|By Kathy Pinto, Albuquerque Journal, N.M.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Apr. 26, 2004 - TAOS, N.M. -- Renovation of Taos' oldest hotel is complete.
La Fonda de Taos, an upscale boutique hotel, over its long history has catered to an array of writers, artists, politicians, film stars and royalty. They might not recognize much of it today, at least on the inside.
"It would have been easier and cheaper to tear it down and build a new one," said hotel co-manager Mary Lou Sahd, reminiscing on four years of ongoing improvements. "But we wanted to maintain the hotel's historic integrity."
Work on a multi-million dollar renovation project by Taos contractor Jacob Miller & Sons took a year and five months, Miller said. "It was almost like gutting the building and redoing it," he said.
Workers broke down walls and renovated rooms, reducing the total from 37 to 25, all larger, Sahd explained. Top to bottom improvements were made on the roof, heating, plumbing and electrical systems and the structure itself, Miller said. A conference room and penthouse were also added.
Sahd and her co-manager brother, Bob, two of five siblings who own the property, wanted a local contractor to do the work, she said. Miller, who went to high school with Bob Sahd, was the perfect choice, she said.
In addition to all the renovations, the hotel added a new restaurant, Joseph's New Table, which opened over the Christmas 2003 holiday. Owner Joseph Wrede, named one of the best American chefs in 2000 by Food & Wine magazine, is also head chef.
"It's the hottest new table in town," said Mary Lou Sahd.
An inn has occupied the site of La Fonda de Taos on the Taos Plaza since 1820. Although the property changed hands many times, it always had rooms and a bath for locals and travelers.
The Sahd family, like the hotel, is rooted in Taos history. Abdo Sahd, the family patriarch, arrived in the area from Lebanon in 1889.
The sons of Abdo Sahd established general stores in Taos, Ranchos and Penasco.
The late George Sahd at only 16 years old established the Ranchos Trading Post and operated until his retirement in 1981. Before Wal-Mart came to town, the trading post was the largest general store in the area.
The Sahd family inherited the hotel property from Saki Karavas, who at age 5 arrived with his family from Greece in 1932. He lived at La Fonda until his death in 1996. He purchased his uncle John Karavas's share of the hotel in 1953.
Though his charisma and love of women earned Saki Karavas the nickname "Don Juan de Taos," he never married and bequeathed his hotel to the children of his long-time friends, George and Cordelia Sahd.
"My father was Saki's best friend," recalls Bob Sahd. "He helped him out when he had financial difficulties."
The Karavases arrived with a wave of Greek immigrants in the late 1920s and early 1930s who prospered in New Mexico in restaurants and hotels.
According to Bob Sahd, Saki Karavas was different from most Greek entrepreneurs. He remembers him as a generous person, very well read and worldly, "but he had a very relaxed way of doing business."
Whenever people inquired about a room, he befriended them and let them stay there as his guests. "He was well-liked by the locals and called everybody cuate (buddy)."
"Saki didn't run it like a hotel. It was his home," said Mary Lou Sahd.
Commercial spaces sat vacant for years awaiting a tenant he liked and the hotel itself was often half empty. His eccentric business style caused Karavas some hair-raising moments.
Both Karavas and his mother Noula were big art collectors, and over the years Karavas amassed an impressive collection, including the rare D.H. Lawrence "forbidden art."
The art sometimes kept his hotel afloat.
Years ago, when the hotel was on the verge of foreclosure, a grateful hotel patron, who later became the curator at the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma, purchased two Emil Bisttram paintings for $450,000.
"The Cowboy" and "The Indian" bailed it out.
A tradition that makes the hotel an art gallery, too, precedes both the Karavas and Sahd families' ownership.
During the 1920's, when the hotel was known as the Columbian Hotel and Bar, the founding members of the Taos Society of Artists regularly met there for breakfast and cards and hung many of their paintings in the lobby.
The tradition continues today with Gallery La Fonda in the lobby. The D.H. Lawrence paintings have been meticulously restored and now hang in their own gallery within the hotel.
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(c) 2004, Albuquerque Journal. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.