The Revival of Winslow’s La Posada

Lately, I seem to be inadvertently touring the constructions of architect Mary Colter. A month ago, I visited the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and rediscovered the 1930’s hotel buildings designed by this groundbreaking, creative soul. I also ventured away from the tourist center to visit her Desert View Watchtower, a Native American-inspired stone structure situated about twenty miles east of the South Rim complex.

Two weeks ago, I drove to Winslow, AZ – really just because it’s there — but also to see the infamous Standin’ on the Corner Park.  While exploring the city, I stumbled into yet another Mary Colter creation, the impressive and sprawling La Posada Hotel.

La Posada was designed and built in 1929 to serve as a classy overnight stop along the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad line. The railroad itself funded the project, investing $1 million dollars (that’s 1929 dollars!) into its completion. All trains traveling from LA to Chicago stopped at the hotel, whose doors are literally a stone’s throw from the tracks.

The original hotel had seventy rooms, many of which were frequented by movie stars and other celebrities (Gary Cooper, Bob Hope, Betty Grable, John Wayne, Albert Einstein, and Amelia Earhart are just a few of the hotel’s famous guests) during the twenty-seven years La Posada stayed open.

In addition to the guest rooms, the complex also boasted three dining rooms, tennis courts, acres of gardens, and multiple fountains. The Fred Harvey Company, the enormous concessionaire that built and operated all the hotels and restaurants in the area, owned a garage across the street from La Posada from which they rented cars for touring the “Indian Lands.”

La Posada was designed to look like a Spanish Hacienda, and Mary Colter even wrote a fictional history of the place to give it a fanciful backstory. Her narrative helped to justify the adobe walls, flagstone floors, tile roofs, niches, and Mexican-style ironwork that characterize the site.

It is these features that struck me most when I first walked into La Posada. Sure, the compound is impressive from the outside, but there are sprawling adobe-style hotels all over the southwest. Very few of them have the interior that this one boasts. I first found myself in the gift shop, which, for a Oaxacan handicraft lover like me, was a gold mine. It’s filled with whimsical skeleton folk art, Peruvian clay churches, ornate tin work, and tons of Native American jewelry. There’s a huge mirror collection, an array of Navajo rugs, and all the china and ceramics you could ever want.

From the gift shop, you can access the rest of the lobby, a rambling multi-room and multi-story maze filled to the gills with heavy Mexican oak furniture, brightly colored pillows, ornate lamps, and all sorts of artwork. It’s an amazing space to explore and probably an even better one for reading, socializing, or playing one of the many old board games tucked in to the ornately painted cupboards.

La Posada hasn’t always looked like this. In the 1930’s, it is rumored that over two million dollars was spent on the hotel grounds and furnishings. However, in 1957, when people stopped riding trains and the hotel’s customer base vanished, La Posada closed. Two years later, the railroad tried to sell the property. When they met with failure, they auctioned off Mary Colter’s one-of-a-kind furniture collection and converted the building into railroad offices. In 1993, the offices were vacated and the decision was made to tear the place down. The current owner, Allan Affeldt, spent over three years negotiating the purchase of La Posada. He finally acquired it in 1997, halting what would have been the destruction of a building with great historic significance.

Mr Affeldt has invested over twelve million dollars into the renovation of La Posada, and it shows. Each end table, each headboard, each light fixture, and each door handle has character. He patronizes a number of local artists whose work is spread through the hotel, including tinworker Vern Lucero, reverse glass painter Christy Lucero, metalworker John Suttman, and sculptor Dan Lutzick. He is married to Tina Mion, a painter whose work depicts stark and surreal southwestern landscapes. Her pieces are interspersed with more traditional southwestern art, and an entire museum devoted to her work is located on the second floor of the expansive lobby space.

While La Posada is not the same as it was in 1936 heyday, it is not entirely different either. It currently showcases pieces that span an array of time periods and styles; yet, every piece exudes a love and respect for the southwest and its traditions.

I returned to La Posada just a few days ago with my mother who was visiting from New Jersey. What better place to take her than a historic hotel in the middle of nowhere with Conde Nast distinction and a highly-rated restaurant? Luckily I’d made a dinner reservation, because the Turquoise Room was packed on a Tuesday night – predominantly with white-haired diners. After a relaxing afternoon of watching trains or riding their Harleys down Route 66, the largely sixty-something clientele was settling in for big southwestern dinners. It seemed like the majority of them were spending the night at La Posada as well, leading me to believe that the historic hacienda might just be experiencing its second heyday.

I’m not sure how many dinners and hotel guests it takes to make back a twelve million dollar investment. I’m guessing it can’t be done in one lifetime. With that in mind, I’ve got to assume that La Posada, more than a lucrative business venture, is a labor of love, a crucible for art and creativity, and an expression of hospitality in the middle of the Arizona desert.

I think Mary Colter would be proud.

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