A Mary Colter Weekend, Part III: What Would Mary Do?

One of Mary Colter’s shining achievements was her 1929 redesign of La Fonda on the Plaza. Working with the then-much-younger John Gaw Meem, she oversaw details as large as the fountain in an interior plaza (now La Plazuela Restaurant) and as minute as towel racks and bedspreads.

Edward Kemp photo of La Fonda, 1929. Palace of the Governors Photo Archives #046955.

Edward Kemp photo of La Fonda, 1929. Palace of the Governors Photo Archives #046955.

Records show some type of inn standing at the southeast corner of the Santa Fe Plaza since 1610, but its many morphings continued across migrations of Spanish colonists, Santa Fe Trail riders, East Coast railroad tourists and today’s international mix of travelers. The version of La Fonda that Colter and Meem inherited had been in the hands of Rapp Rapp & Henderson who had expanded its footprint but left what Colter called a “dark, dreary and gruesome” interior.

The hotel, now owned the Ballen family, hired Santa Fe architect Barbara Felix in 2007 to inventory what was there and redesign the restaurant, then famous in part for tripping up customers with its unruly floors.

Fueled by an interest in restoring Colter’s complete vision — including that charming onetime open-air interior plaza — Felix said, “I naively asked, ‘Could we just get rid of the restaurant and return the courtyard to a courtyard?'” (The audience at her Saturday lecture during A Mary Colter Weekend, co-sponsored by the New Mexico History Museum and La Fonda on the Plaza, likely laughed just as hard as her bosses did at the time.)

Felix offered participants an overview of her efforts to forensically find the remnants of Colter’s design and modern-day them into a new vision. Down in storage, she found one remaining chaise longue, several blanket boxes and headboards that held a tale. Purchased for a Florida mansion from an antiques dealer in Spain, they were nearly destroyed in a hurricane during their overseas journey and later auctioned off to a sharp-eyed Colter.

Working with Colter’s correspondence with Meem, old photographs and whatever other documents she could find, Felix pieced together a few facts. Among them: The beloved painted window panes found throughout the hotel were not a Colter touch at all, but something added in the 1980s.

PaintedWindows“They’ve become such a beloved icon of Santa Fe that we didn’t want to remove them,” Felix said. “And frankly, I think I would have gotten lynched if I had.”

(The windows were created not by a local artist but by a La Fonda employee, Ernest Martinez, who only recently retired at 80-some-years-old. Throughout the hotel, you’ll spy his whimsical Native American motifs and flora and fauna along corridor walls, on guest room furniture and even in the hotel’s parking garage. Felix assured Mary Colter Weekend participants that he painted a few extra window panes before retiring “because, as we all know, glass breaks.”)

Determined to restore the restaurant’s fountain, Felix did her best to find tiles she considered appropriate, order them, wait for delivery and prepare for restoration to begin. The surprise came when workmen began removing the flagstone floor that had long covered the spot. Underneath it, they found the shattered remnants of the original fountain.

“They had literally back-filled it into itself,” she said.

Too late to reconsider her tile choices, she went ahead with her plan, but held onto a shard of Colter’s tile as a memento.

restaurant Though sheltered with a sturdy roof, La Plazuela today carries the feel of an open-air plaza (not to mention some of the tastiest meals in downtown Santa Fe).

Throughout her work, Felix said she kept in mind one of Colter’s aims: to be tactile. “She wants you to touch the railings, the walls,” she said.

Felix worked with local artists and artisans, including Steve Dulfer, Klaus Messerer, Gunther Worrlein, Ward Brinigin, Mark Knutsen and Vivian Nichols.

Walk around La Fonda today, and the combined spirit of their efforts and those of artisans over the decades is evident in…


…charming light fixtures…




…walls filled with handmade tiles.

As part of the Mary Colter Weekend, La Fonda compiled a guide to the architectural-historical highlights of its interior — the onetime carriage house that’s now a parking garage; Colter’s last architectural assignment, a cantinita that’s now the French Pastry Shop; original paintings by Gerald Cassidy; and the classic Colter masterpiece of the Santa Fe Room.

