Winslow AZ: La Posada tour

Visiting La Posada in Winslow, Arizona? If you have any interest the history of this former Harvey House hotel, the Fred Harvey Company, the Santa Fe Railway  or the fabled Harvey Girls, take the La Posada tour offered by the Winslow Harvey Girls. The tour will give you an overview of the company and the hotel, often called “The jewel in the Harvey crown.”

La Posada Winslow Steve Collins

La Posada, Winslow, AZ, photo/Steve Collins

The Fred Harvey Company had a rich history along the Aitcheson, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway as well as at tourist destinations such as Grand Canyon and the Petrified Forest. We have been fascinated by the Fred Harvey empire for years. We knew we had to take the tour. and could not depart after our overnight stay without one. When we asked the hotel about touring they sent us to the Winslow Harvey Girls, a local volunteer group dedicated to preserving the history of the Santa Fe Railroad, Fred Harvey, Mary Jane Colter, the Harvey Girls and La Posada. We called and set up a tour with Peggy Nelson, a member of the group. She met us at the Trading Post (the hotel gift shop) at 9am dressed in traditional Harvey Girl garb: a starched white apron over a black skirt and shirt with a black bow at the white collar. The tour is a must for any history and railroad buffs, art and antique lovers as well as people who want to know more about the Harvey Company and its “girls,” Colter and/or La Posada. We know a lot about Fred Harvey and the Harvey Houses and there was a snow storm coming so we had a shorter tour. Nelson was a fabulous guide with a great theatrical flair; the tour was fascinating.

The Fred Harvey Company

:a Posada Winslow AZ Steve Collins

Our guide Peggy Nelson outside the Trading Post gift shop, photo/Steve Collins

In 1876 Fred Harvey approached the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway with a proposal to operate restaurants for them efficiently and with consistent excellent quality. The deal was closed on a handshake. The agreement was that Harvey’s company would be the sole provider of food service along the Santa Fe Railway as well as on trains. After the first 10 years, the agreement became a written one renegotiated every 10 years. The partnership worked out well for both parties. The Fred Harvey Company was bought out by Amfac Corporation (today Xanterra) in 1968.

There was a Harvey eating house every 50 to 100 miles along the railway. Trains stopped for 10 minutes to take on water and the passengers had to be fed and back on the train ready to leave within that time.

Twin Harvey Girls, Bernette Jarvis and Beverly Ireland, La Fonda Hotel, ca. 1958 photo/Courtesy New Mexico History Museum and Bernette Jarvis and Beverly Ireland

Twin Harvey Girls, Bernette Jarvis and Beverly Ireland, La Fonda Hotel, ca. 1958 photo/Courtesy New Mexico History Museum and Bernette Jarvis and Beverly Ireland

Nelson gave us an animated account of how the Harvey Girls came into being. Until 1883, the company only hired men. After a drunken brawl at Raton, New Mexico, Harvey fired all his employees at that hotel. He appointed his friend Tom Gable to be manager on the spot and asked the surprised Gable what he was going to do. Nelson recounted the new manager’s response ‘“Why don’t we hire women?’ Gable suggested. ‘They’re better lookin’, they’re hard workers and they don’t get liquored up and brawl.’” They placed ads in papers around the country that read, according to Nelson, “Wanted: young women, 18 to 30 years of age, of good character, attractive and intelligent, as waitresses in Harvey Eating Houses in the West. Good wages with room and meals furnished.” Women responded and the legendary Harvey Girls were born.

The Harvey Girls

La Posada Winslow AZ

Peggy Nelson explaining about the cup code, photo/Steve Collins

The Harvey Girls had service to down to science. Passengers ordered on the train, the order was telegraphed to the eating house. A mile out, the train sounded a whistle. That was the signal to plate the food. When passengers arrived they gave their food and drink order to their server. Drinks were served based on a complicated code system based on cup position. If the cup got moved, all bets were off.

With the arrival of diesel engines stops became farther apart and were increased to 30 minutes in length. [If you want to learn more stay at La Posada and take the tour or read about Fred Harvey and his empire read Stephen Fried’s Appetite for America.]

In the Harvey days the area that currently houses La Posada’s current restaurant, The Turquoise Room housed to two large lunch counters seating 30 people each, a few small public dining rooms and a few private ones.

 La Posada then

La Posada Winslow AZ Steve Collins

Some of the celebrities who have stayed at La Posada, since the beginning photo/Steve Collins

La Posada was built in 1929. (The original Winslow Harvey House, no longer standing, was a non-descript building located on the other side of the tracks.) Designer Mary Jane Colter created a backstory for the new hotel. In a nutshell: “the grand hacienda of a wealthy Spanish landowner, whose family lived here for 120 years occasionally expanding the hotel until it finally resembled the structure as seen today. This fantasy guided every aspect of her architectural design.” This backstory details the fictional family’s history, their life-style, how the home came to be built and how the last heir, losing his money in the depression, sold the hacienda to the Harvey Company. It’s a compelling and believable story.

