What Would Mary Do?

Seeking guidance in restoring the historic La Fonda to her former glory, Barbara Felix channeled legendary Harvey House architect Mary Colter. Now, what’s old is new again.

In 1931, a woman known to us only as “Edna” booked a trip from Chicago to the Grand Canyon aboard the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. A stopover in Santa Fe left her enraptured, particularly by La Fonda, then a young star in the cultural-tourism empire of the Fred Harvey Company. As the train chugged away, she used a cursive hand to gush to her friends:

La Fonda Hotel . . . was typically Spanish and Indian and we just simply went into ecstasies over it all. Our room was adorable. . . . We had lacquer-red twin beds . . . little hand-painted Spanish chests at the foot of the beds . . . and gorgeous hand-woven Indian rugs and stone floor. . . . Just hated to leave!

Edna may not have known that the hotel was just two years past a fantastic renovation. She could not have known that the overseers of the redo, Mary Colter and John Gaw Meem, would put a lasting stamp on Southwestern architecture.

But she could see that it was pretty.

Of course, it wouldn’t stay that way. Another owner, other managers, and other decorators would lay hands on it. The blemishes of a well-used building would show. But the old girl didn’t die. The southeast corner of the Santa Fe Plaza has held some kind of lodging since 1610, when Spain established Santa Fe as an outpost of its empire. And the design theories hammered out by Colter, sometimes in testy notes to Meem, endured. Eventually, the building’s bones and those theories formed a foundation onto which a modern-day Mary—architect Barbara Felix—built a vision of her own.

“I knew this was a grand hotel from day one,” Felix said. “But she was tired, aging. She had too many layers applied.”

Bit by bit over the last four years, Felix helped “The Inn at the End of the Trail” shed its surfeit of Santa Fe style, leaky roofs, and outmoded mechanics. She mixed beloved tradition with contemporary cheekiness. Like Colter, she drew on her skills as architect, decorator, and do-it-yourselfer, and forged bonds with old-style artisans to craft furnishings and fixtures the Colter way. Beginning in 2009 and finishing just this August, as she navigated discoveries both delightful and disheartening about the building’s interior and exterior, she circled back again and again to one simple question:

What would Mary do?

When the Fred Harvey Company and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway offered Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter a full-time job in 1910, the Minnesota schoolteacher had already spent eight summers putting her mark on buildings at the Grand Canyon and on Albuquerque’s Alvarado Hotel. From a base in Kansas City until her retirement to Santa Fe in 1948, she took all or partial credit for buildings that include: the Canyon’s Watchtower, Hopi House, and Phantom Ranch; El Navajo Hotel, in Gallup; La Posada, in Winslow, Arizona; and Union Station, in Los Angeles. She even designed the Mimbres-inspired china used aboard the Santa Fe Chief.

As other architects turned toward art deco, Colter clung to the earlier arts and crafts style. It spoke to the thumping heart of the Fred Harvey philosophy: the romance of travel. She had taught basket weaving, metalwork, and pottery, so if she couldn’t find someone to do a job, she did it herself. A chain smoker who appreciated her whiskey, she could cuss out a bellhop one day, a carpenter the next. As her physical image devolved from Gibson Girl to frowsy middle-ager, she charted a solitary route, never marrying, never bearing children. She never met cohorts such as Frank Lloyd Wright, and failed to earn fame until well after her death, in 1958, not far from one of her signature works.

La Fonda (Spanish for The Inn) opened in 1922, at 100 E. San Francisco Street. Designed by Isaac Rapp in lumpy homage to a multistoried pueblo and built in “faux-dobe” (stuccoed-over timber and brick), it replaced the crumbling Exchange Hotel, which had in turn replaced lodgings all the way back to the early 17th century. The AT&SF bought La Fonda in 1925, and the Harvey Company began planning its elevation into the company’s upper echelon of properties.

Though famed today for Pueblo Revival classics like Santa Fe’s Cristo Rey Church and the University of New Mexico’s Zimmerman Library, Meem was then but a pup of an architect.

“My fantasy is that she didn’t exactly tuck him under her wing,” Felix said of Colter, “but he probably learned an awful lot from her.”