CheckingOutHotelOne of the joys of the weekend was watching participants wander through the hotel, the guide in hand, checking out the glories.

Our humble blog posts barely skim the surface of what we covered during A Mary Colter Weekend. If you’re interested in more, there are no better places to start than with the books by two of our speakers: Arnold Berke’s Mary Colter: Architect of the Southwest; and Stephen Fried’s Appetite for America: How Visionary Businessman Fred Harvey Built an Empire that Civilized the West.

In concluding her lecture, Felix asked whether Colter was still relevant. She cited Colter’s knowledge about how materials and culture work together, how she set the standard for National Park system architecture, and about her timeless sense of design. In a haunting question that she left participants to answer, Felix asked:

Are we building structures today that will still be relevant, let along standing, in 100 years?

A Mary Colter Weekend, Part II

Noted Southwestern author Frank Waters once referred to Mary Colter as having “a tender heart and a caustic tongue.” She could write the sweetest notes to the child of her onetime mentee, and scathing ones to architect John Gaw Meem, with whom she worked on La Fonda. (In one of the notes, she asked him precisely where he thought he might end up when he died.)

BerkeBookThose were among the tidbits of a grand life shared this morning by Arnold Berke, the biographer of Mary Colter (Mary Colter: Architect of the Southwest) at this morning’s continuation of A Mary Colter Weekend. During his research, he found few blueprints, which aren’t built for survival to begin with; few original documents revealing anything of her love life (if any); and, as the years pass, fewer and fewer examples of her iconic architecture and designer’s eye.

Those were signs, he said, of a woman who was not appreciated in her own time, nor after her own time. That’s all the more sad when you consider she was alive at the same time as Frank Lloyd Wright and Julia Morgan, William Randolph Heart’s architect. (And no, Berke said, he found no evidence that Colter ever met either of them. And yes, he’s asked that question every time he speaks.)

ArnoldSpeakingWebSizeOnly in recent years, Berke said, has interest in Colter risen, particularly among Grand Canyon aficionados. Colter’s buildings along the South Rim and Phantom Ranch at the canyon’s bottom pioneered a style of architecture now used by most national and state parks. It’s called National Park Service Rustic, and Colter was, Berke said, “truly a pioneer of this idiom.”

A master builder as well designer, Colter married rock, tile, timber, glass, and wrought iron, employed a keen eye for talent in hiring artists like a young Fred Kabotie, and brewed up buildings that grew out of rock ledges, or simply appeared on a forest floor, complete and natural, as if they had always been there. Take a gander at two strikingly different models. The Pueblo-meets-Spanish style of La Fonda on the Plaza’s softly stuccoed and stacked curves (Philosopher Simone de Beauvoir once called  La Fonda”The most beautiful hotel in America, perhaps the most beautiful hotel I’ve seen in my life.”):

La Fonda, Santa fe

La Fonda, Santa fe

And the seemingly haphazard collection of rocks that make up the very stable Hermit’s Rest at the Grand Canyon:

Hermit's Rest, Grand Canyon

Nothing about Colter’s designs was haphazard, Berke said. First-time visitors to her buildings would appreciate seemingly antique furniture that craftsmen had just built, along with soot marking the walls above brand-new fireplaces. “You can’t imagine how difficult it was to make that look old,” she once said.

She designed the interiors of Kansas City’s, Chicago’s and Los Angeles’ Union Stations and created the Mimbres-influenced dishes once used on the Santa Fe Railway and now sold for hundreds of dollars per teacup. She did so at a time when women were not architects, or if they were, they didn’t climb rock monuments to study their composition. Berke said her success was likely due to a combination of nature and nurture — a naturally strong-willed person with an artistic bent, she was raised in the heartland of America at a time when “going West” was the place to go.

By the time she died in 1958, Colter had seen her time come and go. El Ortiz in Lamy, NM, was torn down in 1943. El Navajo in Gallup was destroyed in 1957, along with the monumental sand paintings Colter had persuaded Navajo artisans to create. She outlived Albuquerque’s Alvarado, but only barely. Torn down in 1970, it’s still mourned by lovers of architecture.

