DescriptionPeople from all over the world are drawn to Winslow, Arizona to see La Posada, the jewel of the high country, designed by Mary Jane Colter for Fred Harvey and Santa Fe Railways in the late 1920s. This is the story of how this historic building, once nearly gutted and destined for demolition, has been lovingly restored to its original grandeur.
One hundred fifty miles southeast of the Grand Canyon, on the grassy steppes of northeastern Arizona , lies the town of Winslow . Here the Santa Fe Railway opened one of the finest railroad lodges ever built, La Posada.
La Posada was the last of the great Harvey Houses to be built, and it's the largest one to survive. For the traveler it's an oasis. It's really something unexpected, to be driving down the highway and you come across this incredible, magnificent Spanish hacienda. And for me, of course, it's my home.
Winslow is a railroad town. It has been since the 1880s when the railway laid the track of its southern transcontinental line through here. The Fred Harvey Company operated hotels known as "Harvey Houses" all along the Santa Fe main line, from Kansas City to Los Angeles . As the 20th Century unfolded, rail passengers demanded more sophisticated accommodations, and in January 1929, Santa Fe announced that architect Mary Jane Colter would design and build a new lavish Winslow Harvey House. To help her imagine the structure, Colter conjured up a story of a Spanish Don who builds a cattle ranch and home here in the early 1800s. Over the generations, new wings are built onto the house until a grand hacienda is born. La Posada opened on May 15, 1930, and all who entered it were transported into Colter's dream world of old Mexico .
It was also, from an engineering point of view, a very modern building. It's a cast concrete building, which in the late '20s was coming into vogue. That's very important when you're built right next to a railroad track, because you can sit and see the trains go by without hearing them. The other thing that's very modern about it is just the layout of the space. It's just broad arches from the ballroom to the library to the lobby to the foyer. So the space just flows.
The Santa Fe Railway hailed La Posada as an artistic achievement. It also chided Colter for going 1.5 million dollars over budget. The stock market had crashed just months before and many were anxious about the country's economy. But in the early 1930s, adventuresome travelers did come west by train.
So imagine what it was like arriving here in 1930. You'd have gone for days across the desert and, suddenly, this huge mirage, this fabulous hacienda with acres of gardens. When the trains were in, it was a busy place. It was just really a hurried place, because the customers on the train had 30 minutes to walk into the dining room, order their meals, eat their meals, and walk back to the train.
La Posada guests would soon include the rich and famous. Over the years, everyone from Albert Einstein to Shirley Temple stayed here. But as the country slipped into the Great Depression, many travelers were seeking jobs, not adventure. And more and more of them were driving their own cars, stopping where and when they wanted to. The era of the railroad hotel was coming to an end. Throughout the war years, troop trains stopped in Winslow, and hundreds of servicemen flooded La Posada for a quick meal. Thousands of meals a day were served. The soldiers then marched back to the train and continued their journey westward to the battlefields of the Pacific. Post-war Winslow was buzzing with railroad freight business, and La Posada was its social center. Route 66 went right through Winslow, but that wasn't necessarily a good thing for La Posada.
They built all of these route 66 motor courts in the '40s and '50s. So to stay at La Posada was $5 to $12, and to stay at one of the motor courts was a dollar. In 1957 they closed the building, and in 1959 they auctioned off all the furniture. Mary Colter was living in retirement in Santa Fe . They asked her how she felt about closing La Posada, and she said, "Now I know there's such a thing as living too long."
For the next four decades, the railroad used La Posada as its Arizona headquarters and remodeled it to fit the style of the day. Arches were filled in, ceilings dropped, fluorescent lights installed. They even removed much of the flagstone floor and installed wall-to-wall linoleum. It became to most people just a dusty old building.
In 1979, the last stretch of interstate 40 was completed, replacing Route 66. Most travelers bypassed Winslow, and its downtown effectively died. In the early 1990s, Winslow residents Marie Lamar and Janice Griffith joined forces to fight to save La Posada. They were joined in their fight by a stranger from California , Allan Affeldt. Winslow was awarded federal funds to purchase and begin restoring the building. But the city wasn't interested in taking on the liability of a 12-million-dollar restoration.
Affeldt decided to take it on himself. In April of 1997, Affeldt and his wife, artist Tina Mion, became the owners of La Posada. They were also now responsible for restoring the 73,000-square-foot hacienda. Allan, Tina, Tina's brother Keith, and Allan's friend, artist Dan Lutzick, began tearing out the '60s-era walls, floors, and equipment. By November, they had rooms for rent. Over the years, the spirit of La Posada has been restored. Many of the rooms and public spaces have been brought back to life. Even the lunch counter, which had become the nerve center for all Santa Fe trains in the state, has been transformed into one of the finest gourmet restaurants in Northern Arizona . The restoration continues. Room by room La Posada's past and its future are revealed. Today, with nearly forty rooms ready to rent and a constant stream of visitors, La Posada is again Winslow's social center.
People come here from everywhere. We have Route 66 fans. We have rail fans. And this is maybe what it never was before. This really is the destination resort hotel for Northeastern Arizona . All aboard! The building is a part of Winslow that I wish to see go on a hundred years from now. That's what La Posada is to Winslow: its heart and soul.