(But take it easy, that’s not even the best part!)
If it hadn’t been for Jackson Browne and Glen Frey jotting down those famous lyrics…if it hadn’t been for the Eagles who recorded them and turned it into the classic 1972 hit, “Take It Easy,” Winslow just may have faded into just another sad Route 66 side story.
Once the most important railroad hub in the Southwest, the largest city in northern Arizona, home to one of the premier hotels in the whole Southwest, frequent host to celebrities and presidents, and birth place to a few famous people (US Attorney General Richard Kleindienst of Watergate scandal fame, to name just one), Winslow, too, fell on hard times when I-40 went roaring past in 1978, with not so much as a thanks for the memories. Even today, seeing the town from the Interstate, there’s little to entice you to get off and smell the roses – unless you know about the little jewels that lie to the south and just DO it.
It took about 20 years before anyone loved the city enough to pull downtown out of the doldrums. The La Posada restoration project led the way, but, in some ways, residents can count the song as the town’s “savior.” Perhaps to demonstrate their commitment to promoting the WHOLE town, La Posada Foundation changed its name in the late 90s and formed the “Standin’ On the Corner Foundation” (yup, that’s really its name!) and decided they’d had enough of this lethargy. They’d just have to create a reason, on their own, for people to come to town.
When considering Winslow’s best assets, it must have made sense to capitalize on the song, and the foundation’s foresight seems to have been spot on. The song writer doesn’t say WHICH corner he meant, so the committee picked Second (old Route 66) and Kinsey, and fashioned a pretty little park there. The town raised enough money to hire outstanding muralist, John Pugh and sculptor Ron Adamson to re-create the song’s scene:
I can’t resist putting my arm around Adamson’s life-size, bronze guitar player, and Larry is enamored with the “flatbed Ford” in the mural and the REAL flatbed Ford by the curb. Visitors often have to do a double take before they realize that it’s not really a reflection in a store window they’re seeing, but a two story Trompe L’oeil mural painted on a blank brick wall. Be sure to look UP! The smooching couple and Bald Eagle upstairs aren’t real either! I take several minutes to admire the remarkable detail. But the most startling part is that, in the 15 minutes that we stand here on a late Saturday afternoon, at least 5 other couples come to this out-of-the-way place to take turns posing on that corner. I hear French, German and, maybe, some Russian. Like us, they come because of 31 words. Two sentences in a nearly 50 year old song. Just for the photo op. Amazing!
But take it easy, that’s not even the best part!
I’ll try not to blather on about the past glories of the La Posada resort, located just up the street from the park, or have actual steam come from my ears when I tell you about the huge injustice of how the railroad tried to destroy one of the greatest architectural commercial works in the Southwest. (They jackhammered Italian marble floors, painted over exquisite murals and covered painstakingly constructed, one-of-a-kind linoleum mosaics with ugly, ugly, ugly asbestos tile, for crying out loud!) I’ll even try to reign in my admiration for the incredible stamina and vision of its restorer, Allan Affeldt; but it’s hard to exaggerate any of those points.
To find such a gem in a dusty little town like Winslow is sorta like stumbling across a sparkling diamond in a cactus patch. But to also find a man and woman who have enough vision, love and fortitude for a place that they dedicate their whole lives to restoring it to its former glory (although Allan says it’s, technically, not a restoration), well…that’s just akin to a man looking at the city dump and believing he can create the Taj Mahal. Ok…that is a slight exaggeration, but it’s also kind of true.
There is tons of interesting history here, more than I have time or space for, but here’s a short sketch:
The Santa Fe Railroad commissioned architectural genius Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter to design the new Harvey House resort and restaurant in 1928. She’d done several smaller projects for them before, including some at the Grand Canyon. However, this would be her masterpiece; 80,000 square feet of buildings, furnishings and gardens on 20 acres, every jot and tittle designed by her, right down to the maid’s uniforms and dining room china.
By 1929, she began construction. No detail was too tiny for her oversight, especially when it came to fulfilling her vision of the resort’s ambiance and character. According to her imaginary history, the structure had been home to an old, very wealthy Spanish family for the last 120 years. Over the decades, they traveled, filled the home with treasures from all over the world, occasionally added on rooms and stories and copied the styles and gardens of many of the great homes of Europe. When the family fell on hard financial times, they sold it to the railroad, walked out, and left behind all their beloved furnishings. And now it was to be a public resort. Colter not only achieved her dream ambience in spades, incredibly, the project was finished a year and a half later, and opened in 1930.
