THE ELDORADO HOTEL STORY

by Malcolm Pynn

If a hotel is to be successful, it must be part of the community in which it is located. The Eldorado Hotel, since it opened its doors for business in December 1985, has worked hard to integrate into the mainstream of Santa Fe life and society. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine any other individual or company that has contributed more to the community than has the Eldorado, Santa Fe's largest hotel and its only four-star one.

The hotel's owners and management are also cognizant of the important role the city has played in the history of New Mexico and the Southwest. They feel that it is paramount to protect and preserve the diverse cultures of the area, so that future generations will understand the complexities that make up the tri-cultural mosaic of The City Different.

Although the historical occupancy of the downtown site on which the Eldorado is located cannot, truly, be traced back as far as 1607, when Don Pedro de Peralta established Santa Fe as the capital city of the Northern Kingdom of New Spain, there is evidence of Native American activity less than a quarter-mile west of where the hotel stands.

Undoubtedly there was a pueblo close to the present downtown area. And ancient feet, surely, trod the soil where now weary travelers rest after a tiring but exhilarating day exploring the sights and drinking in the atmosphere of one of America's oldest and most intriguing cities-a city that was already making its mark 13 years before Pilgrims landed.

Spanish activity in New Mexico dates back to the Coronado expedition of 1540, and settlement in Santa Fe to the early 1600s. It was after the revolt of the Pueblo Indians and the subsequent return of the Spanish under Don Diego de Vargas in 1692 that the city slowly but surely started to develop into a most important trading post. It became the center of Spanish society in new Mexico, befitting the northernmost point on the famous Camino Real-the Royal Road that connected Santa Fe with Mexico City.

Just about all the commerce in which the city was involved traveled over the Camino Real until 1821, when the Santa Fe Trail was opened. Then Americans from the Midwest and the East poured into Santa Fe along the new trail, with new trade goods, and the city thrived in this exciting atmosphere. Gambling parlors and houses of ill repute dotted the city, but were mainly concentrated on the west side.

It seems most likely that the adobe buildings located on West San Francisco Street were an integral part of the city's nightlife. The rooms for the large "rooming house" that stood on the site of the present-day Eldorado in the 18th and 19th centuries were probably used for more than sleeping! There is also considerable evidence of a bar or saloon on the site at this time.

In the 1830s the four Robidoux brothers operated a tannery on the site, and at least one of them, Louis, had his residence alongside the store. The Robidoux brothers had come to Santa Fe from Missouri, and they were all involved in the fur trade. Their travels and their trading took them all over the West, but Santa Fe was their nearest thing to a permanent address.

By 1886, however, it seems that the seamier side of Santa Fe nightlife had abandoned the area. Between that time and 1908 the site was occupied at various times by furnished rooms, a blacksmith, a cobbler, a photographic salon, a furniture store and a bicycle shop.

In the meantime, the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, known popularly as the "Chili Line," had come to Santa Fe. From the railroad terminal the trains ran past the Santuario de Guadalupe, down Montezuma Avenue and along Jefferson Avenue, crossing San Francisco Street less than 100 yards from the current location of the hotel.

By 1925 the property housed the Santa Fe Mill & Lumber Company, owned by Frank Thompson. A young boy named John Hillyer, whose family had recently moved to Santa Fe from Riverton, Wyoming, got his first summer job that year. He drove Mrs. Thompson around town in a Model T Ford roadster. It was his duty to drive while Mrs. Thompson collected outstanding bills for the lumber company. John Hillyer, as we will see, was later to play an important role in the story of this piece of property.

Right about this time, F. A. (Ferd) Berry came to Santa Fe with his wife, Kippie, and the rest of his family. Ferd and his wife were raised in Arkansas but came west in the early 1900s to manage a bank in Dayton, New Mexico, a town that no longer exists. While the couple was in Dayton, their two daughters, Maria and Perle, were born.

Ferd quit the banking business after a few years and struggled along doing three or four jobs at a time to support his family. In 1913 he went to work for the Big Jo Lumber Company in nearby Artesia. Big Jo, in those days, was a large company with 35 to 40 lumber yards across the West.