The schooling likely left scars. While recovering from a car accident, Colter sent scathing missives from Kansas City. “I wonder where you expect to go to when you die?” she wrote in 1928. “My secretary suggests that you may be going where all good architects go. On such occasions I do not claim to be an architect.”

When La Fonda reopened, on June 15, 1929, it sported a new guest wing, a larger lobby, shops, a curio room, a bell tower, and an interior courtyard with a Mediterranean-style fountain. Colter and Meem had sparred over Pueblo vs. Spanish and eventually settled on a mix, with handcrafted light fixtures, tiles, textiles, Gerald Cassidy paintings, Olive Rush’s murals, and those hand-painted headboards that would so enchant Edna. Altogether, it built on the “Santa Fe style” begun by Rapp and others, and rooted in centuries of a rich cultural stew. Adding a European ingredient to the mix, fifth-floor suites boasted 17th- and 18th-century antiques.

The hotel became Santa Fe’s Grand Central Station, delighting the likes of French writer and feminist Simone de Beauvoir, who visited in 1947. In his book, Mary Colter: Architect of the Southwest, Arnold Berke wrote that she called it “the most beautiful hotel in America, perhaps the most beautiful I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Interstate car travel hurt the railroad, and La Fonda suffered; budget-minded travelers booked rooms in the motor lodges cropping up along Route 66. After 1937, the Mother Road bypassed Santa Fe altogether. The postwar design ethos favored the manufactured over the handmade, howling coyotes over Hopi kachinas. The Harvey Company struggled to keep up La Fonda, but as room rates fell, so did its quality. Sam Ballen, a New Yorker who’d struck it rich in Texas oil, bought the hotel in 1968. By then, “it was ready to be razed,” said La Fonda chairwoman Jenny Kimball. Ballen rescued it and added a garage, ballroom, and terrace, but his improvements didn’t always match. In 2005, a Travel & Leisure writer called La Fonda “a relic that had seen better days.”

“I have to be honest,” Kimball said. “It was hard to see past the ristras and the jackalopes.”

One day, Ballen visited Acoma Pueblo’s Sky City Cultural Center and Haak’u Museum. Impressed, he tracked down its architect, Barbara Felix, a Michigan native who had worked in Chicago and Richmond, Virginia, before falling for New Mexico culture. Ballen asked her to give the aging La Plazuela restaurant a light facelift. At the same time, he wooed Kimball, an attorney and longtime family friend, to take over his job.

Felix and Kimball were still pondering the offers in February 2007 when Ballen died, forcing them to begin a wary dance that turned into his best gift to each. Felix was the lanky dreamer, Kimball the petite pragmatist. Both possess mile-a-minute energy, and each had doubts about La Fonda’s then-condition. Based on those shared traits, the two built a close friendship that began with a critical squint at La Plazuela’s leaky skylights.

“The design was obsolete,” Kimball said. “And once you take the roof off, you know it’s not going to stop there.”

A consultant helped her set renovation priorities. Felix helped her find La Fonda’s soul.

“Maybe because I’m female and Jenny’s female, we could see that the person getting lost in La Fonda’s story was Colter,” Felix said. “It’s a very female building.”

Before 2007 closed, they took the train from Albuquerque to Winslow to visit La Posada, today the best-preserved example of a Colter creation. After soaking up its Maryness, they headed to her Painted Desert Inn, in the Petrified Forest National Park, near Holbrook, Arizona, which gave Felix the itch to create “a handmade, tactile experience for guests” at La Fonda.

 

“My biggest a-ha wasn’t in the hotel, it was on that trip,” Kimball said. “That’s where I got to see the huge variety of her work. Then I could see the vision from her eyes.”

Tearing into La Plazuela meant divining Colter’s intentions—a task relished by Felix, a wannabe architectural historian. She found Colter’s letters to Meem at the University of New Mexico. She hunted for architectural details in images stored in the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives. She unearthed other facts and photos at the University of Arizona, the state Historic Preservation Division, the Grand Canyon, and “all over La Fonda,” down to the basement.