And because she built it, they came by the trainload; at least 2 presidents, governors, politicians, royalty and dozens of Hollywood celebrities. Charles and Anne Lindbergh flew in to the Winslow Airport and spent time there. The Shah of Iran stayed there on his way to the Grand Canyon. Shirley Temple, John Wayne, John Kerry, Carole Lombard, Albert Einstein, Howard Hughes, Will Rogers and Amelia Earhart also came to visit. And that’s just for starters.
La Posada was neither the swankiest, the most sprawling, nor the most costly place they’d stayed, it just lived up to its name – The Resting Place. Some aspects of Mary Colter’s complex design of light and beauty, function and luxury were far ahead of their time. She and her building were “Green” way before “Green” was expected. Her passive air conditioning method kept her guests cool and comfortable in the high desert 100+ summer degrees, and warm when it snowed outside. Guests enjoyed imported, desert friendly, low water plants and flowers all year long, both in the gardens and the rooms, usually supplied from the on-site greenhouse. She employed 3 full time, professional gardeners who continuously developed the 12 acres of gardens.
Flash forward: 1957. The “Back-East” and Hollywood crowds gradually lose their curiosity about the exotic Southwest. The railroad heyday is over. Roads have greatly improved, so people travel more by car. The railroad closes its huge roundhouses and moves the diesel repair to Barstow, CA. The Santa Fe Railroad no longer uses Winslow as its headquarters. Most airplanes go to Phoenix, Winslow airport is out of date. “Progress” has arrived!
Less and less business comes to Winslow, and the Santa Fe Railroad closes La Posada as a relic of its time. They have plans to turn the huge building into horrible, butt ugly, dropped-ceiling, 1960 office cubicles, and they do it! In 1959, they auction off museum quality furnishings and art work to the public for pennies. Who cares anymore that nearly everything about the building now approaches priceless. Who cares that the once extravagant murals and stenciled ceilings are a one of a kind treasure. Who cares that the Italian marble floors are irreplaceable or the whimsical artwork is exceptional. This is the 60s, and all things must be new!
Even I get sick to my stomach when I see and hear what “they” did, I can’t imagine how Mary Colter felt as she watched them destroy her masterpiece, piece by magnificent piece. You can certainly hear the incredible sadness and pain she must have known. Some reporter asked her the requisite “How you feel?” question as she watched them sell off and destroy this great love. “I know now that it is possible for one to live too long,” she lamented.
These architectural crimes are still evident in parts of the structure, but, very few, thanks to Allan Affeldt and his artist wife Tina Mion. Affeldt, soon after college, in 1994, heard that La Posada had appeared on the “endangered historical structures to be demolished” list and began his 3 year journey of negotiating with the railroad to purchase the property. Daniel Lutzick eventually became a third partner, and neither of the three possessed a shred of restaurant/hotel experience.
I’ve not had the privilege of interviewing either of the three, but that acquisition has to be a story in itself. Not only did he have to talk his way through the railroad maze, he garnered investors, struggled his way through legalities and permits, researched all the new environmental compliances they now faced, found contractors who could actually do this kind of work, and attempted to reconstruct plans and drawings for what the building had originally been. The railroad had regularly thrown away all those kinds of papers for all their Harvey Houses. Incredibly, they found some of them stored at La Posada.
OK – I know I’m a little weird when it comes to this kind of story, but some of the history and a tour appears on a 2009 video hosted by Affeldt that plays on a loop at the resort. Larry finds me sitting in one of the several lounges, leaning forward, staring at the 99 minute film like I’m watching an Emmy award winning drama. It’s late in the day, and he’s anxious to get on the road and find a place to hook-up for the night, and he knows it’ll take a while for him to actually GET me out of the building. After several exchanges of, “Come on!” and “Wait, it’s almost over!” he finally promises to BUY me the video, if I’ll just come on!
Ok! I finally wander out, still devouring details of murals, arches, corbels, floor tiles and beams they’ve re-created. It’s magic! And, knowing how much of it had been destroyed by men who probably wouldn’t know beauty if it knocked them over the head and yelled their name, makes it even more enchanting.
I love and appreciate the trio’s honesty about the building. They’ve stayed as true to Colter’s vision as possible but tell you when they couldn’t. I love the color knowledge and (sometimes a little weird) art created by Tina Mion. I love that they’ve retained that imaginary history ambience; I’m welcomed as a casual guest to the house of an old Spanish family. Ummm…did I mention I love this place?
In truth, there’s not a LOT of things anymore to see in Winslow, Arizona. It’s not necessarily a place you’d put on the top of your “must-visit” column. On the other hand, if you’re awed by creative genius…if you groove on discovering the true stories behind brochure history clips…if you can’t put down a good “resurrection” kind of love story…or even if you’d just like to find a most elegant “Resting Place,” put this in the TOP 5 of your bucket list! Take at least a weekend, visit La Posada, and rest awhile.