STAND NEAR THE PARK behind the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis in Santa Fe. Close your ears to road racket, and you just may start to hear voices. That whisper? It could belong to an intrepid nun from the 19th century, joining the babble of a Navajo orphan, the prayers of a Spanish priest, a war cry, a death rattle. Billy the Kid cracks wise. Archbishop Lamy shushes all.
For the last decade, this aural tapestry freely roamed the empty corridors and grounds of the original St. Vincent Hospital and adjacent Marian Hall on the southwest corner of Paseo de Peralta and Palace Avenue. Over the last year, though, it learned to share space with the chatter of the living as a national hotel company shouldered an ambitious plan: Provide luxurious lodgings in buildings more accustomed to tonsillectomies, nuns’ quarters, a nursing home, state offices, and movie sets.
The Drury Plaza Hotel, opening this month, turns a five-acre eyesore into a swanky venue with 182 high-ceilinged rooms, a year-round rooftop bar and swimming pool, a loft-style fitness center, landscaped courtyards, and Eloisa, a restaurant Los Angeles celebrity chef John Rivera Sedlar named for his Abiquiú grandmother.
Rather than vintage hospital–accented decor à la Hotel Parq Central in the old Albuquerque Memorial Hospital, Drury offers a tony touch of Santa Fe style. Should any of the voices you hear murmur a doubt about the wisdom of opening a high-end hotel in a still-wobbly economy, Project Manager Brian Nenninger offers a clear statement of confidence.
“We set high bars,” he says. “We’re reinventing the eastern corner of downtown.”
IT’S A BUSY CORNER that could stand reinvention. For most of the last decade, cars and pedestrians had little reason to stop. Though the buildings held oodles of history, neglect had settled in.
That wasn’t always the case. Historians and archaeologists speculate that, 400 years ago, the site may have held the original parroquia, or chapel, of Spain’s northernmost colony. Destroyed in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, its foundations have eluded discovery. By 1865, when the Sisters of Charity arrived in the U.S. Territory, Archbishop Lamy was constructing his cathedral around the replacement parroquia. He gave the sisters a cramped, one-story building for a hospital, and they promptly set out to beg and shame the populace into giving money for a three-story brick structure. One of the nuns, the adventurous Sister Blandina, even built a kiln for the city’s first bricks, befriended Billy the Kid, and famously clambered over Lamy’s garden wall to steal cabbages for her orphans’ dinner. The grand hospital opened in 1880, but in 1896 suffered a catastrophic fire of mysterious origin just one week after the nuns’ insurance ran out.
In 1911, the Craftsman-style Marian Hall was built next door, and an orphanage eventually replaced the original hospital. In 1953, the sisters persuaded famed architect John Gaw Meem to knock that structure down and build a proper city hospital. Compared with his grandest achievements—the Zimmerman Library at the University of New Mexico and the Cristo Rey Church on Santa Fe’s Canyon Road—St. Vincent Hospital reflected its low cost and utilitarian intent. Rather than the soft outlines of Meem’s characteristic Pueblo Revival buildings, it featured yellow bricks, sharp corners, and only a hint of Territorial style. The overly large windows seemed better suited to a high school than a hotel.
In 1977, another hospital was built onSt. Michael’s Drive. The state bought theold buildings for use as offices and a nursing home. Drury purchased them in 2007, with a grand plan for their LEED-certified “adaptive reuse.”
A 40-year-old Missouri-based company known for its budget motels, Drury has been aiming higher in recent years, developing six plaza-area projects, including the renovation of a historic bank in Wichita, Kansas. In Santa Fe, the company began with a requisite archaeological survey.
Then, in 2008, the economy tanked. The project went dormant just after archaeologist Jim Moore found, and had to abandon, what looked like an underground vault three feet deep by three feet wide—a mystery unmarked on early plats.
THE YEARS TICKED BY, and a distinct sense of failure swirled around the site. A few movie shoots used it, including Jeff Bridges’ 2009 Crazy Heart. Otherwise, it sat. But then Drury noticed other downtown hotels tackling renovations—La Fonda on the Plaza, Eldorado, and the Hilton. A sluggish occupancy rate crept up a tad, while during events like Indian Market, not a room could be found.
Drury recommitted and, in 2011, invited Moore back. High on his and Nenninger’s agenda was to find out what was in the vault.
“I was thinking this is part of the original parroquia—that we’d finally found it,” Moore recalls. “I had all sorts of wild fantasies.”
But, in the end, Moore concluded that the vault was a 1717 lime-slaking pit used to mix plaster.
“It could have at least held Al Capone’s gold!” Nenninger jokes.
Construction kicked up in 2012. Nenninger and architect Mark Hogan devised ways to turn a rigid grid of rooms into sprawling guest suites with a variety of amenities. Some have fireplaces, balconies, jetted tubs, or living rooms—and one features just about all of the above. Plaster walls alternate ochre and ecru colorations. Bathrooms close with barn-style doors.
A wood-burning fireplace faced with Colorado sandstone anchors the two-story-tall lobby. A parking garage includes retail space, and the old boiler building has been converted into a ballroom and meeting space. Altogether, the hotel will have 17,000 square feet of communal space.
From the spacious rooftop terrace, guests can snag views of the Cross of the Martyrs, St. Francis Cathedral, and Santa Fe Baldy. General Manager Tauseen Malik envisions weddings, yoga classes, and an appealing new venue for large conventions.
“When you look at the analysis of meetings that are lost because Santa Fe doesn’t have enough capacity,” he explains, “this will create an economic cycle that will benefit other businesses.”
Randy Randall, executive director of the Santa Fe Convention and Visitors Bureau, says he appreciates having “more voices and salespeople selling Santa Fe. They will help to grow the overall demand in the market.”
The loyalty of locals may also help. “This building is such a part of the community,” Jenny Cintron, an area sales manager, says. “Even beyond the hospital, there were so many offices. People spent a tremendous amount of time here. You become emotionally attached to a building like that.”
AS FOR THOSE ATTACHMENTS, don’t be surprised if one turns out to be a little boy said to haunt what once was Room 311. Or is he the fourth-floor ghost? The urban legends conflict, and the building turns up regularly on lists of Santa Fe’s spine-tingling sites. Nenninger and Malik remain skeptics. They’ve yet to encounter that little scamp, or any other ghost. Moore’s Office of Archaeological Studies was housed in the building for 20 years, and he likewise missed a spectral vision. During construction, though, one of his crewmates decided to explore a purportedly haunted room. The door slammed shut behind her, Moore said. When she turned around, she discovered too late that it had no doorknob.
“Then she realized it connected with the next room, and she could get out that way,” he said with a chuckle.
Make believe you hear the boy if you must. But don’t miss the chance to close your ears and hear another voice. Perhaps that of an upstart nun going toe-to-toe with a famous bishop, her moxie mixing now with the clink of wineglasses and the laughter of lodgers.
Kate Nelson is an award-winning journalist and biographer of the late artist Helen Hardin.