Hotels That Have A Story To Tell

These historic establishments feature business services, too

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Stroll through the bustling lobby of La Fonda, and you can imagine Santa Fe in the early 19th century, when an adobe inn at the end of the Santa Fe Trail became the destination of trappers and merchants. The original hotel was demolished in 1919, and its replacement preserved the pueblo-style ambiance. The hotel on the city's central plaza features the 1922 ceiling beams, red tile floor, tin and copper chandeliers, and carved furniture. Southwestern handicrafts fill every nook and cranny.

Sure, you could find fancier digs. Except for suites on a new concierge level, many of the 167 rooms at La Fonda are simple and small. But visitors flock to it for reasons other than luxury. "It has so much character and history," says Joyce Slaughter of Fort Davis, Tex., who, with her husband Richard, has stayed in Room 200 for 26 Christmas Eves.

Indeed, nowhere else can you gaze at original paintings by famed Western artist Gerald Cassidy, who was commissioned in the 1920s by the hotel's then-owner, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway. Here, too, you can chat up people like staff artist Ernest Martinez, who started as a maintenance man 50 years ago and has painted hundreds of designs on the furniture, windows, and walls.

Historic hotels such as La Fonda are reaping the benefits of a growing interest in heritage travel. According to the Travel Industry Association of America, travelers who ventured at least 50 miles from home included historical or cultural activities on nearly 217 million trips in 2002, an increase of 13% from 1996.

Such interest is not lost on the National Trust for Historic Preservation, whose Historic Hotels of America program has grown to 219 members, up from 32 in 1989 when the program was created. Hotels range in size from the eight-room American Hotel in Sag Harbor, N.Y., to the 1,425-room Waldorf-Astoria in Manhattan. Only full-service properties that have meeting rooms and serve three meals a day can belong (historichotels.org). Though the hotels have meticulously restored historic features, many lack the amenities of five-star lodging.

Besides architecture and atmosphere, each hotel has a story to tell, sometimes centered on famous people. Legendary tenor Enrico Caruso pulled his private train car up to the Lenox Hotel in Boston, built in 1900 next to the railroad yard, and sang in the lounge. Theodore Roosevelt recruited his Rough Riders in the bar of the Menger Hotel in San Antonio. Bonnie and Clyde took cover in Room 305 of the Stockyards Hotel in Fort Worth. If the Millennium Biltmore in Los Angeles seems familiar, it's because it has been featured in hundreds of movies and TV shows and has hosted eight Academy Awards ceremonies.

The past is such an integral part of the 241-room Brown Palace in Denver, which opened in 1892, that the hotel employs a staff historian to provide tours. The triangular Italian Renaissance-style hotel was built on the site of a former cow pasture that the owner could not sell because of its triangular shape. Tea is served every afternoon in the lobby, located in a nine-story atrium with a glass ceiling.

The Brown has hosted nearly every U.S. President since it opened, and has suites named for Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan. A Beatles Suite memorializes the Fab Four, who slept there in 1964. The group made such an impression that on alternate nights, turndown service leaves a chocolate facsimile of the A Hard Day's Night album with a Beatles history. On other nights, guests get macaroons, which the hotel has baked since the '20s.

THE SILO SUITE

Many of the trust hotels were converted from other uses but are required to maintain interior features. The grain silos on the original site of the Quaker Oats Co. now provide circular guest rooms at the Crowne Plaza Quaker Square in Akron. The 65-room Kendall Hotel in Cambridge, Mass., was built in 1895 as a firehouse, which now serves as its restaurant. The Hyatt Regency in St. Louis still has the barrel-vaulted ceiling of the original train station built in 1894.

The Morrison-Clark Inn in Washington started as two adjacent townhouses built in 1864. In 1917 a later owner added a Chinese Chippendale porch with a Shanghai mansard roof. The two houses eventually became a hostel for the Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, & Airmen's Club. When the townhouses, plus an addition in a former stable, were converted into a hotel in 1987, the Morrison-Clark was slightly off the beaten tourist track. Now it's in the sight line of the Washington Convention Center. The common rooms reflect Victorian and Asian influences. Twelve-foot carved mirrors, Italian Carrara marble fireplaces, and an original wood staircase are combined with red walls in the dining room and Asian paneled screens.

Travelers to a city often can choose among several historic hotels. In Santa Fe, the atmosphere at the 82-room Hotel St. Francis could not be more different from La Fonda. The hotel, built in 1923 using an adjoining building that dates to 1888, has Southwestern elements such as iron chandeliers, but Oriental rugs, gilt-edged mirrors, and afternoon high tea provide a Victorian feel. Visitors to Denver who prefer an intimate hotel rather than the grand Brown Palace can stay at the 80-room Oxford, which opened in 1891 as a businessman's hotel. In the early 1980s, it was renovated, using original blueprints. Guests can sip sherry in front of a fire, and gilt-framed oils of Colorado scenes hang above wooden wainscoting.

However authentic, these hotels are not dusty artifacts. Many have business-related amenities such as wireless Net access. So if you want to sleep in the same room as Thomas Edison or Ulysses S. Grant, an historic hotel may be for you.

By Susan Garland With Sandra Dallas in Denver and Christopher Palmeri in Los Angeles

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