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.

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The patio of La Fonda Hotel in 1930. At the time, the hotel was part of the Harvey House chain, which offered regional tours for visitors and passengers on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe rail line.

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.

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A Santa Fe Fiesta parade on San Francisco Street sometime between 1925 and 1945.

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.”

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Musicians play in the lobby of La Fonda Hotel between 1925 and 1945.

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.”

General Assignment Reporter

Robert Nott has covered education and youth issues for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He is assigned to The New Mexican's city desk where he covers a general assignment beat.

(47) comments

jarratt applewhite

Thanks so much for the coverage and the wonderful recounting. Sam and Ethel were two of the very finest people I've ever met. Their dedication and passion have left us so much.

I'm so very grateful that the current owners cherish the legacy they've inherited. I remember when Gerry Peters tried to steal this treasure. He met his match with the Ballens.

John Gomez

Sorry guys. There is nothing wrong with La Fonda or Santa Fe I was just mad at myself for not living life and I fear growing old without seeing the world but that's not anyone's fault but main and Covid. People love La Fonda and my hateful words shouldnt change that. It's beautiful and fun and romantic and makes people smile

Priyanka Jonas

John Gomez you reminisce like a 50 year old already...what will you do when you are no longer youngish? tsk

Meredith Machen

What a wonderful story and what great vintage photos of Santa Fe's iconic meeting place. I first visited La Fonda in 1969 and instantly fell in love. Within a year, my husband and I had moved to Santa Fe, and for over 50 years, we've stopped in more times than I could ever count. While writing my dissertation on Willa Cather in the 70's, I read her letters to friends, family, and fellow from this sanctuary. She was on an extended stay soon after it opened researching Bishop Lamy and exploring New Mexico for Death Comes for the Archbishop. Thank you, Robert, for capturing the spirit of the place!

John Gomez

Death comes for the arch bishop is racist trash all from the colonizers point of view.

Stefanie Beninato

It's amazing that half the comments on this story are from you and are basically a whine about "young people" having no music. What about the plaza music: Warehouse 21 etc?

John Gomez

yea i was having a bad day and Santa Fe can make you feel trapped if you aren't into southwest art and going to bed at 10. i should have chilled. w21 is great but its for teens music on the plaza and everything downtown is made for old white people which is fine but thats not me. once in a while new mexican bands will play on the plaza but its mostly music for old white people. no matter what its all done by 9 pm anyways. i wanna stay up till dawn dancing and u can't do that here. you can buy terrible over priced art and walk around though

S. Ulrich

Amazing how any story here ends up in a cat/dog fight.

jarratt applewhite

So true. In these mean times, between the plague and social media we struggle to rise to our common humanity. Methinks we're so cross that we can't resist the impulse to tangle.

rodney carswell

I grew up here in the 1950's with downtown as my "front yard". Much has changed downtown since then, with most of the stores and businesses relevant to daily life long gone. I miss Zooks soda fountain, the candy store on San Francisco, the 2 real five and dime stores, the El Paseo and Lensic as movie theaters, normal places where one could buy new clothes (Pennys and Sears), and also finer stores like Goodmans and Moores, where I looked in but did not shop--and on and on. However, I still walk and drive through downtown on purpose; I go sit on the plaza and watch humanity stroll by, just for the quiet enjoyment of it; I go with family to listen to music at the bandstand in the summer; and I especially like to walk through La Fonda and occasionally have breakfast in La Plazuela. The hotel has managed to change ownership from local to who knows what (venture capital?), without losing the texture that feels like home to me. We are lucky to have this hotel in our li'l town.

Kathy Krickhahn

Rodney, the hotel is owned by real estate investors based in Dallas, but who have a long-established connection and love of Santa Fe. And they have put a lot of money into keeping the La Fonda a functioning, critical part of downtown.

LeRoy Sanchez

I also grew up in Santa Fe. I worked at Zook’s Drugstore (now Hagan Daaz) after school when Santa Fe High School was in downtown Santa Fe! La Fonda will always be the quintessential essence of Santa Fe.

