Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Memories of La Posada Hotel

A while back I wrote a journal entry about our visit to Winslow, Arizona and promised to write more about the La Posada Hotel.  -- the last and most elegant of the great railroad hotels built in the West. Since there's not much else to write about today, I guess this would be a good time.

First, let me set the stage. The time was the late 1920's... the roaring 20's. The country was in a period of unprecedented affluence and in the midst of the industrial revolution. Between the automobile and the railroads, the average person was suddenly thrust into a world that could travel at 40, 50, 60 miles per hour -- a far cry from the 3 mile an hour world of a just a generation or two earlier. Most families could afford a car for the first time. Railroad travel over long distances was financially possible for most people. And air travel was another wonder that was just beginning to assert itself as yet another transportation alternative -- at this point mostly for the rich.

It was a wondrous age. Anything was possible. The Sante Fe Railroad's main line from Chicago to Los Angles ran through Northern Arizona and thousands of travelers came through Winslow every week. In addition, the Grand Canyon and Petrified Forest National Parks, and other Northern Arizona natural wonders, were becoming popular and increasingly in demand by some of those cross-country travelers. A hotel was needed as a lay-over rest stop and as a base for explorations to the National Parks of Northern Arizona.

So, in 1928 the Sante Fe Railroad decided to build a new hotel in Winslow, the home of their Arizona operations. At that time, the Fred Harvey Company was used by the railroad to operate all their hotels and food service operations. Mary Colter, an architect employed by Fred Harvey, was given free rein to design and supervise construction of La Posada, which means "the resting place" in Spanish. Colter was already noted for a number of other structures she designed in the Southwest... 6 different structures at  Grand Canyon Village, and hotels in Sante Fe and Gallup, NM. Her rugged landscape-integrated design principles would influence a generation's worth of future structures built by the National Park Service and the Civilian Conservation Corps.

La Posada opened in 1930. Costing $1 million in 1929 dollars, it was warm, elegant, and a hit with the traveling public. During the 30's and '40's, all trains between Chicago and L.A. would stop here. Many famous celebrities, among them Howard Hughes, John Wayne, Dorothy Lamour, Bob Hope, Albert Einstein, Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, and many others, would spend time at the hotel. During WWII, most troop trains stopped for a break. The Fred Harvey Company added the "spam kitchen" to the hotel in order to prepare and serve spam sandwiches to the troops during their stop.

Winslow was the largest town in Northern Arizona during the heyday. Built immediately adjacent to both the Sante Fe's mainline tracks and the Highway that would become the famous Route 66, the hotel was the obvious stopping point for any cross-country traveler. In addition, because of the limited range of airplanes the Charles Lindbergh designed Winslow airport was also a normal stop-over for cross-country flights.

The hotel grounds included large grass-covered areas, gardens, flowers, and large trees. Imagine what people felt as they approached this oasis in the middle of the desert they've been traveling through for many hours. Guided by a fictional fantasy, Colter designed the Hotel to resemble a wealthy ranchers hacienda so it would have the warm feeling of a home but the large spaces necessary to serve many guests. Natural materials and lighting added to the ambiance. It was the kind of place one would go to be swept into Colter's fantasy as a guest in a comfortable grand hacienda. From the hotel, guests could visit the Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest, or other natural wonders of Northern Arizona by guided motor car, provided, for a fee, by the  Fred Harvey Transportation Company.

But after WWII, things slowly started downhill for the Hotel. People started to prefer travel by car and the railroads went into decline. The Interstate Highway System blossomed but I-40 by-passed Winslow a few miles to the North. The range of commercial aircraft increased and they didn't need to stop at Winslow to rest and refuel any more. Guests stopped coming and the hotel struggled. Finally, in 1957, La Posada closed. Mary Colter was still alive and living in a rest home in California. When told of the closing and the uncertain fate of the Hotel, she's reported to have said "I now know it's possible to live too long."

For a period of time it sat empty and with an uncertain future. Eventually, the Sante Fe Railroad moved their Arizona Offices and Operations into the building. But the cold hard attitude of business gutted the warmth of the building, replacing it with antiseptic suspended tile ceilings, covered the stone floors with asbestos tile, and tore out walls in guest room areas to create larger open office spaces. For 30 years the building was used in this way until it was abandoned in the mid-1990's. Again, it faced an uncertain and, probably, bleak future.

But the National Trust for Historic Preservation found out about the property and had it added to the endangered list. And then, in 1997, Allan Affeldt and his wife, famous artist Tina Mion, along with some investors, purchase the property and began an estimated $12 million restoration. For the past 12 years they've been hard at it. While not yet complete, the lobby, dining areas, ball room, and large public spaces are restored, along with a bunch of guest rooms. It's a functioning hotel and, really, the bright spot of Winslow.

We spent most of the afternoon that day at La Posada. The place will draw you in and it just makes you feel at home. There's a self-guided tour, a couple of videos that are continuously played that describes the history and the process of restoration, and a lot of Tina Mion's work on the walls. I've got to say that I was totally blown away by this artist. There's something in her work that speaks to me in a way I've not felt before. She and Allan both live in the Hotel. She has her studio here too.

We did stop in the bar for a drink, mostly for the experience. We had a really interesting conversation with another couple from Southern Arizona, and just soaked in the atmosphere.

La Posada was a delightfully unexpected highlight of our exploration of Northern Arizona.

For more information, here's a link to the La Posada website [Link], and here's a link to Tina Mion's website [Link].

Enjoying that day all over again...
Thom