Our recent Southwestern swing reached high-desert pay dirt when we checked into the storied La Posada Hotel in Winslow, Ariz. During the long ride in our rental car from Albuquerque, I struggled to make sense of what a world-renowned, four-star inn was doing in a three-stoplight town along the ribbon of lonely road known as Route 66.
In my limited world view, Winslow was best known as the town immortalized by the Eagles in their 1972 breakout hit, “Take It Easy,” written by Jackson Browne and the late Glenn Frey. (BTW, where is that girl in a flatbed Ford?)
“My hunch is we won’t be disappointed,” my wife said of La Posada, alternating her gaze between the rough-hewn, sepia-tinged landscape and the overworked GPS. This woman is the quintessential over-thinker who, unlike her ADHD-addled husband, can quietly analyze data and shape rock-solid connections and predictions, even with places she has never set foot in.
“It pays rich homage to the romance of the rails,” she said of La Posada, her tone akin to that of a seasoned tour guide.
During the run-up to our journey, my knowledge of the subject was, sadly, limited to “The Harvey Girls,” a 1946 film starring Judy Garland. Who knew the name Harvey in this corner of the dusty Southwest carried almost as much weight as the Petrified Forest, a short drive east of Winslow?
La Posada – which means “the Resting Place” — is nestled unceremoniously along a shabby stretch of Second Street opposite a fast-food joint. It stands stately and proudly as the last railroad hotel opened by British-born Fred Harvey, who during the 1870s and ’80s famously strung together a plethora of upscale eateries and inns along the Santa Fe Railroad from Cleveland to Los Angeles.
For the first time, Harvey tapped a woman, Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter, the leading female architect in the country, to oversee all facets of the project, from building design to landscaping to maids’ costumes. While Colter’s portfolio bulged with her projects at the Grand Canyon, she considered La Posada her masterpiece.
Long before La Posada took form, train travel in the Wild West was notoriously bad. If outlaws didn’t get you, food poisoning might. And prices charged by the railroad were the equivalent of the Great Train Robbery.
Harvey set about to right these wrongs. He infused respectability to train travel, adding fresh meats and veggies along with fine linen and china.
He made another major change. He fired his all-male staff of waiters — many of them fat, drunk and stupid — and replaced them with a staff of genteel women between 18 and 30 years of age. The ads he took out in local newspapers asked for ladies “of good moral character, attractive and intelligent,” and offered wages of $17.50 per month, with room and board.
Ridin’ the Rails
From the moment I ambled in under the stately, hacienda-style archway, I found myself at the check-in desk/quirky gift shop. It was at that moment that I began to more fully appreciate what compelled a young couple, Allan Affeldt and his wife, noted D.C.-born artist Tina Mion, to boldly step out of the sun-baked shadows with a solitary goal: to lavishly and lovingly breathe new life into a ramshackle edifice and guide its rebirth as a heavenly oasis with comfortable guestrooms and a plethora of surpassing touches.
The guest rooms, all named after famous folks who’ve stayed there (we were in the Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Suite), feature Native American rugs, a harvest of used books, and, in some cases, views of the railroad tracks that run along the rear of the building.
Throughout the latter part of the 19th century and into the 20th, Harvey’s raison d’etre burned brighter: to erect a sizable hotel in desolate northern Arizona. Like the Eagles, he found his muse in Winslow, and went about carving out his dream.
The price tag on La Posada came in at more than $1 million in 1929. The total bill, counting grounds and furnishings, came to $2 million — about $40 million in today’s economy. Winslow was selected as the site for the resort hotel because of its ideal location, within a day’s car ride from near-holy locales like the Grand Canyon. The town was, and still is, Arizona’s anchor office for the Santa Fe Railway.
Although Harvey was feted as a savvy visionary, he was vulnerable. By the time La Posada opened in 1930, with its stash of Chinese lamps and Russian icons, the stock market had hit bottom.
The hotel never hit its stride, closing its doors in 1957. The museum-grade furniture wound up on the auction block. In the early 1960s, much of the structure was gutted and made over into offices for the Santa Fe Railway. During the following decades, La Posada managed to duck the wrecking ball. By 1994, the railway decided to vacate the building permanently.