The lumber business was proving to be good for Ferd Berry, and in 1927 he persuaded Big Jo to let him and a few partners open a business in Santa Fe. It wasn't the best time to start a new business. America was entering the Great Depression, and, as his daughter Marie said, "In those days we had to fight hard for every nickel we made." But the Berry family persisted and climbed out of the Depression years owning a thriving business.

Meanwhile, the daughters were growing up. Marie had attended high school in Kansas; and the younger Perle went to school in Santa Fe, where she met a good-looking young fellow named John Hillyer. After graduation both Perle and John attended the University of New Mexico for a year, but then returned to Santa Fe.

Marie had trained to be a teacher, and was assigned to a post in Stanley, New Mexico. But she didn't stay long, and soon headed back to Santa Fe, where she went to work for her father at Big Jo. Back in Santa Fe, it wasn't too long before Marie met Bob Santheson, a young assistant at the Santa Fe Floral Company, and they were married.

In 1936 Perle, also trained as a teacher, left her job with the Santa Fe school system and joined Marie in working for their father at Big Jo. Perle and John Hillyer "courted" for 11 years before they were married in 1939. Eventually both husbands wound up working for Big Jo, and it became, truly, a family business.

Recollections of Santa Fe in the 1930s differ somewhat, depending on who's doing the recollecting. Perle recalls the city as "A nice, quiet place to live, with lovely, friendly people. It had a small-town feeling, and just about everyone knew everyone else. The older Spanish ladies strolled around town dressed in their beautiful black shawls, and they would often be confused with the many nuns seen around Santa Fe."

The farmers from nearby villages came to town leading their burros, loaded down with wood and other goods, to be sold door-to-door on the streets of the city. Over on Burro Alley, not far from the lumber company, behind what is now the Lensic Theater, there were hitching posts where the owners tied up their burros, placed a blanket over the animals' heads, and then left to do their shopping, or perhaps visit the local cantinas.

Marie, however, remembers a slightly different Santa Fe. While agreeing with Perle on the nuns and the burros, and the peaceful atmosphere, she tells of movies at the old Paris Theater and then later at the new Lensic. The Lensic had a dance hall on the second floor, so that customers could see a movie downstairs and then finish the evening "tripping the light fantastic" upstairs. She also recalls target shooting on what is now St. Francis Drive.

F. A. Berry died in 1976, at the age of 91. His daughters and sons-in-law continued to operate the business until 1983, when Bill and Nancy Zeckendorf bought the property, lock, stock and barrel, and started on the construction of the hotel.

Santa Fe was already a very special place to Bill and Nancy. She was a ballerina, and had performed with the Santa Fe Opera in its early days. While visiting Santa Fe in 1962, Bill's mother met Nancy and thought it would be a good idea for her son to become acquainted with this lovely young dancer.

When all the parties had returned to New York, the mother set up a blind date for her son and Nancy. They hit it off right away, and were married in 1963. They have had a love affair with Santa Fe ever since.

After initial inquiries by a local Realtor had brought the parties together, Nancy took the leading role in negotiations with the Hillyers and Santhesons for the Big Jo property. Marie Santheson recalls Nancy as a wonderful person and "a most gracious lady" throughout the discussions. Graciousness is one of the qualities that pervades the hotel to this day.

Strangely, the Zeckendorf family already had strong ties to Santa Fe. Bill's great-great-uncle Aaron Zeckendorf had arrived in the city in 1863 and served his apprenticeship in the mercantile business with his cousins the Speigelbergs. Aaron's brothers Louis and William followed him to Santa Fe soon thereafter. The three of them then opened their own business here.

Undoubtedly, values have changed in the last 400 years. But today's modern world still recognizes contributions made to the preservation of those parts of our history that are worth preserving. The Eldorado Hotel will be remembered for the part it has played in recalling and preserving a small part of Santa Fe's remarkable past.

This article by Malcolm Pynn was excerpted from a comprehensive history and study of the Eldorado Hotel, commissioned by the owners. For more information on Santa Fe's largest and only four-star hotel.

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