In Winslow, Ariz., that commission led to the creation of La Posada, a vast hacienda-style building that, to set the tone, was spun from Colter’s historical fiction of a Basque family that established an Arizona ranching empire in the 1800s, only to lose it all to the railroad by the end of the century.
From this confection, the Santa Fe Railway built the grand and stately La Posada to serve its guests along the railway’s transcontinental route, in downtown Winslow, Ariz.
Colter was fascinated by Southwestern and Native American culture – a fascination that led to her designs of the Grand Canyon’s Desert View Watchtower, Hopi House, Bright Angel Lodge, Hermit’s Rest, Lookout Studio and Phantom Ranch – which are, like many of her creations, on the National Register of Historic Landmarks.
Even today, her buildings provide a glimpse of the grandeur of railroad travel and how the Southwest was showcased for visitors while still comprised of territories, and La Posada is no exception.
I experienced Colter’s vision firsthand one recent weekend with my friend, Carolyn, who arrived via the railroad from the west, while I drove in on I-40 and Historic Route 66, which passes the hotel on its north side. The train actually stops on the south, about 200 feet from La Posada’s door.
Each of the hotel’s 20 guest rooms is named for one of the many dignitaries and legends who, over the years, have stayed at the hotel.
We got the Jimmy Stewart room, just down the hall from the Franklin D. Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart and Carole Lombard Rooms. Our room included a slim orange volume, The Teachings of the Buddha touching a copy of the Gideon’s Bible.
With simple and gracious décor that includes wide planked wood floors, oriental rugs and historic photos, the room was comfortable, relaxing and spacious. In spite of its proximity to the railroad, the room was quiet, too.
Trains are a major presence in Winslow, and La Posada (and the 90 trains that creep rhythmically past the hotel each day) is a constant source of fascination. Maybe it’s the romance of rail travel, maybe nostalgia for an era gone by, but no matter the time of day, people are down by the tracks staring at the lumbering rail cars. The hotel is a stop for the one or two passenger trains that actually discharge passengers.
La Posada’s gardens and 20 acres of landscaping offer a place for guests to wander and relax. Sculptures dot the Mexican-style walls and fences – St. Francis gazes out over the gathering birds.
We found the southwest patio particularly easy to enjoy. Toasting the sunset with a glass of wine, we reclined in the hotel’s comfortable chaise longues under the timber-lined balcony deck as the waning sun bathed the hotel in golden southwestern light.
The sunken gardens of the north offered welcome relief from the midday high desert sun, a great place to watch an artist painting while the cool garden fountains provided a soundtrack.
Our only moment of imperfection came in the Turquoise Room, La Posada’s comfortable grand dining room and restaurant, when the maitre’d heard we didn’t have a dinner reservation. But all was forgiven and out perfectly prepared dinners. The food was really, really good – I had an exquisite chicken breast with tomatillo sauce and a sweet
corn tamale and Carolyn had a fabulous shrimp penne pasta.
Colter teamed up with the Fred Harvey Co. on the Santa Fe Railway building projects in 1903, hired to design a series of hotels, restaurants and giftshops. Some credit the Harvey Co. with creating what we now know as “the Southwestern” style of design and travel experience. The company was well-known for its attention to tourist travel along the Santa Fe Railroad from Cleveland to Los Angeles, creating attractions that both fueled travel and also provided an attention to detail that countered common beliefs that American travel was a rough and challenging experience.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation placed La Posada on its “most endangered” list in 1994, drawing the attention of current owners, Allan Affeldt and his wife, artist Tina Mion, two Californians who, when they first saw the building, they thought “it was impossible to tell that it was one of the finest hotels” in the world, in its heyday.
“I purchased the building in 1997 after three years of negotiation,” said Affeldt. “It was a wreck. All our friends thought we were crazy.” Joined by several friends, the couple immediately set to restoring the 70,000 plus square foot building in April of that year; by November, some of the historic hotel’s rooms were once again available.
La Posada, Colter’s favorite of the 21 hotels and other buildings she designed for the company, exemplifies the grandness to which she and the Harvey Co. aspired. With plentiful gardens, a grand dining room and rooms that served weary travelers, the Spanish-Mexican influence also provided escape from the sameness of hotel travel (each of the 21 hotels, including La Posada, provided an element of fantasy and escape as well as luxury).
However, opening in 1930, at the height of the Great Depression, the historic hotel had little opportunity to wow its guests with its understated opulence and chic attention to detail.
And so La Posada limped along until the railroad closed it to the public in 1957. Instead of serving travelers, the Santa Fe Railway transformed it into offices, replete with acoustic tile ceilings and glass-partition office cubicles.
Colter’s attention to detail, which included designing gardens, furniture and even the dishes used for dining, was lovingly embraced by its newest owners. “We found Colter’s original blueprint plans on railroad microfiche in Topeka,” noted Affeldt. Colter, he explained, created a detailed fantasy to teach people about the region through her buildings.
The décor at La Posada juxtaposes original Colter details like Mexican Madonnas and saints in recessed nooks and Colter-designed furniture with the original modern paintings of present-day co-owner Tina Mion, who creates huge portraits of people from around the world tinged with unexpected irony and odd details.
Much of Colter’s detailing marries whimsical Mexican design with practicality, creating a comfortable building that works for the high desert Southwest. La Posada’s staff knows they have a special place and they provide a blend of diligent attention to the guest experience with privacy, helping to make it the perfect place from which to explore northern Arizona, the Grand Canyon, Sedona and the Painted Desert.