Not being otherwise occupied, I have fallen into the habit of taking a week or ten days in the winter and going on a road trip. This is usually between Thanksgiving and Christmas so I guess this is actually late fall but it usually feels like winter. This year I decided to take a week or so and go to Flagstaff, Arizona, making stops along the way or side trips that present themselves. Road trips in the winter are sometimes an adventure, depending on the weather. If conditions turn bad and I run headlong into a blizzard I might find myself spending the day in a truck stop with fifty or sixty truck drivers, a stranded Baptist Church choir or a busload of Chinese tourists. The possibilities are endless. The weather seemed reasonable on this trip…seasonal but not too bad. There was a chance of snow but temperatures were up into the 30s or 40s.
My itinerary was straightforward — literally. Get on the interstate (I-40) and head west out of Albuquerque. I planned on stopping in Winslow on the way and Gallup on the way back. I would spend a couple days at the Grand Canyon and maybe check out the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert. These places would be mostly empty this time of year and, if there was a dusting of snow, might offer some nice photography options. I could have easily made Flagstaff in one day of driving but I tend to dilly-dally along the way. Winslow and Gallup both have some historic hotels and I have a blog series —In Praise of Old Hotels — so I wanted to see what they were like. I’m sort of a latter-day Duncan Hines when it comes to old hotels.
I’m interested in architecture but not an architect. Instead I’m a preservationist, conservationist, historian and writer with some limited experience as a city planner. Other than a long standing interest in architecture, since childhood, my only real involvement was the design and construction of prisons…that’s a whole different story. Today I am associated with the New Mexico Architectural foundation as a volunteer.
Anyway…the trip got off a little late in the day and I was happy to have made reservations at the hotel in Winslow. I had been through Winslow before. Travelers along the interstate and those following Historic Route 66 will stop in Winslow to get their picture taken “standing on the corner in Winslow, Arizona”. Jackson Browne and The Eagles made that street corner famous but the city of Winslow made it a tourist stop with a small park, a mural and various props…including a flat-bed ford parked by the curb on occasion. I have a picture from several years ago. This time my destination in Winslow was the La Posada Hotel, designed by Mary Colter.
As it turns out, this was my first personal encounter with Mary Colter. Mary Colter…Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter…where had I heard that name before? Oh yes…there is a historical marker in downtown Albuquerque about her.
Okay…let’s stop here for a minute because Mary Colter — or her spirit or muse or whatever — climbed into the car in Winslow and needs an introduction. My (imaginary?) traveling companion, Mary, was born in Pennsylvania in 1869 but the family moved around a little before settling in St. Paul, Minnesota. She was a smart girl and was going somewhere in a male-oriented era. At the age of seventeen she had already finished high school and was soon enrolled in the California School of Design in San Francisco. After an apprenticeship with a San Francisco architect, Colter returned to St. Paul. Her father had died and she needed to help support the family so she began teaching mechanical drafting at a St. Paul technical school. At some point, around 1900, she became acquainted with Fred Harvey of the Harvey Hotel chain. Harvey hired her to be an interior designer for his new Indian Building at the sprawling Alvarado Hotel under construction in Albuquerque.
Fred Harvey died in 1901 but this was the beginning of Colter’s long relationship with his company that lasted until 1948. There was at least a dozen Harvey House hotels or restaurants in New Mexico alone and dozens more scattered across the country. Harvey Hotels and the Santa Fe Railroad had a collaboration that offered quality lodging and restaurants all along the Santa Fe rail line across the western states. It seemed that if the Santa Fe railroad stopped someplace, The Fred Harvey Company had a hotel or restaurant for the passengers. Mary eventually moved from interior decorator to the Harvey Hotel chain architect and produced some striking and iconic buildings during her career. Colter’s take on architecture and design helped shape the popular perception of the great southwest. As a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright, they both had a vision of architecture tied to the land but Wright was less of a traditionalist.
The Alvarado Hotel — As long as we have digressed this far, let us now bow our heads for a moment in memory of Albuquerque’s Alvarado Hotel. It was demolished in 1970 and eventually replaced by a replica building serving as the city of Albuquerque’s transportation center, bus depot and Amtrak station. I once took a walk around the site looking for any evidence of the old hotel. There is some but you have to look for it. Behind the newer bus terminal you will find a wall with this interesting and seemingly pointless niche. It was once part of a decorative courtyard for part of the hotel. The wall served to separate the hotel complex from the railroad tracks.
