Old Hotel Old Plaza
In early June, Don and I spent one night in the unique town of Taos.
What a curious town, of blended cultures. Our historic hotel was right in the heart of town, on the south side of the 330-year-old Taos Plaza.
La Fonda Means Inn
There are La Fonda hotels in Santa Fe and Taos. There's actually no connection besides the name. The hotels look similar with their pueblo style design, but Santa Fe's hotel is much younger. Built in 1922. It's also much more expensive
We were able to book a room at La fonda de Taos, for $149. When we arrived, the hotel looked picture perfect, with its smooth adobe, rounded corners and rustic ladder, connecting one flat roof to another. In fact it looked like part of a Hollywood set. So much of Taos does.
The Original Pueblo
Many hotels in New Mexico have borrowed the appealing adobe style, of the Historic Taos Pueblo. The Native American community has been continuously inhabited for over 1,000 years. It sits just a few miles outside of town.
Don and I were able to visit the Taos Pueblo a decade ago. It was moving to study the structures and to meet people who lived there. Sadly the community has been closed to the public throughout the pandemic. Years ago, residents of this Pueblo would sell their crafts in the lobby of La Fonda de Taos.
Don and I arrived in Taos on a warm June afternoon. We were a little early for check in, so we wandered the Plaza. It seemed quieter than when we visited 10 years ago.
Most of the tourist shops on the plaza looked a little worn. I'm sure the pandemic hasn't helped. I paused to admire an old horsey in front of one store. I pondered the large statue on the Plaza and wondered why those hands were so incredibly large.
Around 4 pm, we headed to the hotel's colorful entrance.
We rolled our bags towards the desk, where a woman with colorful hair greeted us.
Heather at the Desk
I wish I'd gotten a picture of Heather, but not because of her green hair. I'd just like to have a picture, to remember her. She made our visit interesting and memorable.
When we first approached the desk, Heather was all business. She checked us in and I studied the beautiful woodwork around the key/message boxes.
Don signed some paperwork and I wondered about the designs on the counter. I suddenly wished that I had postcards to mail, when I noticed the old wooden mailbox standing nearby. How old is that?
So Many Questions
I knew this hotel had a million stories. I'd read something about the glassed-in office, behind the desk. Something about an eccentric previous owner, who kept some very special paintings in his office. I didn't ask.
Heather was about 20 years younger than me. I've learned that employees under age 50, don't always have much interest in history. But it turns out that Heather actually knew a lot. Her own stories came out bit by bit... with each visit I had to her desk. She had childhood memories of hanging out at this hotel. Heather had always dreamed of working here.
Behind the Curvy Windows
Before we headed to our room, I looked across the 2-story lobby. I asked if that was the restaurant, through the oddly shaped windows.
Heather said the restaurant had been closed for a few years, but was due to reopen soon. She told us that the restaurant area had once been an art studio. Her father had been an artist and Heather remembered his sculptures being in that space.
Off We Go
We got our key and headed for the stairs. We crossed through the lobby, past the cozy sitting corner with kiva fireplace. For a moment I wanted it to be winter, so I could read a book by the fire.
Directly above, the ceiling held some surprises. A chandelier hung from hand-hewn timber. A painted skylight and a woven rug, were tucked right between the beams. I could have easily missed that.
We headed up the stairs, admiring the wrought iron handrail and decorated woodwork. The floors above were added in 1937, after the Karavas family took ownership. When we reached our 85-year-old, new room, we found little to admire. The tiny room had a view of a roof. An odd step up to the bathroom, looked lethal. I headed to the desk to have a chat.
Heather apologized, because there were few options. They only have 19 rooms. We'd have to upgrade 50 dollars for a view. Don and I usually go the cheapest route, but suddenly we were happy to pay. We rumbled our luggage up and down more levels... across a cozy mezzanine area, to our Deluxe King Room on the third floor!
I wouldn't describe our room as deluxe, but it was spacious. Our room was one of only 2 in the hotel, that had access to a balcony.
There was a somewhat wobbly ceiling fan and the bed was not the most luxurious. But we had two bedside tables and space to open up suitcases. I don't ask for much.
I loved the rounded kiva, even if it no longer burned wood.
It was a little warm for the (electric) kiva fireplace, but we gave it a try anyway.
