It’s difficult to imagine a modern Santa Fe without La Fonda on the Plaza’s downtown presence, but the hotel’s enduring legacy was far from assured, historian Stephen Fried said.
La Fonda’s national ownership after World War II and lack of reliance on railroad tracks to tote in tourists helped ensure its survival when competitors faltered, Fried said in an interview Thursday. The author and professor was among the speakers lined up for the hotel’s sold-out “Party of the Century” 100th anniversary event Saturday, which was delayed from January and benefits the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts.
SWAIA, which organizes the Santa Fe Indian Market, also turns 100 this year.
“It easily could have disappeared at a lot of times,” said Fried, the co-author of La Fonda: Then and Now. He added La Fonda was created for a company that vanished with the arrival of the Great Depression a few years later.
In the mid-1920s, restaurateur and entrepreneur Fred Harvey’s son, Ford, made La Fonda part of the Harvey House chain, offering regional tours and stays for visitors and passengers on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe rail line.
“La Fonda was created because of the incredible rise of tourism in New Mexico during the 1920s,” Fried said. In fact, many familiar Santa Fe institutions got their start in the decade that preceded the Depression and are marking their centennials sometime in the 2020s as a result, he added.
After World War II, “Europe was decimated; more and more people wanted to travel in America,” Fried said. “Santa Fe became the center of that.”
National advertising drew visitors to Northern New Mexico, where they took a car service from La Fonda to sites such as Taos and various pueblos, Fried said.
Also strangers to New Mexico, at least at first: La Fonda’s employees.
“The hotel was very popular, and … was hiring people from Kansas City; the Harvey chain didn’t hire local people. That’s what the Harvey House was like, but it became something different over time,” Fried said, adding, “It was one of the early places where waitresses of color worked.”
Fried has been visiting Santa Fe at least once a year since 2010, when he began putting on Fred Harvey History Weekend events at La Fonda. The Philadelphia resident spoke fondly of the City Different, saying his mind often is here even when his body isn’t.
“I always thought that the movie Casablanca would have been much more interestingly done at La Fonda, where all the people doing the Manhattan Project were hanging out when they weren’t working on the bomb,” he said.
As for the hotel’s appeal, Fried said, “When you walk in, even if you’ve never been there, you feel like you’ve been there before.”