The roof line on the current transportation hub building just north of the Amtrak station has an interesting similarity to the old hotel. The extension of the building on the left has visible stylistic rafter ends while the more modern roofline extends to the right without exposed rafters. You can see these exposed rafters in the old hotel building.
Post card images give a glimpse of what the place was like in it’s prime.
There are also a few post card images of the Alvarado’s interior. Mary Colter had a hand in the interior design of the building but she was not the architect. Take a good look at that fireplace because we will see that general idea repeated again.
Winslow Arizona — Back on track
Meanwhile, back in Winslow, it was getting dark. I found the La Posada Hotel sitting in its Christmas splendor next to the railroad tracks. My first view was primarily electric Christmas lights and luminaries leading from the parking lot to the main entry. Mary Colter was the architect of the La Posada when it was built in 1930 as the last grand Harvey House Hotel on the Santa Fe line. She had nothing to do with the Christmas decorations but someone spent a lot of time and effort on the display. I guess Mary Colter provided the structure and the imposing presence of the place that made it all possible.
The hotel was built as the Great Depression was just getting started and opened in 1930. That was really bad timing. It was almost always a struggling enterprise but it was also a showplace for those who made the journey. The interior design and furnishings were top quality. It was furnished with museum quality art and artifacts of the Southwest. Colter had almost thirty years of experience in the southwest by this time and knew how to design and dress up a place. The hotel struggled but survived until 1957 when it was closed. The furnishings were auctioned off in 1959. In 1961 La Posada was gutted and converted to office space for the Santa Fe Railway…with drop ceilings and glass-walled office cubicles. The basic hotel structure survived. Finally, in 1993 the railway decided it had enough of La Posada and decided to dispose of the place. That means demolition. The place is huge and takes up space and requires maintenance and the railway company had no interest in preservation. The National Trust for Historic Preservation got wind of the demolition plans and called attention to the site by placing the hotel on its most endangered list in 1994. At that point it was essentially a hulk — misused and abused for thirty years.
A few years passed — no demolition. I guess it costs a lot to tear down something as big as the La Posada. Behind the scenes there were negotiations going on and in 1997 Allan Affeldt bought the old hotel and gardens. Restoration, rehabilitation, salvation…whatever you call it…took a long time and a fortune. What was he thinking? The walls were originally finished with an asbestos-plaster mix that had to be replaced….everywhere. The restoration continues but the place is open and a showplace once again. Some of the original hotel spaces have been repurposed and the furnishings are mostly not original but they give an idea of what the original hotel was like. Mary Colter’s hotel is still there and you can find her touches and designs in the place.
One enters the hotel through a courtyard garden. The check-in reservation desk is in the gift shop. They give you a walking tour booklet so you can roam around the hotel and appreciate what it once was and now has become in its new life. My room was upstairs — up the imposing curved staircase. This is all very Spanish. Mary was a revivalist architect. Spanish revival, Pueblo revival, Mission revival…this was her main approach to architectural design in many instances. Southwestern style was her bread and butter.
Colter had a knack for historical representation that fit whatever design she was working on. She had an interesting imagination and concocted a story line for her designs. At La Posada it was a story about a mythical Spanish hacienda owned by a wealthy pioneer family of Spanish grandees who operated a cattle empire in northern Arizona. They only existed in her imagination but they helped guide her design and the furnishings at the grand hotel. You feel that you have stepped into a century old hacienda when you enter the place.
Rather than drone on, I’ll just show you what Mary Colter’s imagination produced in some of the public spaces of the hotel.
The guest rooms vary in size and furnishings. I booked a standard room with a king-sized bed. It turned out to be the “Victor Mature Room” — just across the hall from the Bob Hope room and the Shirley Temple room and Gene Autry room were down the hall. La Posada was one of the places the movie stars stayed if they were working on a movie in the area…usually a western. Westerns were popular so there were a lot of movie stars and directors staying at La Posada.
