Former rail-side hotel gems in varied states of rebirth in West

April 11, 2016

The La Posada Hotel in Winslow, Ariz., is a restored and somewhat reimagined Harvey House that since 1997 has been owned and operated by the husband-wife team of Allan Affeldt and Tina Mion.

WINSLOW, Ariz. — In a state where broken-down ballplayers are routinely sequestered to heal, La Posada qualifies as a comeback kid.

The Spanish hacienda-style hotel was built with exquisite pedigree but opened at an inopportune time, in 1930 when the Great Depression was taking deep root. Tucked within elaborate gardens between Route 66 and multiple train tracks, it struggled until closing in 1957. Gutted and converted to host railway offices, the remaining structure was being stalked by bulldozers when Allan Affeldt and his wife, Tina Mion, orchestrated its reawakening as a lodge in the 1990s.

Today, La Posada is a widely praised and eclectic tourist destination in an unlikely locale, a tumbleweed town made mildly famous by a 1970s rock song but one that, from Interstate 40, looks no more distinguished than any of the other bushy, barren burgs between Albuquerque and Flagstaff.

What it contains, though, is a relatively rare glimpse into our country’s proud railroad past. La Posada is one of the few remaining Harvey Houses, track-side restaurants and hotels that for many decades after 1876 provided reliable food and comfortable shelter for travelers who, at least in those early years, were otherwise exposed to unsavory (overcooked beans, sea biscuits and cold coffee, anyone?) and unsafe (it was still the Wild West, after all) conditions.

Earlier this year I overnighted at La Posada and stopped by the El Garces Harvey House, a grand but long-neglected structure in Needles whose condition I have been monitoring, infrequently and informally, for 20 years. Along the way I learned much about a 19th-century Londoner who was a visionary employer of young American women and, collaterally, a Cupid for the ages.

In the 1870s, shifty characters who were spread along the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad lines took passengers for a ride by selling them meals, only to serve them with unsanitary utensils or, perhaps worse, conspiring with train engineers to have the gotta-leave-now whistle blown before paid-for food arrived. Santa Fe addressed this public-relations nightmare by recruiting a high-standards man, Fred Harvey, an English immigrant who at the station in Topeka, Kan., operated a classy, above-board restaurant.

According to the entertaining and picture-packed "Fred Harvey Houses of the Southwest" by Richard Melzer (Arcadia Publishing, 2008), by the time Harvey died at age 65 in 1901, he had overseen the creation of 47 restaurants and 15 hotels as far west as San Bernardino. Under his sons’ stewardship, expansion continued.

"The building of a fine, new Harvey House was seen as a sure sign that a town had shed its frontier reputation and was well on its way to permanency, prosperity and respectability," Melzer writes.

Initially, and in keeping with the way things were in those days, Harvey had only male waiters on his payroll. However, their often-bad behavior (tardiness, drunkenness, assorted other bad-nesses), culminated by Harvey firing his entire rowdy staff in Raton, N.M., one day in 1883, led to a companywide policy of hiring only female food servers.

Thousands of women, many from the Midwest, applied for the chance to live in faraway places, with free room and board, for $17.50 a month. Melzer reports that the so-called Harvey Girls, in addition to following formal table-setting etiquette (forks to the left, knives and spoons to the right, etc.), were tasked with complimenting children, never chatting with each other when customers were present, and never arguing with customers.

Most of these young women were single, and a lot of them had marital motivations. And a lot of them, apparently, met that goal.

"Some say the Harvey Girls married so quickly that marriage proposals for the pretty ones took a day, while proposals for less-attractive ones took three," Melzer writes.

The young women’s story seduced Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, in 1946, to release "Harvey Girls," starring Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Angela Lansbury and Cyd Charisse. The movie’s trailer, bless its quaint heart, trumpeted it as a "gay and lusty musical romance." The song "On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe" won an Oscar.

If Mary Elizabeth Jane Coulter (1872-1957) was the rail stations’ version of Julia Morgan, then La Posada was her equivalent to Asilomar. The chief designer and architect of Harvey House operations for 22 of the chain’s properties, Coulter had the most control in developing La Posada: The building design, interior touches, gardens and $1 million construction were all under her purview.

By the time Affeldt and Mion moved in 19 years ago (they still reside there), only the outline of Coulter’s original vision remained. What the new owners have created is not so much a restoration as a re-imagining. The 900 pieces of ornate New Mexican furniture made originally for the La Fonda Harvey House in Santa Fe, N.M., by resident artist Ernest Martinez certainly hark back to the early 20th century. Mion’s edgy artwork, though, showcased in a second-floor gallery, reflects modernity.

Three of Mion’s paintings, by the way, have been purchased by the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, including a portrait of a wide-eyed Jackie Kennedy that is represented in La Posada. It depicts the first lady, in her famous Nov. 22, 1963, outfit, holding a king-of-hearts card being ripped apart by a bullet.

The hotel contains many elements of whimsy. Each of the 54 guestrooms is named after celebrities who have stayed at or visited La Posada. I was in the Roddy McDowall, No. 229. A particularly in-demand room, a hotel walking-tour pamphlet proclaims, is the Howard Hughes, No. 225.

