was the transportation back in the day. It’s a fascinating part of America’s history that a lot of people don’t know anything about.
Kelly: And the focus on the so-called Harvey girls?
Kimball: The Harvey girls—and I should know this and I won’t be able to remember it, which hotel started the Harvey girls. It was not La Fonda, but we definitely had Harvey girls.
There’s a fabulous movie that Judy Garland starred in called “The Harvey Girls.” You can Netflix it, and it’s absolutely wonderful. It’s the story of the mainly educated single women that came West from the East Coast. They couldn’t be married, they had to be upstanding, they couldn’t wear their own jewelry, they had wool, they had shirts up to here. This was not a part of the Wild West, this was civilizing the West. The Harvey girls worked at the restaurants, worked at the hotels.
Some of these rooms were Harvey girl rooms, which are, why they’re small. Because the Harvey girls lived in the hotels until they got married and then they left the hotel. We have had Harvey girls that have worked here up until—I guess the last Harvey girl retired maybe five or six years ago. We have had Harvey girls continuing to work in the hotel, not as Harvey girls, but as waitresses and servers.
There are Harvey girls in Santa Fe. They’re in Las Vegas, New Mexico. They’ve got a group in Winslow, Arizona. It’s an amazing part of the Harvey history. They used the women to try to civilize the West. They were trained, tea service, silver service. There was no, it wasn’t like the stereotype of the saloon and the Wild West and all of that. The Harvey girls helped civilize the West through the Harvey hotels and through the railroad. It’s a fascinating story.
Kelly: One of the interesting things we heard yesterday was from women who are from the valley, their Hispanic community. They were both in their nineties and exclaiming, “Oh, this is where we come during the fiesta, and this was such a watering hole for us.”
Kelly: I thought it was interesting, because it just—
Kimball: Well, it’s been the melting pot. It’s been the melting pot for the quinceañeras to the—this was the SWAIA [Southwestern Association for Indian Arts], which is the non-profit that runs Indian Market, which is going on their 100th year, started at La Fonda. You had fiestas, you have Zozobra. The guys that started Zozobra had coffee down here once a week at La Fonda. La Fonda was and kind of always has kind of been the meeting place. It was the only hotel, it’s still the only hotel on the Plaza.
Right now, the legislative session is in session here. We have a sixty-day session. You go down at lunch any day, you will see legislators there, you will see state aides there. We are the state capital, you can walk to the capitol from here. It has been forever. That’s always fun, because you never know if you’re going to see an artist here, if you’re going to see Pulitzer Prize-winning artist, or author, or scientist from Los Alamos, or the governor. La Fonda has kind of always been the place to meet, and it still is.
I think that’s why a lot of the scientists from the Manhattan Project came here. It was the watering hole. It was the place to be. Where else are you going to go drink and eat and let loose from all the pressure they were under up on the Hill?
Kelly: Maybe you could start another little section on that theme, because that’s an important theme to our project.
I have heard from the day I got involved with La Fonda that during the Manhattan Project, our bartenders were actual FBI agents. When the scientists were here to drink and let loose and have fun, that that’s why they put the FBI agents as bartenders, that if any of them started saying anything that was inappropriate, they got pulled out quickly and moved on.
I’ve heard that time and time again, but I don’t have any way to verify that. I don’t know how you ever could verify that. Maybe with the Open Records Act and all that, we could kind of do some digging and find that. But I’ve heard it enough, and it makes sense. When you read about all the security, such heavy-duty security during the Manhattan Project, it makes sense that they did want an outlet for the scientists so they wouldn’t go crazy up on the Hill. La Fonda would be the obvious place, because we were the grand dame at the time, where you would want to come eat, where you would want to meet people, where you would want to come dance. I suspect that’s true, but I just don’t have any way to totally verify that.
Kelly: I was just wondering where they danced. During the Manhattan Project, they would dance at the bar?
Kimball: I think they were dancing at the—just like they do today. They dance at the bar and then when it gets crowded, they spill out into the lobby, down the halls. It’s amazing. Depending on how crowded it is and how many people, you can see people two-stepping across the lobby, down the hall. It’s wherever they have room.
I suspect it was the same during the Manhattan Project. Because the configuration of the bar and the lobby hasn’t changed, so I’m sure there was spillover. I am sure after being up on the Hill with the intensity of everything they were working on for so long, when they came down here and had a bartender and a bar and dancing, they were probably ready to cut loose. I sure would have been if I were one of them.
But again, we don’t have any evidence that the bartenders were FBI agents, other than everybody just says that. I don’t have any way to prove it or disprove it. That is certainly one of the myths or the rumors from the Manhattan Project and La Fonda, for sure.
I think I told you I just read American Prometheus and there were definitely—Dorothy McKibbin—there were definitely things in that book of them, her being here at La Fonda and Oppenheimer being here at La Fonda eating and meeting, and meeting with people here. Clearly, they were, but I just don’t have any pictures, evidence, other than the historians that have written about it.