The design and the attention to detail don’t stop at the public spaces and the lobby. The guest rooms carried the hacienda theme as well. I was impressed with the furnishings. They were not original but were hand crafted in many cases and were in keeping with the hotel’s era and Colter’s theme. Part of the decoration in my room was a page of original design blueprints for the hotel mounted and framed on the wall. The blueprint image was for part of the kitchen and an entryway. I searched all over the page. There were names and signatures of all sorts of people but not Mary Colter. I later learned that her name only rarely appears on design plans for her buildings. I’m guessing that at this stage of her career she had people who did the actual drawings. My room, and I’m guessing other rooms, had a small library of about fifty books for guests to read but there was also a television if you wanted to just sit in your room and watch TV.
These were pretty standard rooms but there is also a Howard Hughes Hideaway suite. Hughes checked-in quite often as the head of TWA, which had eight daily flights into Winslow back in the day. He could get here pretty easily. There are other nicer rooms or suites. Some rooms have balconies and some have fireplaces.
The hotel restaurant is the Turquoise Room. I did eat in the Turquoise Room Restaurant and I can recommend it. Bring your credit card but the food is worth it. They have a real chef. 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. I ate too much. The restaurant, as well as the hotel, is quite busy. There was a local musician playing classical guitar in the lobby as I headed up to my room.
My room was very quiet, even though it is a railroad hotel and next to a very busy rail line. I brought earplugs based on my earlier experience with railroad hotels but didn’t use them. I slept very well. The next morning I checked out early and walked around the gardens a little. This was December so there wasn’t much to see but in warmer weather the gardens look like a place to relax.
We had a little dusting of snow during the night and I wanted to go back down the highway a few miles and visit the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert with a little polite dusting of snow. I figured I had left Mary Colter at the hotel.
Petrified Forest and Painted Desert
By the time I got to the park entrance the snow was coming down quite heavy but I was committed by this time so I forged ahead. This wasn’t going to be a light dusting of snow. The wind was blowing at about 35 mph and the snow was mixed with ice pellets so it felt like being pelted with icy bee stings. The road inside the park was open and drivable but there was almost no one else in evidence.
It was cold and pretty unpleasant but the snow finally stopped and the drive improved. I got lots of pictures and enjoyed the experience.
Painted Desert Inn
It takes a while to get through the park and I was happy to pull into the Painted Desert Inn, an old tourist inn from the early 1900s that is now a park service museum and ranger station. Well…here she was again. Mary Colter was the architect and designer of the Painted Desert Inn. The building was originally an old stone tourist inn that was reconstructed by the CCC in the 1930s. What you see now is Mary Colter’s design.
Fred Harvey’s company was the concessioner at many national parks and monuments besides being in cahoots with the Santa Fe Railway. They ran the Painted Desert Inn for decades. It actually is a small inn, though not open for stay-over guests. There are a few rooms in evidence if you walk around the building. It functioned mostly as a lunchroom and rest stop. Back in the day there were Packard touring cars that brought paying tourists, often guests at La Posada, to view the painted desert and Fred Harvey’s company was right there offering refreshments.
The CCC workers did a great job on the place and hand-crafted much of what you see as architectural details. Mary Colter enlisted local artists and craftsmen to help decorate the place. The light fixtures and furniture were made by CCC workers while the murals are from Mary’s artists.
Local artists still come to the Painted Desert Inn. There was a weaver and a jewelry maker there on the snowy day that I visited.
Well, I needed to get to Flagstaff but I was beginning to see a pattern. The weather had improved as Mary and I climbed back in the car. It was sunny but getting late as we…I… pulled in to Flagstaff. I was staying at a rental condo. I think Mary stayed in the car. I pretty much forgot about her for the next couple days.
Flagstaff has some interesting things to see and do including the Lowell Observatory that has been sitting up on Mars Hill for 117 years. That’s where they discovered Pluto and the expanding universe. Flagstaff had about 800 residents in 1894 when Percival Lowell arrived with his huge telescope. The (former) planet Pluto’s official astronomical notation is PL — as in Percival Lowell.
Flagstaff was a railroad town first and then the site of Northern Arizona Normal School (now State University) in 1899. Route 66 and the close proximity to the Grand Canyon made it a tourist destination. Today it has close to 70,000 residents. It has the feel of a college town — there are about 20,000 students at the university — but also a tourist and outdoor sports destination. Much to my surprise, Fred Harvey did not establish a hotel in Flagstaff. I spent a couple days rambling around the town. There are about eight micro-breweries but I only got to five. I’ll have to go back.
This is the end of Part One: take a break…we are heading to Grand Canyon.