Lee Vigil

@Rodney, I miss and remember the places and experiences you mention. It seems like such a long time ago, and I guess it was. By the late 70s or early 80s, the plaza had been transformed and the locals were going to DeVargas Mall for our staples. We didn't know at the time what we would lose. I also love the plaza and go there every opportunity I get and drop into La Fonda from time to time. Like the article mentioned, I also had a family member who worked there. My grandmother worked there in the late 50s and/or early 60s. The plaza and La Fonda are still the heart of our little Santa Fe.

Lyndell Vallner

John Gomez certainly hates "old People" and the things they enjoy. He is the poster boy for an Ageist Racist. John should pause for a moment to think about how time flies and that he too, WILL be old once day. Then Karma will bite him and put a huge dent in his self important ego. Everyone in ALL age groups have things they enjoy. This may shock John but we and many of our friends are not old and absolutely love the ambience and feeling of the La Fonda. I suggest John go elsewhere...to enjoy the places and things he loves and stop slinging vitriol at others and their equally valid and enjoyable tastes.

John Gomez

I know i will be old and it is a shane Santa Fe has no youth culture so I feel 50 already. I doubt you are under 40 if you like the ambience and feeling of la fonda. No one under 40 cares about the la fonda. Why should I have to leave my hometown it was you who come over here all old and made it boring. You know my people used to dance all night on the plaza on the weekends but the old people at la fonda shut it down cause it was too loud? How you gonna like fake adobe and Puesdo New Mexican culture made for old white people? I don't have a self important ego it is just hard being under 30 here

David Ford

we get it John...you're a "no". Move on....

Kathy Riley

Then leave. - Ya' "this Is your turf." But you evidently have not grasped the truth that time always brings change. - You'll only get old if you're lucky. A better attitude might make your life better. If you dislike La Fonda, avoid it. Let those of us who enjoy it have it. - Maybe get all your friends to go to the same couple of places & demand music. If there's a demand, = $ to be made, someone will provide.

John Gomez

Time always brings change but not to Santa Fe not in my lifetime. The older residents of Santa Fe fight they change young people try to make because that change would ruin their peaceful quite Santa Fe. The problem is the lack of change. Everything is like your grandmas house covered in plastic here. It's so funny how you guys cant see how fake and un New Mexican downtown is. People try to do live music downtown but old people want boring music at evangalos and for everything to close early. It's not that this is my turf its that I have responbilites here so I wish my home town had young people in at not nothing but 50 year olds who think la fonda is culture

Kathy Krickhahn

John, Meow Wolf doesn't attract many folks over 30, unless they are bringing their kids. Try to expand your definition of culture and entertainment beyond dancing on the plaza. You're young, you have ideas, you want to dance. Go for it! Start a dance party in your neighborhood and get your neighbors involved.

Elizabeth Pettus

There is live music all the time, why say that there isn’t?

John Gomez

We try to start stuff in our hoods. old white people call the cops on us. They want Santa Fe silent at 10 pm on a friday. Meow Wolf is ok. Not enough young people in this town to make anything really pop. It's all old old people who buy the fake Santa Fe culture they made for them selfs. Who the heck would be happy going to these over priced stores buying over priced art and going to sleep at 10?

Elizabeth Pettus

Wow, we have so many clients under 30 who love the plaza and La Fonda, perhaps there is a different point of view…

John Gomez

I doubt very much you have clients in their 20's who like down town Santa Fe unless they are only here a day. Do you not talk to young locals ever? The live music downtown is made for people in their 50's to dance to. It's Bill Herane and old blues. Boomer music

Richard Irell

If Santa Fe has no youth culture, it is the fault of no one but you and your cohort.

Generation Slack.

John Gomez

sure it's not like everytime we try the old people and land owners of this place shut us down. Do you even talk to young people? Why do you think most young people leave Santa Fe and it's only old boring people?

Richard Reinders

Grow up and go out in the world and find your excitement , everyone else has.