A Haunting Experience
Enter Affeldt, who was working on his doctorate in semantics at the University of California-Irvine. He spent three years negotiating with the railroad to buy the building. In the end, the railroad caved, figuring the last thing they wanted was 72,000 square feet of vacant hotel and office space in downtown Winslow.
Affeldt snapped it up for $158,000. In return, Affeldt gave the railroad 10,000 square feet of offices free for 10 years. The structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“Our friends all thought we were crazy,” Affeldt said in the hotel’s souvenir guide.
Affeldt said he and his wife had a vision for pulling La Posada from the trash heap of history. “I believe we save great buildings in the same way we save families, cities and nations: one day at a time, with constant investment and courage, undaunted by naysayers and long odds.”
After considering Mion’s stunningly poignant prints in the gift shop, and again in her gallery off the lobby, we sensed she was sending a message to all comers: death is part of life. They are at once disturbing, delightfully whimsical, and impossible to ignore.
We stood riveted before her haunting triptych, “A New Year’s Eve Party in Purgatory for Suicides in Which Liberace Makes a Guest Appearance Down from Heaven Just for the Hell of It.” Mion’s depictions of the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath and Jimi Hendrix are metaphysical. Not far away stood Teddy Roosevelt’s oak velvet couch from his Phantom Ranch cabin in the bowels of the Grand Canyon.
I asked Mion, whose portrait of Jackie Kennedy is part of the permanent collection at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, if death is an uplifting subject for weary sojourners looking for relief.
On the contrary, she insisted, the suicide painting has brought solace to her guests. “It makes you realize you’re not in it alone. Hiding it [death] makes it worse.” Mion wants to keep death on the front-burner. Thinking about it critically is vital, she said, adding that through her art, “I’m trying to figure it out.”
During our visit, we heard reports of paranormal happenings at La Posada. One woman at the local drug store claimed she heard a guest was awakened one night after seeing an image in the mirror. “They put a sheet or a blanket over the mirrors,” she said.
Another one, a hotel worker, recalled peering at the security cameras and spotting “orbs” moving around giant chess pieces. Then, there was an employee who alleged the hotel has been declared a hotbed of “paranormal activity.”
When I asked Mion to weigh in, she assured me the place is clean. “There’s a wonderful, peaceful, loving vibe to it,” she swooned. “We had a medicine man and a priest bless it.”
Later that day, Mion called me. “I’m feeling a little guilty,” began the co-owner, who once lived in an abandoned funeral home. “I lied. I’ve seen a lot of stuff here. I just didn’t want people to feel scared, because there’s nothing scary here. The mirror thing? Forget it. That’s just totally kooky.”
Feeling more famished than terrified, we crossed the lobby to the Turquoise Room. Independently owned, the semi-pricey eatery was opened by Chef John Sharpe and his wife, Patricia, in 2000. We were seated by the window, which offered a sprawling view of the tracks that are still used by freight and Amtrak trains. The dining room was named for the private dining car on the 36 Super Chief that steamed between Chicago and Los Angeles.
Our repast was to die for, um, a life-elevating event. The signature soup is a medley of creamy sweet corn with smooth and spicy black beans crowned with spicy chili. We agreed it was the best soup we had ever eaten.
For our entrees, I tried the “Killer Vegetable Platter” and my wife chose the seared Colorado elk medallions with black currant sauce. On this chilly evening, we dined amidst hand-painted glass chandeliers and waiters whose steps could be choreographed. Every 10 minutes or so, the chilly desert silence was punctuated by long, lonesome train whistles.
Forrest, our energetic young waiter, informed us that as soon as he got off his shift, he would rush home to grab some shut-eye. He had to be rested for his morning gig: serving breakfast at Denny’s.
“It’s a different presentation,” he squeaked, the understatement of understatements.
After one of the finest dinners of our lives, we took a leisurely stroll out to the train tracks. Peering west, shooting stars racing faster across the sky than an antelope jackrabbit, we contemplated one more desert rose: the snow-capped San Francisco Peaks, Arizona’s highest, 50 miles away in Flagstaff. They looked near enough to squeeze.
More than four decades ago, the Eagles rhapsodized in “Take It Easy,” “We may lose and we may win, but we will never be here again.”
For me, there’s not a ghost of a chance that that will happen.
Such a fine sight to see.
Tony Glaros is a Laurel-based freelance writer.