La Posada Hotel — I’m on the road again. I decided to give myself a Christmas present with a mid-December trip to Flagstaff, Arizona and a side trip to Grand Canyon. I might as well check out a few old hotels along the way. In the past I always sped through northern Arizona stopping only at gas stations or for fast food. This time I decided to take my time.
Winslow is a small town, getting smaller, and is semi-famous for the song lyrics: “Standing on the corner in Winslow Arizona…etc. etc.” and for being close to some tourist attractions like the Painted Desert, Meteor Crater and the Petrified Forest. The Santa Fe Railroad brought thousands of tourists to Winslow each year and they all paraded through the La Posada Hotel because the hotel was also the train station. It still is but you can get to it from old Highway 66 or Business I-40 as we romantically call it now.
La Posada is the creation of architect Mary Colter who had an impressive career designing structures in the southwest including Grand Canyon National Park. She designed Bright Angel Lodge where, if the weather cooperates, I will be staying in a few days (stay tuned). Colter also had an impressive imagination and was greatly inspired by southwestern, native, and Spanish architecture. Colter joined up with the Santa Fe Railroad and Fred Harvey and created a rambling hacienda complete with a fantastic story-line of four generations of local Spanish-Basque Grandees who ruled an imaginary cattle empire in the desert. Apparently Fred Harvey ate it all up and so did the Santa Fe Railway who paid for it all. You undoubtedly will recall the Fred Harvey hotel chain and the famous Harvey Girls that staffed the hotels. La Posada was the last great Harvey Hotel to be built, opening in 1930. It is in a Spanish hacienda style but is quite eclectic, especially after the last renovation, since the original furnishings were auctioned off. Most of what you see is inspired by the 1930s era but it is a mix of Spanish, Indian and even Chinese….almost as if some family lived here (the owners do).
The hotel was a (modest) hit and why not? People had to walk through once they got off the train and there wasn’t much else as competition. They were serving up over 1,000 meals a day in the restaurant. There was a fleet of Packard touring cars that took tourists on eye-popping drives to see the Painted Desert and the local Navajos.
The hotel stayed in operation as long as rail travel for tourists stayed strong. Route 66 brought people but by then there were some roadside tourist courts and these car people didn’t need the Packards. Finally the hotel closed down in 1957 and was later horribly renovated into offices for the railroad with drop ceilings and office partitions. The furnishings were auctioned off. In 1993 the railroad decided it wanted to dispose of the place (think demolition) and it was placed on the “most endangered” list by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It seemed to be doomed.
A white-knight appeared named Allan Affeldt who wanted to save the old hotel. The Santa Fe Railroad was not very cooperative but he finally purchased the relic in 1997. It was a mess. Besides the awful office conversion and auction and general deterioration, the walls were plastered with asbestos; apparently something that was in vogue in 1930.
It is a spacious place and it’s enjoyable just wandering around. They have an indoor walking tour that points out some of the original details. There are also several gardens that greet the visitor but since I was visiting in December I didn’t investigate. There was a little bar — the Martini Room — that I did investigate. .There is an unusual amount of public space — lounges, galleries and sitting rooms — where a guest can find a cozy spot to read a book. The registration desk/counter is at the back of a large gift shop. Many of the public rooms have been repurposed because the hotel originally opened toward the tracks but now is geared more toward the street.
The guest rooms are very nicely decorated and researched. I stayed in the Victor Mature room, across the hall from the Bob Hope room and down the hall from the Gene Autry room. It’s not all guys…I think Mary Pickford and Dorothy Lamour rooms are close by as is Shirley Temple. These were pretty standard rooms but there is a Howard Hughes Hideaway suite and a nice Diane Keaton room and a Harry Truman room. Hughes stayed here quite often as the head of TWA, which had eight daily flights into Winslow. He could get here pretty easily. Some rooms have balconies and some have fireplaces.
My room, and I guess others as well, had a stocked library with about fifty books. I like that but you don’t see it very often. Based only on the size of the bed I have to assume Victor Mature was a really big guy. The bathroom was refurbished in a 1930s style black and white tile. They have Wi-Fi and almost everything else you need. The person checking in before me requested a refrigerator and they said they would bring one to her room. I don’t have one. This is a railroad hotel which means the trains go by all the time. Even though there were plenty of guests it is very quiet in the rooms. I brought ear plugs just in case and you should too if you are a light sleeper. The place is big and sturdy but you still know a train is going by. Like a lot of older hotels, you might be hard pressed to find enough electrical outlets for all of your electronic devices. We bring a lot of stuff with us now.
I did eat in the Turquoise Room Restaurant and I can recommend it. Bring your credit card but the food is worth it. I had pan-seared Redfish with capers and Meyer lemon sauce, steamed vegetables and fingerling potatoes with an ample supply of bread. I passed on the salad and soup but had a small desert of dark chocolate gelato with raspberries and cream in a crepe bowl. The crepe bowl would have sufficed for desert by itself. Repent!! Repent!! You glutton!
Well — I won’t have much for breakfast.
When I waddled down the hall and up the spiral staircase to Victor’s room there was a guy playing some nice classical guitar in the sitting area.
They have complementary coffee and hot chocolate in the morning with some fruit. If you are still hungry…somehow…they also serve breakfast in the restaurant. I won’t be hungry.
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Painted Desert Inn (Petrified Forest National Park) — You can’t stay here but you can look. Years ago, back when there were Packard touring cars driving visitors through the Painted Desert, there was also a mom and pop privately operated “inn” perched up on one of the prime vantage spots in the Painted Desert.
The original place, known as the Stone Tree House, was made of petrified wood stones and operated from 1924 until around 1935 when the park bought the property. There are apparently parts of the original building inside the pueblo revival structure that you see today.
As the place converted over to being a national park the old inn was rebuilt by CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) workers and became the Painted Desert Inn. The place is still there as sort of a relic with a few displays of what it was like back in the day and a Ranger answering questions. The CCC workers did a wonderful job and created almost everything you see including the furniture and light fixtures. It is a sturdy little place and stands as testament of what they were able to do.
I’m not sure how many of today’s visitors appreciate what this was and how it came to be. It was never very big but there were not many people who would forego the convenience and comfort of the Harvey Hotels… or they maybe were of the other, hardier extreme — camping in canvas tents along the highway. The dust bowl and the depression hit people very hard and the CCC put a lot of young men to work and a portion of their pay went to their families back home. I had an uncle who worked in a CCC crew.
Today there is an Artist in Residence program at the park and you will possibly meet him or her at the Inn. You may also see local artisans displaying and selling their creations. When I visited on a inhospitable day in the snow there were two local people — a jewelry maker and a weaver.
I’ve been here a few times now — in the heat of summer and on this cold and snowy day and I enjoy the chance to get out and see what’s what. Usually there is a different exhibit downstairs in what used to be the taproom. The Rangers are chatty and full of information.
The Painted Desert in snow – view from the Painted Desert Inn