Santa Fe: Fond-a Southwestern Design

I had long wanted to come to Santa Fe, to see its plaza and especially to check out La Fonda, the historic hotel nestled on that famous plaza.

But on my first visit, it took me several spins around the block before I figured out that the unprepossessing brown adobe structure, fronted by a series of unremarkable storefronts and, yes, clearly marked, La Fonda, was indeed that La Fonda.

The sprawling building looks so, well, traditional, that it gives no real hint of its significance or the wonders that it holds inside.

But the hotel, which was erected in 1920 on the same site as an earlier La Fonda (Spanish for “inn”), offers a feast for design-sensitive eyes, as well as for ears attuned to stories of the southwest and its emergence as a tourist destination.

That story is intricately linked to Fred Harvey — and those designs to Mary Colter. She was the Arts and Crafts architect who, through her pairings with entrepreneur Harvey, popularized the blend of Spanish mission and Pueblo that is today known as “Santa Fe” style.

And while Colter didn’t build this hotel, the Harvey touch is why it looks so familiar, so cliche’d. It’s the original — designed to look exotic and of a place.

The southwest, as crafted and mythologized by Harvey, was a new and distinct destination defined by Native American architecture and artifacts.

So inside, where much of Colter’s handiwork as an interior designer is indeed evident, the cliches — exposed beams, painted furniture — abound. But they too are authentic.

Today, her true legacy is most evident in the astonishing La Plazuela restaurant, a 2007 addition that attempts to adhere to the spirit, if not the letter, of Colter’s work.

Photos by JoAnn Greco

Most important of those is the replication of a long-buried central fountain that now gurgles happily away as diners chow down on tacos and sopapilla. A new red flagstone floor is also a meticulous recreation.

The setting — enveloped by French doors adorned with merrily painted glass panes — is as close to Colter’s original preference for an open center courtyard as feasible, given the series of alterations endured by her handiwork over the decades.

We go to the Southwest to buy turquoise and silver, to marvel at Navajo blankets and wrought iron jackrabbits. Fred Harvey is why —and Colter’s La Fonda offers convincing proof of the extraordinary success of his vision.