I have followed the work of early 20th-century architect Mary Colter across the Southwest from Hermit’s Rest at the Grand Canyon to the Desert View Watchtower, which was inspired by her trips to Mesa Verde. Many of Colter’s architectural achievements have not survived, so what I found in Winslow, Ariz., was astounding.
Across the high desert from Winslow, the Santa Fe Railroad’s tracks stretch toward Los Angeles. Just as the Great Depression began in 1930, the Santa Fe Railroad finished an extraordinary hotel in Winslow. Built to be the finest in the Southwest and designed by Colter, La Posada, or “the resting place” in Spanish, was to be the last of the great railroad hotels in the American West.
Colter based her eclectic vision on the fantasy of a Spanish don who ranched thousands of acres, built vast cattle herds, traveled to Europe to purchase antiques and came home to enlarge his hacienda time and again for his growing family. She wanted a hotel and restaurant that was an oasis in the desert with sheltered patios, groves of cottonwood trees, formal gardens for flowers and vegetables, and even an orangerie, or citrus-growing room with southern exposure that wealthy families enjoyed in medieval Spain.
Colter built large public rooms with windows and a fireplace. She sought the spaces of a vast private residence added on to over time, and she succeeded with subtle variations in the ceilings, floors and walls. By raising a step here and there or changing the floor pattern, guests moved through the hotel’s volumes without a sense of repetition.
She wanted the look of Old World craftsmanship with tile and oak floors, hand-wrought iron hinges, wooden doors, windows and shutters as well as tiled roofs, arched stone walkways and upstairs balconies.
Colter’s vision was complete. She designed the hotel, gardens, furnishings, curtains and even special hand-cut linoleum tiles in the hallways that would be quieter to walk on than ceramic tiles. Walls had delicately painted frescos and murals. She brought in Italian stone cutters and metal workers who had built Roosevelt Dam in Arizona. Colter designed everything in this, her architectural masterpiece, even commissioning ashtrays held by long-eared wrought-iron jack rabbits.
La Posada boasted 70 guest rooms with 9-foot ceilings, long arcades facing the railroad tracks, tennis courts, three dining rooms, a sheltered sunken garden and a greenhouse. The 72,000-square-foot hotel, excluding the basement and huge attic, cost $1 million in 1929. With landscaped grounds and exotic furnishings, it could have cost $2 million to complete – an equivalent of $40 million today.
In the 1930s, Winslow, a division point for the Santa Fe Railroad, had a larger population than Flagstaff. Many of Hollywood’s stars and starlets were guests, including John Wayne, Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour. And there were dignitaries, too, such as President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Howard Hughes, Will Rogers, Albert Einstein and Charles Lindbergh.
In its heyday, the hotel’s newsstand sold 500,000 postcards a year. During World War II, waitresses served 3,000 Spam sandwiches daily to soldiers. But this grand hotel’s timing could not have been worse.
First came the Great Depression, then World War II and after the war Americans embraced automobiles. Railroad ridership declined. La Posada closed as a hotel in 1957, and all beds, tables, chests and interior décor were auctioned in 1959. The building became a shell of its former self.
After the hotel closed, the railroad had used the massive structure for offices, and then when computers revolutionized the dispatch of railroad freight traffic, even those offices became obsolete. The Santa Fe, merged to become the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, tried to sell the building and grounds. Colter’s legend as an architect convinced the National Trust for Historic Preservation to put the famous hotel on its Most Endangered Places list.
At the University of California-Irvine, doctoral student in semantics Allan Affeldt and his artist wife, Tina Mion, said why not? She needed more space to paint her large, complex canvases. Why not buy a railroad hotel in the Arizona desert? The purchase took three years, but finally in 1997 the couple and a few partners bought the 20-acre site for its appraised value of $158,000. The abandoned hotel had been given no value by the railroad, which might have torn it down had it not cost too much.
Thus began the daunting task of restoring 53 guest rooms and 30,000 square feet of public space. The purchase price might have been inexpensive, but renovation costs were an estimated $12 million. Family and friends arrived to help.
“What a lovely and improbable journey this has been,” owner Affeldt told me in his second floor office, with a view of 90 trains a day.
It took 15 years to open the final guest room.
“I tried to borrow money to start the restoration, but no one would lend me any. That became a blessing in disguise. We had very little debt and sailed through the Great Recession,” he said.
My wife and I thought we would stay one night, but the charms of the hotel, the superb dining in the Turquoise Room and the intricacies of the restoration demanded more attention. We stayed two nights, wandering through the hotel and reveling in Colter’s masterpiece.
The building is now a National Historic Landmark, and the entire 20-acre site is designated the La Posada National Historic District. The gardens with their hand-laid stone walls are certified wildlife habitat.
“She created south and east facing walls for protection from the wind and microclimates in the sunken garden. Things will bloom in there earlier and stay alive longer,” said master gardener Patrick Pynes.
“This is like an archaeological site when you start digging in it,” he said. “You can really feel a palpable sense of the past here in the present. Colter was a powerful, creative person.”
Pynes said his goal as gardener is to develop and cultivate the relationship with the land.
“This is a hard place to garden, but it’s essential to participate with the beauty of the hotel. They play off each other,” he said.
Colter sought to bring a Spanish feudal hacienda to the Americas, which makes gardening challenging.
“As a gardener and beekeeper, we’re trying to create something ecologically sustainable, but we have problems with wind and water,” Pynes said.
La Posada is the only site where Colter designed the building and the gardens. She even convinced the Harvey House Co., which ran the facility, to let the Harvey Girl waitresses have colorful, hand-sewn aprons.
La Posada remains a work in progress. The hotel’s original orientation was to the south facing the train tracks. Now guests arrive on the north side, at what was the back door. The owners have spent $750,000 on a new parking area and a potager garden with ornamental edibles as well as planting Hopi red amaranth, Santo Domingo blue corn and other plants from Native Seed Search.
“We wanted at La Posada to preserve that time when there were grand hotels. We wanted to give back that sense of leisure and relaxation,” Affeldt said.
“It’s taken us much longer to restore the building than it took Mary Colter to build it,” he said, laughing. “She designed acres of formal gardens, lawns, cottonwood trees. It must have appeared almost as a mirage after traveling by train across the dry Colorado Plateau.”
Now the mirage is real. La Posada is back.
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and Environmental Studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.