The resurgence of interest in her inspired Berke to propose what some might consider a fool’s quest. He referenced the exquisite collection of Native jewelry she had amassed and eventually bequeathed to Mesa Verde Museum, where most of it, like most museum collections, is in storage. Maybe, he said, some enterprising museum type could work out a loan and put the jewelry on exhibit?

To the hearty applause of Berke’s audience, New Mexico History Museum Director Fran Levine said that, yes, she would be that person.

A Mary Colter Weekend, Part I

What could inspire some 150 people to travel from Arizona, Pennsylvania and other parts to Santa Fe? Well, plenty of things, when you think about. Mountains, art, great food, a unique mix of cultures. But this weekend, for these particular 150-some people, it was the memory of Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter.

An 1893 portrait of Mary Jane Colter by Arthur Mathews,  one of her professors. Photo by Tom Alexander, courtesy of the Pioneer Museum, Flagstaff, and the Arizona Historical Society.

An 1893 portrait of Mary Jane Colter by Arthur Mathews, one of her professors. Photo by Tom Alexander, courtesy of the Pioneer Museum, Flagstaff, and the Arizona Historical Society.

Starting Friday evening and continuing through Saturday, experts on the life and times of the Fred Harvey Co.’s “starchitect” are rubbing shoulders and ideas with railroad buffs, fans of history and an admirably large number of Harvey family members.

The event is co-sponsored by the New Mexico History Museum and La Fonda on the Plaza, one of the hotels where Colter left her design mark — along the way developing a version of Southwest style that lives today. The event is a fund-raiser for the History Museum, and we’re gratified to say, we’re sold out.

We began with a reception in the New Mexico room of La Fonda, where margaritas, tortillas and guacamole held court and folks started getting acquainted. A few glimpses:




Beyond food and conversation, we took note of the exquisite architectural details, like this eagle carved into a viga:


And this ceiling lamp:


Our generous sponsors then retired to the Santa Fe Room — the one room in La Fonda that retains about 90 percent of Colter’s original arts-and-crafts-meets-Native-American style — for dinner. Architect Barbara Felix delivered an amuse bouche of what participants will learn when our speakers hold court on Saturday. A Santa Fe architect, Felix oversaw the renovation of La Fonda’s restaurant, La Plazuela, taking care to restore what she could of Colter’s original intent for a room that, in her time, was an open-air plaza.

fireplaceAmong the difficulties that Felix encountered was the discovery that not all of Colter’s efforts were as solid and lasting as the sculpted terra-cotta mantels of German artist Arnold Ronnebeck, from whom she commissioned several pieces still inside the hotel.

Instead, some were piled in a storage room, where more than a few La Fonda honchos think they should stay. Not quite as well-made, they nevertheless held the charm of hand-crafted items, like the hanging lamp with hand-painted glass panels and an iron ashtray shaped like an antelope.

“It’s a little crude,” Felix said of the lamp. “It’s a little whimsical. It’s a little folk-arty.”


And then there was…this metal palm tree to the right of Felix.

Before the event, as a worker wheeled it into the banquet room, one hotel employee sighed in apparent disappointment. But for those of us who troll eBay and Craigslist, it was a find like no other.

Kind of like Mary Colter.

Starting at 10:30 am Saturday, we’ll learn more about her many legacies, which include the magical buildings along the south rim of the Grand Canyon, Phantom Ranch at its bottom, and the onetime grand interior of Los Angeles’ Union Station. Speakers include Colter biographer Arnold Berke; Harvey biographer Stephen Fried; and Felix.

We’ll keep you posted with updates throughout the day. If you can’t attend, don’t despair. In honor of the event, we added items from the Fred Harvey legacy to our display in the museum’s Mezzanine level, including a Collier magazine ad urging readers “Let’s eat with the Harvey boys”; a meal ticket; and a poster of the Harvey Co.’s Indian detours.

We hope you’ll come visit.