There was a desk and TV. There was a couch, which was un-comfy, as sleeper sofa couches tend to be.
The bathroom was small but there was an actual tub and some attempts at updating. So we were fine.
My favorite part of the room was that it faced The Plaza and we could actually open the window.
It was a little frustrating when I realized we had to share the balcony with our neighbors, but they turned out to be a nice couple from Denver. We chatted a bit before they headed inside. Never saw them again.
After getting our room settled, it was time to explore the hotel. The mezzanine lounge had a shelf with books and games.
We didn't pause to play or read, but I did wonder about past guests who might have lingered in this area. Rock Hudson, Clark Gable and Judy Garland are some of the Hollywood celebs who have been guests. Over the years, Taos and La Fonda have attracted more artists and writers, than movie stars. Georgia O'Keefe and Tennessee Williams are some of the many.
Writer AND Painter DH Lawrence
It's unclear to me if the famous writer D.H. Lawrence actually stepped foot in this hotel. However, his 9 paintings were given a home at La Fonda, in the late 1950's. That's an odd fact. Odd that DH Lawrence painted. And more odd, that his paintings were "obscene" and once banned in England!
Lawrence and his wife Frieda spent a couple years living in the Taos area. That was after a visit in 1922, when they were drawn to the community and mountain scenery. At that time Hotel La Fonda was called Columbia Hotel. It had become a popular hangout for Taos Society of Artists. It seems like DH would have enjoyed the company of the artists that gathered at the hotel daily, for breakfast and cards.
The Karavas Fam
It was during that same time that James and Noula Karavas moved to Taos with their young son Saki. The Karavas family bought the hotel, but before long DH and Frieda headed back to Europe. This photo shows James, sometime after the remodeling and name change, of 1937.
While the Karavas family settled into hotel ownership, DH was finding a new creative outlet with his painting. In 1929 he exhibited some of his art in London. It was promptly confiscated. His erotic art, like his writing, was considered obscene.
Poor old DH didn't have many more opportunities to dabble in art. He died in 1930 of tuberculosis. Frieda moved back to Taos after his death. She brought the forbidden paintings, along with her lover. By the time she died in 1956, Little Saki was all grown up and had become the sole owner of La Fonda. He was also a collector or art. He bought the obscene paintings and hung them in his office, behind the lobby counter. At some point he began charging a dollar to view the DH collection.
Saki died in 1996, but his office remains. However the erotic paintings are elsewhere. Don and I were curious to see them.
Viewing the Art
We stopped by the desk to ask Heather. She said that hotel guests were allowed to view the paintings for free. We had to wait until she was freed up, so she could grab the keys and unlock the door to the conference room. We stepped inside and found an entire wall covered by a set of drapes.
Heather invited us to sit, while she dramatically pulled the cord. The fleshy art was suddenly revealed. Don and I grinned behind her back and I halted a giggle before she turned. It clearly wasn't the nude bodies that made me giddy, it was the whole deal. The private show. The serious parting of the curtains! It felt like we were being invited to a private peep show... or the viewing of corpse. It was silly and surreal!
Before Heather left us to enjoy privately, she turned on a 10-minute recording with some history. I tried to pay attention and to absorb the experience.
The art was curious and awkward and a little amusing. Hardly pornographic by today's standards. I'm guessing no one ever suggested that DH was as talented with his paint as he was with the pen.
After viewing we thanked Heather at the desk and then I dared to ask, "Are these the originals?" Heather was honest with me, that these were very special reproductions. Which suddenly made our whole viewing even more mind-boggling and funny.
So Many Stories
After our exciting art experience, Don and I needed a drink. There was no hotel bar, but there was Noula's Coffee Shop, named for Saki's mother.
Heather told us the coffee cafe had been a candy shop, when she was kid. Saki would let her pick out candies from the shop. While pondering options, I looked up and noticed that our balcony. It was empty and we needed to make use.
Don made us drinks and we enjoyed some porch time.
Cheers to the Characters
We set the camera timer to capture our memory and then made toasts.
We toasted to DH Lawrence and to all the characters who have enjoyed this hotel. We needed an extra big toast to honor Mr. Pooler, who was the second owner of La Fonda. I'm not sure how much he enjoyed ownership, since he was shot and killed in the hotel bar, by a drunken guest, in 1900.
