Once on the brink of fading away, quaint Winslow, Arizona has made a historic comeback
With its quiet storefronts and sleepy vibe, the town of Winslow, Arizona may seem like a placid hamlet on Route 66, but don’t be fooled. It’s situated at a crossroads of several exciting historic developments: the advent of modern-day hotels, the explosive popularity of that American ritual of “hitting the road,” and major advancements in aviation.
Today you can visit Winslow — popping sedately up out of sand and sagebrush between Flagstaff and Holbrook on US 40 and bordering the Navajo Nation — to relive each of these nostalgically heady eras. You can also eat a great meal, view excellent art and feel perfectly innocent checking out a topless bar (it earned its punny name because the roof came off).
A town takes flight
For hospitality with a historic touch, consider La Posada, the last great Harvey House. Fred Harvey launched the concept of regulated restaurants and hotels distinguished by silverware, china, crystal and impeccable service along the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Line in 1870. In so doing, he developed the world’s first chain of hotels, created the world’s first female workforce and played a major role in civilizing the West.
Most Harvey Houses no longer stand, let alone operate. Yet in Winslow, the 1929 La Posada (laposada.org) still welcomes guests a few hundred paces from the train stop, just as it did in the old days — imposing, beautiful and, after dark, illuminating the evening with warm golden lights inside and out. Mary Elizabeth Jane Cotler, revered Southwestern architect famous for her Grand Canyon structures, considered La Posada her masterpiece. Tourists embraced it. So did movie stars, among them Hollywood power couple Clark Gable and Carole Lombard.
At about the same time on the outskirts of town, Col. Charles A. Lindbergh brought air service to, more or less, La Posada. The headlining hero had made history with the first solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. Two years later, he laid out Transcontinental Air Transport Company’s inaugural coast-to-coast service, New York to Los Angeles with a stopover in Winslow. He selected the site and personally supervised the airport’s construction. After that, he liked to visit to escape relentless admiring crowds.
The 1920s also witnessed the birth of Route 66, ultimately 2,448 miles of cities, burgs, sights and souvenirs that stretched from Chicago through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and finally to Santa Monica, California, and the Pacific Ocean. “The Mother Road” had a constant stream of motorists and families migrating west in search of the American Dream.
[HEAR MORE: Author Doreen Orion recounts an epic American road trip on "KNPR’s State of Nevada."]
In Winslow, the hotel, the airport and Route 66 rolled gloriously along until the end of World War II, when travel patterns shifted and the Interstate Highway System left the “Mother Road” obsolete and the rail losing riders. La Posada closed to the public in 1957. The airport’s commercial flights dried up in the 1980s.
A new leaf
A group of Winslow townsfolk dubbed “The Gardening Angels” hated to see La Posada abandoned. They would come to water the trees, hoping that someone would save the building. In 1994, Allan Affeldt decided to check it out before it was razed altogether. He bought it instead, negotiating for three years with the Santa Fe Railway and resolving financial, legal and environmental challenges. Wife Tina Mion had a successful career as a painter. Sculptor Dan Lutzick, the third to join the team, says, “We had in common that in our past, whatever we did, you did everything yourself. So now the scale was larger, but otherwise it wasn’t much different.”
The Santa Fe Railroad had used the space for crew offices, dropped the ceilings, refloored it and then gave up because it was too big. In another avatar, part of the building had doubled as a hospital. For four years, Lutzick slept there at night to guard it. Affeldt, Mion and Lutzick refurbished, overhauled and reopened it in 1997.
The results speak for themselves. You can enjoy an exquisite breakfast, lunch or dinner in La Posada’s elegant Turquoise Room — finishing splendidly with desserts on the order of bread pudding and prickly pear cactus sorbet. You can browse a remarkable gift shop stocked with books, Native American art and jewelry and superb, reasonably priced multi-dimensional fabric art. In an upstairs gallery, you can browse Tina Mion’s collection of smart, strikingly rendered subjects ranging from the evocative “Last of the Harvey Girls” to “A New Year’s Party In Purgatory For Suicides In Which Liberace Makes A Guest Appearance Down From Heaven Just For The Hell Of It.”
Winslow’s Downtown Historic District meanders from La Posada for 10 blocks two streets deep to the Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau that occupies a former trading post. If you walk it end to end, you pass Kenna’s – billed “Winslow’s topless bar” (owing to the removal of the roof to realize the present courtyard with flowers and trees.) Farther on, the Standin’ on the Corner trompe l’oeil mural pays tribute to the 1970s Eagles hit tune “Take It Easy” (“standin’ on the corner in Winslow Arizona / such a fine sight to see”). Each year at the end of September, the two-day Standin’ on the Corner Festival draws thousands. Also in the works is a Route 66 gallery and art museum planned for the old train depot on the La Posada grounds.
Across the street, the Arizona 66 Trading Company affords gallery space for local artisans. Nearer to the Visitors Bureau, Dan Lutzick’s Snowdrift Art Space (snowdriftart.com) features breathtaking objets d’art and hosts model railroad clubs for Winslow Railroad Days in April and a popular quilt show in late September. Outside of town, Route 66 buffs will enjoy Meteor Crater, the Little Painted Desert 18 miles to the northwest, the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest 60 miles east. About 35 miles southeast, they’ll also enjoy Holbrook’s iconic Wigwam Motel, where the units look like teepees.
In the category of hotels of 180 rooms or less, this year’s “Ranking Arizona” magazine has chosen La Posada as number four in the entire state. Thanks to The Gardening Angels, La Posada has risen from the ashes as a landmark hotel listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and Winslow has revitalized around it. Yet if you ask Lutzick about the accomplishment, he says, “Visionary? No. We’re just stubborn.”