For Colter’s courtyard fountain, long ago buried, she found only a note describing the tile lining it, but no image. After asking “WWMD?” she chose a style that seemed close. When workmen blasted into the floor, they came upon a mother lode of the original tiles, mostly shards, but blessedly similar to the ones Felix had purchased. “That was a good discovery,” she said.

Another good one came from floors of colored cement hidden beneath carpeting. The architectural notes had referenced a multicolored palette; Felix found only brown and green, and only here and there—but the colorations are as elegant as marble.

She decided to change La Plazuela’s window frames from turquoise to cream, based on an old photograph, but a preservationist cautioned that black-and-white images often disguise turquoise as cream. Her only option was to spend two hours rubbing mineral spirits through decades of paint: turquoise to black to cream on top of primer. Vindication.

 

When La Plazuela reopened in 2009, Felix’s genius gleamed. What had been a tired and dark tripping hazard emerged with a giddy lightness. Efficient skylights replaced the 1970s version. A viga-like matrix teased out a perception of more sunshine. It mimicked Colter’s open-air plaza, and carried visitors’ gaze out the rear doors to terra-cotta shalako figures on a fireplace designed by German modernist Arnold Ronnebeck.

“The most common question we had when we reopened the restaurant was, ‘When did you put that fireplace in?’” Felix said. “It was there with Colter. It’s now the focal point.”

When tackling the hotel’s 164 guest rooms, Felix edited out what no longer fit Colter’s aesthetic of streamlined and hand-hewn and rounded up craftspeople who still did things the old way—ironworkers, carpenters, tile artists, lamp makers, glassblowers, rug makers, and more. Some invented items from scratch. Others salvaged Colter’s remnants.

A few blanket boxes had survived, and a few headboards bore enough original paint to earn a return engagement. But in most rooms are one or more of the 174 new headboards painted à la Colter by 10 artists, including Brian Vallo, of Acoma Pueblo, who gave up directing the Haak’u Museum to join Felix’s firm as marketing manager.

Nearly everything was made in Santa Fe or Albuquerque. Astute visitors will notice local themes: papel picado (perforated paper) and colcha embroidery designs in lamp shades; Pueblo rain clouds on transoms; and original paintings by Harrison Begay and Gerald Nailor, possibly from the famed artists’ Santa Fe Indian School days. New stucco and balconies join a refurbished terrace bar, sound insulation, and other amenities.

What visitors won’t see are posters and painted designs on every door, wall, and ceiling beam. “Jenny and I talked a lot about sacred cows,” Felix said. “There were too many layers, too many things. We wanted to choose what a touchstone was.”

Berke, Colter’s biographer and an authority on preservation issues, visited early in the renovation and was pleased to see how it honored the hotel’s previous incarnations. He predicted that it “will generate a new layer of history.” As caretaker of a National Trust Historic Hotel of America, Kimball takes pride in having protected its history while pumping up the style factor throughout the interior. Even nonguests will see the change: As the renovation neared its late-summer conclusion, a work crew skimmed the building’s walls with new stucco. Like frosting on a cake, it highlighted rehabilitated window frames and balcony railings, replacing a sense of fatigue with a welcome invitation. Kimball won’t reveal how much the work cost, but lodgers needn’t worry. For at least the next year, room rates will remain unchanged; after that, any increase will be minor. “La Fonda was very profitable before this started,” she said.

In the final flurry of construction this summer, Felix all but sprinted through the building, her long, lean frame as fluid as a dancer’s. She stopped near the lobby’s concierge station and pointed to where two ceilings meet, one with round vigas and aspen latillas, the other with milled lumber beams and flat boards. Here Meem’s Spanish style meets Colter’s Pueblo one—two diverse ideas coexisting in harmonious history, in an agreement made nearly a century ago. Now the hotel bears Felix’s ideas as well, welded onto the past so seamlessly that visitors could test themselves on whose came first.

“I don’t care if people know that this is a Pueblo motif or that’s a Spanish design. I just want them to think it’s pretty,” she said. “All along, I asked, ‘What would Mary do?’ But Mary would have changed things, too. I think if she were walking through now, she would be like, ‘OK, I would have done that differently, but I’m pleased.’”

Felix paused, briefly pondering Colter’s famously tart tongue, then laughed. “Note that I say she’s pleased, not happy.”