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El Norte: At La Fonda, there were horses at the bar, and Zsa Zsa getting hitched

SANTA FE, N.M. — When you start reading about the history of Santa Fe during the first half of the 20th century – maybe stretching into the second half when you consider the hippie invasion – it sounds like a wilder and crazier place to hang out than it has been in recent decades.

At least it seemed that way for nonconformist Anglos sweeping in with money and/or lack of care about money.

Consider the White sisters and their costume parties at “El Delirio,” now the home of the low-key and serious School for Advanced Research. Or the Cinco Pintores paying off their bar bills at El Farol with paintings on its adobe walls.

And now we have the stories from La Fonda, gathered in a book put together with essays by a number of contributors, including some who have overseen the latest set of renovations at that former Harvey House.

According to recollections gathered by Cyndy Tanner, some visitors rode their horses directly into the lobby and up to the bar. Bill Field says his sister Marsha Meeker did it in the 1930s, and painter Jerry West said his Uncle Gene did the same after the Fiestas parade in the 1950s – as did architect John Midyette in the 1960s.

Motorcycles apparently also roared into the lobby.

All this makes one wonder – entrances at the time must have skipped the stairs now found at many doorways, or the horses and machines at the time were awfully nimble.

Imagine the same thing happening today, and somehow flashing squad car lights come to mind.

Social center

“You never met anybody anywhere except at La Fonda … Life among the upper crust is centered (there),” said Ernie Pyle, famed war correspondent and Albuquerque resident, according to a quote included in Stephen Fried’s section of the book.

Fried also quotes writer Simone de Beauvoir saying in 1947: “The La Fonda is the most beautiful hotel in America, perhaps the most beautiful I’ve ever seen in my life.”

And that French intellectual and feminist had been around.

This historical photo shows afternoon tea on the south portal around La Fonda’s courtyard. Mary Colter refurnished it with informal, mostly Mexican, furniture and decor

This historical photo shows afternoon tea on the south portal around La Fonda’s courtyard. Mary Colter refurnished it with informal, mostly Mexican, furniture and decor. (Courtesy of La Fonda)

The 1940s also was the time when workers for the Manhattan Project stayed, ate and drank in the hotel before their trip up The Hill, or during visits back to Santa Fe – and undercover federal agents took jobs as bartenders and servers to quietly listen for any loose lips leaking secrets.

The book also mentions some quick thinking by La Fonda staff to break up a fight at the time between Army and Navy men: The band was told to play “The Star Spangled Banner,” bringing those brawlers to attention.

The stars weren’t just in the flag. Many celebrities from stage and screen found their way to La Fonda over the years. Tanner reported that Ethel Merman would pull up in a black limousine, emerge in a full-length black mink coat, and belt out, “I’m heeeeeere!”

Also, according to Tanner, in Room 500, Zsa Zsa Gabor married Conrad Hilton. That was No. 2 of nine husbands. (And why didn’t they choose one of his hotels?)

Constant change

With Santa Fe’s passion for preserving its heritage, it is remarkable to consider the scope of change that La Fonda’s corner has seen.

Of course, a lot can happen in 400 years.

Some sort of overnight accommodations are believed to have been on that corner since the 1600s.

But more “recently,” the Exchange Hotel was demolished in 1919, with flush residents putting up $100 for war bonds in return for a turn at knocking down a wall, according to Fried.

The hotel was rebuilt after the city put rules in place requiring buildings to suit the “Santa Fe style,” and the new hotel was bought and remodeled by Fred Harvey in 1926.

It was expanded in the 1940s with five floors of new hotel rooms added on Water Street, and then – horror of horrors! – street-front retail spaces were added in the 1960s and the inner patio was enclosed and climate-controlled for a dining room in 1976.

In the early 1950s, Meredith Davidson reports in her section, La Fonda built the first hotel swimming pool in Santa Fe, using land once owned by the Catholic archdiocese that included a fish and lily pond. It doesn’t say if people rose in protest over the change.

But some Santa Feans, as suits the city’s nature, have been grumbling about some of the alterations in the most recent renovation at La Fonda, which took 10 years over the 300,000 square feet of the hotel, according to architect Barbara Felix, writing in the book.

The bar has been the target of the most muttering, with its new sleekness marking a departure from the thick wooden furniture and larger dance floor featured in its previous iteration.

Yet Felix stresses respect for the past that was incorporated into the renovations, explaining how she visited a Lamy quarry to see original stone used in the central courtyard, how carvings in wood transoms were echoed in yellow triangles skirting doorways in guest rooms, and how La Fonda’s rabbit mascot, Harvey, was incorporated into designs.

Some changes might be welcome. John Vollertsen (otherwise known as chef Johnny Vee) writes that early enchiladas were made from flour, lard and Cream of Wheat, because, strangely enough, masa (perhaps its cornmeal ingredient?) was not widely available at the time.

And while we might not have Billy Palou’s Mexican Orchestra playing any more, two-steppers seem happy with the Bill Hearne Trio.

(The book says it’s illegal to dance wearing a sombrero in New Mexico, but cowboy hats must be OK, judging by the recent dance scene in La Fonda’s bar.)

Resisters of change can be comforted by one piece of history mentioned in “La Fonda: Then and Now,” available for purchase ($55) in the hotel’s gift shop:

In the 1960s, before Sam Ballen bought the hotel, the city of Santa Fe reportedly was talking about demolishing La Fonda and making it a parking lot.

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