John Gomez

I wanna go into the world but covid kinda screwed that up. I have been to 5 countries though. I bet you never partied like I did in Europe so stfu old man go buy some stupid art and think you know New Mexican culture

John Gomez

Richard 5 countries by 23 is pretty good covid screwed up the world for us young people but you can't see that cause you're too old and already lived your life. I dreamt of traveling the world kinda hard to right now with a global fascistic gov but I still got Las Vegas Miami. I'll be fine. Have fun with nothing Santa Fe nothing but old white people and terrible art

Elizabeth Pettus

For decades, the demographics of Santa Fe visitors have been largely centered on those 50 and above, but every decade, a new group turns 50, and 40, and 60, for that matter. Railing against those over 30 is as silly now as it was in was in 1969.

John Gomez

and you know why it's been focused on older people? Cause downtown Santa Fe is a fake cultural experience for people who don't get that mud bogging rodeos and punk rock are the real culture. Old people have bad knees and can't hang so they love their quite walks on the plaza and their over priced art of brown people which would be fine if they didn't take over everything and make everything so quiet. You got to leave Santa Fe or at least downtown Santa Fe to find real culture

LeRoy Sanchez

👍

LeRoy Sanchez

👍

David Romero

The La Fonda is a cultural Icon. Just like the Castenada in Las Vegas it takes you back to a different time. It was built in the Pueblo revival design but is not actually made out of adobe. The most famous ghost in the hotel is that of John B Slough. He was a lawyer from Cincinnati, Ohio and commanded the Union forces at the Battle of Glorieta. After the war he came back to NM to serve as the Attorney General . He had a running disagreement with state legislator Sam Rynerson where many insults were traded. Things came to a head just outside the billiards room in the Exchange Hotel. Rynerson pulled a gun on Slough. Slough yelled " Shoot and be damned," and then tried to pull his own gun. At that time of course Rynerson shot him dead and the rest is history, His ghost has been seen since that time roaming the hallways in a stove pipe hat and a frock coat.

LeRoy Sanchez

👍

elizabeth sutton

One of my first jobs when i came to Santa Fe in 1974, was behind the front desk of La Fonda. I checked in/out numerous celebs from Linda Ronstadt to David Bowie. When my front desk shift ended at 11pm i walked across the lobby and put on an apron and slung cocktails in The Fiesta lounge till closing.

I can’t talk to the Roaring 20’s era, but i can totally give a nod to the Crazy 70’s at La Fonda. When i walk into that lobby today, it still smells the same, and those memories trip back, and man, i smile.

John Gomez

The fact that you would start another shift at 11 shows the bar used to stay open past 10. Maybe the 70s were different and that's why all the old people who go though love it. They remember when it was wild but it's nothing now. Beyond bland nobody in my gen even thinks of la fonda

LeRoy Sanchez

So true. La Fonda is a Santa Fe Treasure.

Lee Vigil

[smile][thumbup]

Peggy Catron

My parents had their honeymoon at La Fonda in 1946 and, thanks to Jenny and Ed, they joyfully celebrated their 70th in the honeymoon suite surrounded by friends in 2016. A place of many happy memories over the decades.

John Gomez

The La Fonda isn't rolling into anything. Rolling 20s implies youth and wild energy. The average guest is 50 plus. It closes down by 11 even if a friday no modern music. The only young people at la fonda are the workers. The only so called culture at La Fonda are the same ol same ol cookie cutter paintings of brown people sold to old white people. The heart of Santa Fe my backside. La fonda shuts down any music on the plaza any action after 10pm cause their old guests will complain. La Fonda is a Puesdo cultural museum for old people nothing more no action la fonda is beyond boring and it's crazy cause even at 50 I'd spend that money to stay in a hostel in Europe

Elizabeth Pettus

The word used was “Roaring” it’s in history. None of what you say is factual.

John Gomez

Expect everything I said about the only people under 50 being the workers and the bar closing is

Stefanie Beninato

The Exchange Hotel was there by the 1850s. And why are you not using the local's preferred phrase for the hotel--THE La Fonda--:-)?

Peggy Catron

No one called it "the" La Fonda until the 70s with all the new tourists. It's redundant.

Stefanie Beninato

Duh! I know that, Peggy--that was the point. And even local Spanish speakers call it the La Fonda today...Me I just say La Fonda.

LeRoy Sanchez

Try to be nice.

LeRoy Sanchez

👍

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