La Fonda renovation ends
The last phase of the La Fonda renovation is complete, or close to it, and the element of the project that has received some early criticism is the glitzier lounge with its new rounded bar, modified ceiling, new furniture, and restricted access. Patrons used to be able to wander in after coming in along the long hallway from the San Francisco Street entrance. The problem with that setup, according to owner Jenny Kimball, was that a number of them would also wander out, without paying.
The new bar actually harkens back to the oldest bar shown in hotel photos and plans. Surviving drawings from John Gaw Meem, who did a redesign of the hotel with architect Mary Colter in the late 1920s, show the dining room/kitchen in the location of the current lounge. “Our next clue of the bar doesn’t show up until a hotel brochure that dates a horseshoe bar between 1949 and 1968,” said architect Barbara Felix, who led the recent renovations. “Finally, in a 1980s plan we see the straight bar that was recently removed.”
Visitors may also lament the recent changes in the other public areas, but they are probably comparing them to the appearance of recent decades. The owners instead wanted to take the space back to what was envisioned by Colter and the hotel’s original architect.
The establishment harkens back to the 19th century, when a hotel on this site went through various incarnations as the Santa Fe House, U.S. Hotel, and the Exchange Hotel, according to the 2011 booklet From Every Window: A Glimpse of the Past, written for La Fonda by Barbara J. Harrelson. The hotel known as La Fonda opened in 1922 and was designed by the Rapp, Rapp & Hendrickson architectural firm from Trinidad, Colo. Three years later, La Fonda was acquired by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, then leased to the Fred Harvey Company, which ran it as a Harvey House for four decades.
In 1926, Meem and Harvey Co. architect Colter began a three-year redesign. One objective was to simplify what were perceived as some overly “fussy” elements by Rapp— but the boldest change was the addition to the southwest corner that includes the dominant bell tower at Old Santa Fe Trail andWater Street.
One major goal of the recent renovation was to return the lobby, including the bar space, to the “more open, gracious feel” seen in photographs from the first half of the 20th century, Felix said. Toward that end, the front desk, which had been pushed out into the central space in recent decades, has been “tucked back into the architecture.” For a similar reason, the newsstand was pushed back.
“Part of the goalwas to try to open this back up visually. We’re really excited to get this space back for a more open feeling again, with better sitelines, more daylight, and just a friendlier feeling,” Felix said during an early-April visit. Kimball added, “We’re buying back some of the retail space for the same reason, and the store, now called Detours, hasmoved to the corner, where it used to be.” This was once the location of the hotel’s Indian Room/Curio Shop, directly on the Santa Fe Plaza. The new store has absorbd
the newsstand function. Workmen also recently took down the wall, with windows, that stood as a barrier between the lobby and the lounge. The wall was a 1980s addition. Here and there during such renovation work in the hotel, traces of the original wall plaster were encountered. “It’s been great to confirm that per letters between Meem and Colter, the original plaster color was in fact yellow,” Felix said. “The current/new paint is based on the original yellow plaster color.”
In a mid-April statement, Felix wrote, “We have had to do extensive research through old drawings and documentation, photographs, and some interviews to try to ascertain when changes were made – and if original architectural elements were still intact behind hidden walls. The lobby area has been particularly challenging due to the lack of documentation as compared to what we could find for other areas of the hotel – combined with the changes made over the years to bring the building up to code, including the addition of sprinkler lines, fire alarm devices, phone/ data lines, and replacement light fixtures when historic fixtures were broken or removed.”
All the retail boxes in the long hallway have been redone; Gonzales Wood works from Grants did the rope and corn/ flower carvings based on Meem drawings. The east end of that hallway now ends in an expanded vestibule entry from San Francisco Street, the only exterior change in the recent work. The idea to enhance that entrance is logical, because most guests today arrive there — either dropped off by the airport shuttle or driving themselves— rather than the old main entrance on Old Santa Fe Trail.
The La Fiesta Lounge now has a tin ceiling, replacing the latillas that were apparently added at some point in the more recent past. Felix related that Nancy Meem Wirth (daughter of the late John Gaw Meem) remembers tin panels up high on the walls that had pressed train patterns, and thatwas part of the reasoning behind the new tin ceiling. It was also done to improve acoustics.
Some things about the lounge have not changed. The Bill Hearne Trio still plays on Monday and Tuesday evenings. But nowthere are 10 taps on the bar — there are draft beers for the first time. “We love the history but you do want to make sure you’re staying relevant,” Felix said. “And at the end of the day, I don’t think anyone wants to walk into a 1920s bar. They want to walk into a 1920s hotel, but they want a place to get good food and drinks.”
“We made the decision that if we were going to do anything cutting-edge, it would be the bar, because frankly nobody young was coming to our bar,” Kimball said. “My partner still can’t believe some of what we’re doing, but you can always change things out if they don’t work. But we’ve stayed very true to character with the lobby and everything else; the only thing we pushed a bit was the bar. Andwe built the bar around Harvey, the Colter rabbit.” That sculpture is based on a series of animal ashtrays Colter had made for the old lounge.
The artwork that hung in the lounge before the renovation is being re-hung in other areas of the hotel. “Also, the old tin/painted glass wall sconce fixtures have been repaired and have been re-hung in the corridors so that more people can enjoy them,” Felix said. “We have saved historic light fixtures from other portions of the hotel, and had them repaired, in order to have them re-hung back in their rightful place in the lobby.”
She said the work should be wrapped up by mid-month.
La Fiesta Lounge soon after its completion in March. Below, a rendering of the lounge with rounded bar