A blue thunderbird neon sign and an old wooden bench have been icons at the Taos Inn for more than 50 years. They are links to the inn’s former owners and to the past. What began as individual residences and a center of support for the Taos artistic community has become a historic lodging property.
Dr. Thomas Paul Martin came to Taos in the 1890s, purchasing one of the largest of the 19th-century adobe casas that surrounded a small plaza near the community well. As the first physician in Taos, he treated patients throughout the county; first he reached remote areas via a horse and buggy, then he took advantage of the latest technology and drove an automobile to his house calls.
His wife Helen, a batik artist, had support from her brother-in-law Bert Phillips, known as one of the Taos Founders. In 1912, in the Martin home, Phillips and Ernest Blumenschein founded the Taos Society of Artists. When the Martins purchased other buildings surrounding the plaza and rented them to writers and artists, their home became a true haven for creative people.
Following Doc Martin’s death and a fire that burned the only hotel in Taos, Helen purchased the Tarleton house, the last remaining property on the plaza, and enclosed the plaza. Then she entered into the hospitality business, opening Hotel Martin in 1936 with fanfare and a host of dignitaries.
This property, since renamed the Historic Taos Inn, includes several adobe homes, dating from the 1800s, that surrounded a plaza and were once served by a community well. Today, both the surrounding plaza and well are within the Taos Inn lobby, recognized with a fountain surrounded by vertical vigas that rise two-and-a-half stories up to a stained-glass cupola.
Among those likely on hand for the grand opening of Hotel Martin was Gordon William Lillie—Pawnee Bill. Helen had invited the showman, who often spent summers in Taos, to join her and other dignitaries for the June 7, 1936, celebration. Indians from Taos Pueblo entertained her guests by performing songs and dances.
Although no document—such as a signature on a hotel register or lodging receipt—proves he was present, it is known that Pawnee Bill and his wife May were in Taos that summer. Pawnee Bill’s show, begun 120 years ago in 1888, had traveled throughout the U.S. and eventually to Europe, performing in France and Belgium.
While popular, the show was not lucrative and had evolved into a showcase of multicultured people, including Pawnee and Sioux Indians, Mexican cowboys, Arab jugglers and Chinese and Japanese performers, who were all a part of “Pawnee Bill’s Wild West and Great Far East Show.” This show ultimately merged with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West to become “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Pawnee Bill’s Far East.” As a combined show, it became financially successful until William F. Cody’s business activities led to the demise of the joint venture.
As a retired couple, Pawnee Bill and May often visited Taos, spending part of each summer in the community; they celebrated 50 years of marriage here on August 31, 1936.
The Tarleton House, now site of the Adobe Bar, also has a connection to the Wild West show era. Thomas Tarleton bought the house for his mother Minnie in 1926. His father Wallace had worked as a farmer in Ames, Iowa, with the Merchant Marine in England, and for Buffalo Bill one season in England and one season in New York.
Thomas eventually wound up working as a bellhop for El Tovar Hotel at the Grand Canyon, where he met his wife, who worked as a Harvey Girl. When the younger Tarletons decided to begin a family, they left their employment at the Grand Canyon and moved to Taos. When Mrs. Martin built the hotel, she purchased the Tarleton house. The Tarletons then built a new home on Taos Pueblo Road, and Thomas eventually owned and operated Tarleton Motors.
Hotel Martin quickly became a hub of Taos’s social, intellectual and artistic society. When the business sold to new owners, it was renamed the Taos Inn. In 1952, the signature blue thunderbird neon sign was positioned out front.
Douglas M. Smith and Carolyn Haddock have owned the inn since 1989 and oversaw renovations to the property as they worked to preserve the historic structures—Helen’s House, Tarleton House, Sandoval House and the courtyard—all while creating a lodging property. The guest rooms in the various houses feature roof vigas and varied floor plans. Some have adobe fireplaces.
Over the years, restoration of the property, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has turned the Tarleton House into the Adobe Bar. The original Martin House is now the location of Doc Martin’s Bar.
Continuing in the Martin tradition of service and commitment to the arts, the Taos Inn showcases local artists’ works, which are handpicked by the owners. The inn’s 14 curio shops include window displays that exhibit this work by artisans such as Thom Wheeler, Ed Sandoval, Bella Sue Martin and Inger Jirby.
Taos Inn is “also a commonplace hangout for local artists and our bar is known as the living room of Taos,”?says inn spokesperson Jamie Tedesco. “Many artists enjoy congregating around our warm fire pit and listening to the free live eclectic mix of entertainment that plays every evening.”