Colter was a perfectionist. She oversaw every detail of the hotel as it was being built. If she wasn’t pleased, it was ripped out and redone. She specified poured concrete walls which were are up to 20 inches thick. Her attention to detail made La Posada a very special place.

A photo of an Indian Detours bus loading for a days excursion, photo Steve Collins

A photo of an Indian Detours bus loading for a days excursion hangs on a hotel wall, photo/Steve Collins

The hotel closed in 1957. Rail traffic was down, auto traffic was up. The railroad tried to sell the hotel but there were no takers so they made it their regional headquarters. Although there was interior reconfiguring in the east wing, this decision saved the building demolition. Many other Harvey hotels were closed and sadly, were torn down. When the railroad decided to close this regional office in 1994 they offered the building to the City of Winslow for one dollar. The city turned it down. Some enterprising locals worked to get La Posada added to the National Register of Historic Places, but it still needed saving. Enter Alan Affeldt, a visionary businessman who fell in love with the building and wanted to save it. It took him four years to get the railway to listen to him. In the end, according to Nelson, Affeldt purchased the land and the building came with it.

La Posada now

Sadly, none of the original furnishings were left. In 1959, they were shipped to Albuquerque and auctioned off. We recognized some of the hotel’s hand painted furniture. Why? We’d seen it before. When Santa Fe’s La Fonda, a former Harvey House Hotel was renovated in 2013 they offered Affeldt first refusal on their furniture which had been hand-painted by Santa Fe artist Ernesto Martinez. He purchased 950 pieces from them. Some of this vast collection is being used and La Posada and many pieces have gone back to NM where they’re being used at The Plaza Hotel in Las Vegas, NM that Affeldt and company own. Some is being saved for use at La Castaneda, a former Harvey House, hotel also in Las Vegas, that they purchased and are currently renovating.

La Posada Winslow AZ Billie Frank

Original La Fonda hand-painted headboard, photo/Billie Frank

The rooms in La Posada’s West Wing and the tower rooms are named for famous stars from Hollywood’s heyday who stayed at the hotel, the gateway to most Arizona attractions including Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest, and Hopi Mesas, during that the 1930s, 40s and even.

The hotel’s East Wing, where the Santa Fe Railway had its offices, had to be completely reconstructed. The décor has a more contemporary feel. All the rooms in this wing have been named for famous people of today who have stayed at La Posada. We got to tour both the Emilio Estevez Suite and the Lauren Hutton Room. Comedian Bill Engvall, who was raised in Winslow, has a room named for him. If you are a fan of vintage, opt for the old wing. If more elegant, contemporary surroundings are more your taste, ask for a room or suite in the East Wing. Ask if your favorite star or personality has a room named for them and book it.

La Posada Winslow AZ

The Howard Hughes Suite, photo/Steve Collins

The tower also kept most of its original character. The Manager’s Suite, where hotel owners Affeldt and his wife, artist Tina Mion lived when they first bought the hotel, has a balcony with a great view of the tracks. It’s the perfect room for railroad buffs. Room 225, the Howard Hughes Hideaway, with a luxurious four-poster bed and fireplace, was named for the famous billionaire recluse who used to stay here. It’s the only room in the “original hotel” (the part not gutted) that has the original diagonal hard wood floors.

El Grande Garage, across from the back of the hotel used to house the vehicles used by the Indian Detour, the tour arm of the Harvey Company. Opened in 1926, they offered tours to local attractions and reservations. These excursions helped open the Southwest to tourism.

The walls of the La Posada’s vast public rooms are hung with Tina Mion’s paintings. The original sculptures were created by the hotel’s general manager Dan Lutzick. He also does the buying for the gift shop. While there, check out what Nelson calls “The Rogues’ Gallery” a wall of photos of many of La Posada’s famous guests going back to the beginning. The wall’s a who’s-who of the 20th century.

La Posada Winslow AZ

The front entrance welcomed visitors when they got off the train, photo/Billie Frank

This is a small portion of what Peggy Nelson covered in her comprehensive tour. If you want to know more, head to Winslow and take 2 to 2½ hour La Posada tour. The length depends on how many guest rooms are available to view. In high season there may be fewer rooms available. Tours are available starting at 9am but Nelson says that the best starting time is between noon and 1pm. By that time most rooms have been cleaned and it’s before many guests check-in. The tours, by reservation only, are open to both hotel guests and non-guests. When asked about group size, Nelson says they’ve arranged tours for up to 100. “I refuse to give a tour to less than one person,” she joked. The cost is $5 per person. For reservations, call Nelson at (928) 587-2287.

You can read about our La Posada stay here.

Author’s note: Our La Posada tour was comped. Opinions are our own. We thoroughly enjoyed touring with her.

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