The titans of American banking and industry may have created the transcontinental railroads, but it took an enterprising Englishman named Fred Harvey to turn cross-country rail travel into a pleasurable experience. Through his contract with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, Harvey not only provided travelers with excellent food and hotel service, he transformed the scenic wonders of the Southwest and its native peoples into prime tourist attractions.
Harvey also had the foresight to hire a visionary woman, Mary Colter, to be his primary architect. In 1930 the last grand Harvey-Colter hotel, the La Posada, opened its doors for business in the high plains town of Winslow, AZ. Winslow was then a thriving principality located between Gallup, NM to the east and Flagstaff, AZ, to the west. Its airport was one of the busiest in the region, while the tracks of the Santa Fe railroad and “America’s Main Street” — Route 66 — dropped visitors off at the hotel’s front and back entrances. And there were, of course, the famous Harvey Girls, decked out in their traditional black-and-white uniforms to greet their guests.
It was the place where stars and celebrities stayed, and today each room bears the name of a famous guest — Howard Hughes, John Huston, Jane Russell, John Wayne, Will Rogers, Amelia Earhart, Gene Autry and Charles Lindbergh. Legend has it that Clark Cable and Carol Lombard spent their last night together in what is now the Howard Hughes room the night before Lombard boarded her ill-fated flight.
Those times are long gone. Today, if people think of Winslow at all, it’s mostly for the lyrics of the Eagles’ song that immortalized it:
Well, I’m a-standin’ on a corner in Winslow, Arizona,
And such a fine sight to see.
It’s a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford slowin’ down to take a look at me.
That corner, complete with flatbed Ford, has become the town’s most popular tourist attraction. Every day people gather to have their pictures taken alongside the slouching statue of the creator of “Take It Easy,” Jackson Browne.
There is, however, another, even more important reason to visit Winslow, and that is to spend time, and hopefully the night, at La Posada. Over the course of 35 years (and $12 million), the hotel has been lovingly restored by its owners, Allan Affeldt and his artist wife, Tina Mion, whose work is displayed throughout the hotel and who maintains her studio-gallery on the second floor. And just as it was during Winslow’s golden era, historic Route 66 and two Amtrak trains a day deliver visitors to the front and rear entrances of the hacienda-style hotel.
There are even modern day Harvey Girls such as Marie Lamar (whose mother was a real Harvey Girl) who are happy to give guests a guided tour of the historic hotel.
Restoring Colter’s 1930 masterpiece was a challenge of immense proportions. When the hotel closed its doors to the public in 1957, it was taken over by the Santa Fe Railroad. The company gutted the facility and transform its once-lavish lobby, shops and restaurant into office spaces. Then in 1993 the railroad announced plans to dispose of the building. A year later La Posada appeared on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s endangered list.
“I purchased La Posada in 1997,” writes Affeldt in the hotel’s illustrated guidebook. “It was a wreck. Our friends all thought we were crazy. Restoration started immediately and continues to this day.”
The irony is that most visitors to the hotel have no idea what a long process it has been to bring the hotel back. They look at the gaily painted rooms with their native rugs, beamed ceilings, tile floors and rustic furniture and assume they are all original. In fact, almost every aspect of the restoration is the product of an entire team of contemporary craftsmen.
A not-to-be-missed feature of the hotel is the Turquoise Room, which offers gourmet dining conceived and prepared by Chef John Sharpe. It was Affeldt (a long-time friend of Sharpe) who convinced him to leave behind his Los Angeles enterprises — Mirage and the Rangoon Racquet Club — and move to Winslow.
For an appetizer, I tried the Piki Bread (wispy thin and cooked on a hot stone) with Hopi Hummus. For an entree, one choice was the Native Cassoulet — a grilled medallion of lamb on a bed of arugula, a grilled lamb sausage and a duck leg confit drizzled with red chili sauce. Another way to go is the “Killer Vegetable Platter” — steamed fresh vegetables, grilled tofu, sweet corn tamale, red caboose mashed potatoes, McClendon’s fresh corn, roasted Anaheim chili stuffed with three cheeses, wild mushroom corn custard and a spring roll with a mushroom base filled with strips of jicama and green chili.
WHEN YOU GO
La Posada Hotel, 303 E. Second St., Winslow, AZ, 86047. Telephone 928-289-4366 or visit www.laposada.org. Room rates range from $109 to $169.
Turquoise Room, 928-289-2888 or www.theturquoiseroom.net