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Salvation Books a Room

The resurrection of a historic Southwest hotel revives the declining city of Winslow, Ariz., along with the reputation of a long-forgotten architect.

September 13, 2003|J.R. Moehringer | Times Staff Writer

WINSLOW, Ariz. — This city was dead. Stores were boarded up, residents were fleeing, downtown was nothing but weeds and ghosts. You could eat your lunch in the middle of the main street, the mayor says, without fear of being run over.

Then, 10 years ago, something happened. Winslow set out to save its one great building -- a 1930s hotel where movie stars and American icons once stayed -- and the building wound up saving Winslow.

Restoration of the crumbling La Posada triggered a chain reaction of other restorations, which remade Winslow's downtown and revived its economy, while spurring other less obvious "restorations," from the legacy of a brilliant Western architect to the passion of an Orange County peace activist.

Now, this historic city on Route 66, with its smart new public plaza and vogue new coffeehouse, its crowded calendar of art shows and poetry readings, and its own international film festival, is a ghost town no longer. Residents are quick to give credit for the sweeping changes to several local boosters and business leaders -- but they are most grateful to their restored hotel. They speak of La Posada as if it were a person, and describe the connection between city and hotel as an intimate, mutual debt:

Winslow filled the hotel with guests, and the hotel rid Winslow of ghosts.

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The decline of Winslow began more than 50 years ago, with the decline of railroad travel. Winslow was founded in the 1880s as a hub for the Santa Fe Railway and a home for its workers. Janice Griffith, director of the downtown Old Trails Museum, says Winslow was once a city whose heart and soul ran on rails.

During World War II, 3,500 troops bound for combat in the Pacific would stop each day in Winslow to be fed. Some days, residents would watch as trains arrived from the opposite direction, draped in black bunting, laden with bodies of boys killed in battle.

"The train would have 1,400 caskets and a three-man crew," Griffith says. "What this did was create a sense of compassion and support between townspeople and all arrivals. When you're a travel town, you develop that kind of relationship to people coming through."

By the 1970s, however, fewer people were coming through. The decline of railroad travel was followed by the opening of Interstate 40, which bypassed Winslow altogether. Overnight, Route 66 became a back road, Winslow a backwater. Traffic vanished, and with it went bars, cafes, gas stations -- life. The population swooned by 20%, to 8,000.

The starkest symbol of the city's demise was La Posada, built by the Santa Fe in 1929 for $2 million, a huge sum at the start of the Depression. The hotel, which closed in 1957, still dominated the main drag, but was gutted and forlorn, a destination only for drunks from Winslow's roadhouses, who passed out on its lawn. Although the railroad still owned La Posada, the hotel's grounds were a jungle and its rooms used mainly for office space and storage.

Still, a few stubborn Winslow residents, led by Griffith, refused to let La Posada go. They knew that Albert Einstein, Clark Gable, Howard Hughes, Errol Flynn, Will Rogers, Harry Truman, Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and scores of other famous figures once snoozed in the hotel's suites. They knew that the 70-room hacienda-style building was the masterwork of Mary Colter, one of America's most important female architects, a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright.

They knew that someone out there must care about saving such an architectural treasure.

Colter had been the main architect for the legendary Fred Harvey Co., which built first-class railroad hotels and restaurants throughout the West along the Santa Fe's transcontinental route. In 1928 she was tasked with designing an oasis in the wilds of northeastern Arizona where people could spend a night of luxury before heading to Los Angeles or Chicago, or visiting one of the many nearby tourist sights, like the Painted Desert or the Petrified Forest.

Rather than merely design another swank hotel, however, Colter created an 80,000-square-foot work of art, which challenged guests as much as it charmed them.

At 60 years old, Colter was at the height of her powers when she built La Posada, and the hotel was a bold declaration of her ideas. It tried to tell a story. It used simple materials that harmonized with the land. It broke with European tradition by being both roughhewn and romantic, like the American West itself.

"When she was doing this, in the early 1900s, it was new," says Arnold Berke, author of "Mary Colter: Architect of the Southwest." "She helped pioneer this style that someone later on called 'National Park Service rustic.' "

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