The Plaza in 2012
The view of The Plaza and distant mountains was lovely. But I expected more excitement on a Saturday evening.
Ten years ago we visited Taos on a weekend and the Plaza was full of locals enjoying a band performance.
Cars & Bikes
There was no scheduled entertainment for us, but before long we had a different kind of show.
There seemed to be a slow and steady stream of cars and motorcycles, circling the Plaza. Like American Graffiti days, these cars were definitely cruisin'. The drivers made sure windows were open and music was cranked up and throbbing. Now and then we saw an extra special vintage car and I was thrilled. We toasted to the locals and their evening amusement, before heading off to dinner!
Luckily the Plaza was quiet by bedtime. In the morning I headed downstairs to peek at the Plaza in early morning light. Heather was no longer at the desk, but Nate greeted me from behind the desk.
I told him I wanted to get a photo of the woodwork. He was happy to oblige when I invited him to pose. Then I headed for the door.
The red doors were still closed at 7 am. I opened one and suddenly heard the sound of an angry female voice, shattering the quiet morning. "F---ing Pervert!" A woman (with mental health issues) was ranting and wailing from a park bench in the empty plaza. I headed back inside and told Nate what he already knew. "She's the Town Crier." He said. Yikes.
Coffee and Muffins
Instead of wandering outside, I got Don and we purchased coffee at Noula's.
We weren't as kind as one kind soul, who bought a coffee and delivered it to the mad woman on the bench. We sat in the L-shaped lobby and enjoyed the beams and art, instead.
I sipped and wondered about all the artists who once hung out here and displayed their work on the walls. I wish I could have met the owner Saki. He was evidently an eccentric businessman, who ran the hotel in his own way. He was also known as the Don Juan of Taos. Heather said she remembered him well. She laughed as if she knew more.
Drums on the Plaza
Back in our room we packed up with the windows open. The loud woman was gone. But there was another sound.
I heard drumming and went to the balcony. A family seemed to be performing... for no one.
I went down to watch and wondered if they were practicing. Two little girls played while the adults danced and chanted.
I watched quietly and it became clear that they were involved in a ceremony of some kind. There was a pause in activity and a woman came over and handed me some leaves from a branch. I watched the family placing items in the center, blowing on conch shells, turning to face the north, east, south and west.
She invited me to sit and watch during their blessing. I was asked not to cross the circle, when I went to sit. I offered a donation when they finished and was embarrassed when it was turned away. I left feeling like every silly, odd, uncomfortable or whacky thing I'd noticed in the past 20 hours was unimportant. I headed back to the hotel feeling content. I knew this is what I would remember most.
I raced back to the hotel, so we could check out on time. But I did pause to look at a painting on the wall. It was Noula Karavas, in her Native Greek attire.
Beside the painting there was a photograph of Noula (in another festive outfit) in the lobby. I'm guessing that's Saki next to her. She helped run the hotel with him until the end of the century.
It was easy to recognize the corner with the same furniture and kiva. But the red paint and designs and the artwork was all so different.
I headed up and we grabbed our bags and rumbled across the mezzanine.
I told Don to hold on. I tossed him my phone and ran down to have a quick sit, in Noula's chair. That completed my stay!
There was something a little "off" about La Fonda, at first. Maybe the pandemic was lingering. Maybe my expectations had been too high. But we both eased into our stay.
By the time we left, I was just plain Fond of La Fonda! We only scratched the surface, with the history of this place. I'm so grateful that the hotel is still sitting on the Plaza, accepting guests for a reasonable price. I'm glad the restaurant will open soon and more guests can come and enjoy.
Thanks to Heather and Nate and the wonderful Family in the Plaza. We had a memorable time.
My New Year's Resolution for 2014 was to start documenting some of the memorable overnights I've had in some very odd and curious motels and hotels. Like the adventures in my Dining Blog, I have learned to enjoy the surprises that happen when you step out of the comfort zone, far away from the well-known chains.
I began with a few entries recalling my very first home away from home memories from my youth. Then, I started sharing about some of the quirky and unforgettable motels, hotels and inns that my husband and I have discovered in recent years.
The best part about this challenge was making some lists with Don and getting on the road in search of new overnight adventures. I gave myself a 2-year goal to write up 90 stories and the goal was met. Now we just keep on adding!