TRAVEL

100 years of history and hospitality
Birthday bash set for Santa Fe’s La Fonda on the Plaza hotel
La Fonda’s Bell Tower Bar is familiar to many guests from Dallas, which is also home to many members of the property’s ownership group. “There’s such a great connection between Dallas and Santa Fe,” says Jennifer Kimball, La Fonda’s chairman of the board. (Ryan Heffernan)
By CONNIE DUFNER
Special Contributor
artslife@dallasnews.com

When history and hospitality collide, it’s time to party.

Santa Fe’s La Fonda on the Plaza hotel turns 100 in 2022, and it is hardly bashful about showing its age. Not only is the hotel buffed and polished for its centennial gala on Jan. 22; it’s proud to be even older than it looks. There has been an inn at this location on the Santa Fe plaza since 1607, giving the La Fonda bragging rights as a hotel corner even before America itself was born.

“We’ve been known as ‘the Inn at the end of the Santa Fe Trail’ and also on the trade route from Mexico. Our history is fascinating,” says Jennifer Kimball, La Fonda chairman of the board.

The hotel will kick off centennial festivities with the gala and hold a series of quarterly events, focusing on aspects of its history, over the next year. A documentary on the hotel, narrated by actress Ali McGraw, will debut during the gala.

“Unlike a lot of other old hotels, many of which have been torn down, we have really continued to improve it. Part of that is recognizing and honoring the history. The bones of the hotel are really good bones,” Kimball says.

As part of its milestone year, the hotel has also opened the Terrace Inn at La Fonda, a hotel within a hotel. The space has 15 suites and rooms on the top two floors, each with a private patio or balcony; a dedicated check-in and concierge; and a private hot tub overlooking the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

The hotel partnered with architect Barbara Felix for the Terrace Inn project, which mixes old and new elements. Interior touches include designs from Navajo chiefs’ blankets for headboards and century-old heart pine flooring. The hotel also commissioned three original works from Crow painter Del Curfman, which were then reproduced onto sheer window coverings.

“We didn’t want to be part of another big hotel management company that wants to make things more uniform,” Kimball says. “We want to be able to keep it quirky and unique, and we’ve been able to do that.”

La Fonda was built in 1922 and wowed guests with hand-carved beams, stained glass skylights and a cathedral ceiling. Today’s La Plazuela restaurant, with nearly 500 hand-painted windows, is on the site of the hotel’s original outdoor patio.

From 1925 to 1968, the hotel was a Harvey House, known for its attention to meticulous hospitality, entertainment and popular Detours excursions to American Indian historic towns and sites.

As legend goes, the hotel’s bar was a popular spot for the scientists, engineers and other employees of the secretive Manhattan Project in nearby Los Alamos, where the first atomic weapons were created.

“Back in the day, scientists and engineers needed to let off steam,” Kimball says. “Rumor has it that the bartenders were FBI agents. If anyone had loose lips, the bartenders whisked them away.”

The property was sold to Sam and Ethel Ballen of Dallas in 1968, beginning a strong connection between the two cities. The Ballens hired Kimball, another Dallas native, as an attorney for them in the late ’80s. And in 2014, it was sold to the current ownership group, Cienda Partners, with most members, including Kimball, from Dallas.

“There’s such a great connection between Dallas and Santa Fe,” Kimball says. “What appealed to me was that it was easy to get back to see my family. Santa Fe is like a little European town, with great shopping, great food, great skiing and great hiking.”

Dallas jeweler Dian Malouf has been staying at La Fonda during her trips to Santa Fe for at least 30 years. “It is a rare place, a historical wonder that retains its Old World charm while also keeping up with modern times,” she says.

One of Malouf’s favorite spots is La Plazuela, “where I can gaze endlessly at the colorful hand-painted window panes. No two are alike. It’s like having lunch in an art museum.”

For more information, visit lafondasantafe.com.