At the dawn of the 20th century, English-born entrepreneur Fred Harvey transformed tourism in the Southwest with a collection of stately hotels. Now, his most opulent properties, still dubbed Harvey Houses, are being lovingly restored for a new era
By Sam Moulton
With spectacular views of the Santa Fe’s famous plaza below and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the distance, the rooftop bar of La Fonda is one of the best places in town to watch the sunset or have a margarita. If the sunset strikes you as particularly dramatic, or your margarita tastes uncommonly smooth, that’s partly normal — sunsets and margaritas are two of the things Santa Fe does best — and partly because of where you are: situated on the oldest hotel corner in America. Dating all the way back to 1607, La Fonda is one of the most authentically charming hotels in the country, the kind of place that makes everything a bit more memorable.
Nearly 500 miles due west, perched over the southern rim of the Grand Canyon, El Tovar Hotel has a similar ability to transport you to an earlier era. A mere 20 feet from the chasm, the stately, hunting-inspired lodge was an opulent oasis in an otherwise largely rough-and-tumble Southwest, boasting fresh milk from the hotel’s own dairy, a barbershop, and art and music. The cows and barber are long gone, but the Grand Canyon railroad still stops 100 yards away and the hotel remains as stately (and popular) as ever.
La Fonda and El Tovar share more than just incredible locations and views: They’re also two of the last remaining Harvey Houses, a collection of seminal hotels started by Fred Harvey, the visionary entrepreneur and marketer who developed a brand of tourism that popularized the Southwest. The only other Harvey House still operating as a hotel is the La Posada in Winslow, Arizona. Heralded as one of the most beautiful buildings in the Southwest, the historical hotel was restored in the late 1990s. While the individual histories of each of the three remaining Harvey Houses are all fascinating in their own right, the historical and cultural impact of their founder is even more interesting. As one historian put it, “You can’t understand the Southwest without understanding Fred Harvey.” Like a lot of interesting stories, this one starts with food — really bad food.
In the 1870s, as railroads were being laid across the continent, train travel was not the luxurious affair it is today. The only places to eat were at roadhouses along the way, and the menu options were as limited and grim: fried meat, stale bread and cowboy coffee. Harvey, an English-born entrepreneur, saw a chance to launch a business: provide Eastern-quality dining options to the West.
In 1875, Harvey opened two cafes in Kansas. A few years later, he was given exclusive rights to open up restaurants at all points west of the Missouri River on the Santa Fe line. The country’s first restaurant chain was born. By the late 1880s, there was a Fred Harvey dining facility every 100 miles along the line. The eateries quickly earned a nationwide reputation for serving up fresh, hearty fare at a fair price but were perhaps best known for their waitresses — single, attractive and well-educated women. Famously known as Harvey Girls, they helped usher in a new era of decorum in the West and helped advance the stature of women in the workforce. The young women were so admired that they inspired the 1946 MGM musical The Harvey Girls, which starred Judy Garland and Angela Lansbury. As one article from the time put it, Harvey “made the desert blossom with beefsteak and pretty girls.”
But he also did much more than that. “He was the first real brand person,” says Jennifer Kimball, chairman of the board of La Fonda. “Before Harvey there weren’t really brands like we know them now. He was a precursor to Coca-Cola and Nike.” He was a marketing genius who understood that quality and consistency were what people naturally gravitate toward. Bread was baked on-site and sliced three-eighths of an inch thick; alkali levels of the water were tested to ensure high-quality brewed coffee.
WATCH: An Interview with the Harvey Girl Twins
Harvey brought the same marketing savvy and attention to detail to his burgeoning hotel business. Throughout the 1880s and ’90s, he built nearly a dozen hotels along the Santa Fe line, from the Californian mission-inspired Castaneda Hotel in Las Vegas, New Mexico to the neoclassical- and beaux arts-style El Garces in Needles, California. For the Grand Canyon’s El Tovar, he constructed one of the country’s first destination resorts, an elegant lodge designed to look like a cross between a Swiss chalet and a Norwegian villa. Built at the turn of the century from local limestone and Oregon pine, more than a decade before the canyon was designated a national park, the lodge helped inspire the architectural style that would become known as National Park Service rustic (aka Parkitecture), which strives to blend structures into the landscape with natural materials and forms.
La Fonda has proved to be equally influential. When the Fred Harvey Company bought the pueblo-
style hotel in the 1920s, it was in need of a serious face-lift. They hired Mary Colter, one of the most talented architects of her time. Colter redesigned the hotel’s interior with exposed vigas (ceiling beams) and Mexican tiles and commissioned local muralists to paint interior walls. By blending various elements of Spanish and Southwest Native American aesthetics, Colter, who would go on to design dozens of iconic hotels out West, and her contemporaries, helped shape the city’s unique architectural identity that is now recognized as Santa Fe style.
It’s an enduring motif that’s lured legions of visitors to the Southwest ever since. And in the case of La Fonda, it’s a style that’s never looked better. The hotel is just coming out of a series of major renovations. In the past few years, all the rooms were updated, the rooftop bar was revamped, the exterior was re-stuccoed, and everything from the plumbing and soundproofing to windows and balconies received an overhaul. In May, hotel owners tackled the public spaces, updating the lobby, lounge and gift shop.
Next up for a refresh is El Tovar. This winter, starting Jan. 1, the hotel will be closed for 100 days as it undergoes a major rehabilitation. Virtually everything, from guest rooms (drapes, carpets, fixtures) to public spaces (lighting, fans, paint, floors) to back-of-the-house facilities (kitchen equipment, the electrical and plumbing systems) will get a face-lift. “It’s a little overdue,” says Bruce Bossman, marketing director of Xanterra, the company that operates El Tovar. “So we’re pretty excited about it.” The hotel is scheduled to reopen on April 14 of next year. Which is perfect timing: Considering it was one of the most popular natural park lodges even before this most recent renovation, with coveted third- and fourth-story rooms and their Grand Canyon views were often nabbed more than six months in advance, now would be the perfect time to make a reservation.