Ellen Little of Walpole, Mass., spent a night there during a cross-country trip with daughter Jessica, who was moving to Aptos.

"The art gallery upstairs was wonderful and a must-see if you go," Little said. "Since we were there in January, the gardens were pretty dormant, but I can imagine they must be gorgeous in the spring. The metal sculptures and places to relax outside are abundant."

Barry H. Barnett and his wife, Melissa, who divide their year between residences in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and Los Ranchos, N.M., liked the food in the big and serene Turquoise Room.

"We decided to try a number of selections from the starters and soups," he said. "Wonderful flavors and tastes. In my younger days I would have continued to the mains, but that will have to wait until our next visit."

The southern garden, which fronts the tracks, was my favorite area. Around dawn, I spent a half-hour there, observing how angled sunlight brought the building’s east and south sides into sharp and pleasing focus, and listening to the rumble of at least three big freight trains go by. Amtrak stops there twice each day; how cool, I thought, that hotel guests could alight right here, as they could long ago.

Wife? Yes. Mother? Maybe. Sister? Unlikely. No way were there seven women on my mind when I was standing on a corner in Winslow, Ariz., next to a statue of "Take It Easy" co-writer Jackson Browne. On this sunny morning it was a fine sight to see, two blocks from La Posada, as surrounding Brown’s feet was a makeshift, rather digressive memorial to Glenn Frey, singer of the Eagles’ 1972 hit single who had died 13 days before my visit.

To me, the Harvey House in Needles, Calif., had always looked abandoned, at best, or a mere shell possibly minutes from collapse, at worst. Recently, I got wind of renovation work there, so on my La Posada trip I again checked out El Garces.

The building, incongruously large in a downtown dotted with vacant lots and rather distressed businesses, looked pretty spiffy when I arrived there on an early afternoon in late January. Fresh paint accentuated the dozens of columns that run from ground level up through the second floor’s wrap-around balcony. Real windows had replaced the proliferation of plywood that I recalled from previous visits.

This, I thought, is another Harvey House success story. Not as accommodating, maybe, as La Posada or the grand El Tovar Hotel, which has welcomed visitors to Grand Canyon Village, Ariz., since 1905. Not as functional, perhaps, as the Harvey House in Barstow, Calif., which has chamber of commerce and tourism offices, plus a couple of museums. But El Garces, on the outside, looks like a railroad relic that has been rescued.

Approaching the building from the south side, I found the door to the Amtrak waiting room locked; the two passenger trains that serve Needles daily are scheduled to arrive between midnight and 1 a.m. Around on the north side, I heard construction noise and saw that a fountain was being tiled in a courtyard that cuts into the El Garces building. As luck would have it, Dr. Edward Paget, Needles’ mayor since 2010, was there overseeing the project.

The chance meeting turned out to be fortuitous for a couple of reasons. One, he had keys to the building and was willing to let me look inside. And two, his wife, Janice, is a member of the preservation- and restoration-promoting Friends of El Garces. He persuaded Janice to drive over to lead a tour of the building’s overwhelmingly cavernous interior.

Once inside, our voices echoed off bare-concrete and busted-tile walls. As we measured our footsteps carefully to avoid big divots and even gaping holes in the floor, it became clear that this Harvey House is not remotely ready for prime time.

Edward Paget relayed the basics before we entered. "This building was built in 1906," he said. "It was built because the previous building on this site burned down. It was wood. So they decided we’re not going to let this burn down, so they built this out of concrete. Most of the construction work was done by the local Mojave Indians.

"And it’s currently being restored – or up to this point, it’s being restored with federal transportation dollars. … Buses, trains use the thing, and that’s why Amtrak is in there."

Janice Paget recalled how the structure looked in 1999, when with more than 1,000 signatures, her group got the city to buy the property for $130,000.

"It was just empty. Vacant. Vagrants were here, it was just terrible," she said. Then after the sale, "the city didn’t do anything with it for a long time."

Last decade, a developer tried to obtain $10 million in federal funds to again make El Garces a hotel, but Uncle Sam declined to sponsor that private enterprise. The private developer, as it turns out, was none other than Allan Affeldt of La Posada Hotel.

After explaining that Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway is part of the current renovation work, Janice Paget showed me some questionable craftsmanship in a women’s restroom. The new linoleum is cracked and curling.

"They have done it in such a tacky way," she said. "Are you kidding me?"

"And this was the railroad that did this?" I asked.

Janice Paget, still exasperated, responded, "No, the city! Yeah, the city!"

I pointed to her husband. "But he’s the mayor, right?"

As he laughed, she said: "That’s the sad thing. He doesn’t get a vote on anything."

"Unless it’s a tie," he said, chuckling.

Evidently, this one-time Harvey House "player" remains on the long-term disability list.

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HARVEY HOUSES

The Harvey House in Barstow contains, among other things, the Western America Railroad Museum and the Route 66 Mother Road Museum. 681 N. First Ave., Barstow; 760-256-8617; www.barstowharveyhouse.com.

The Harvey House in Williams, Ariz., where trains depart daily to the Grand Canyon’s south rim (www.thetrain.com), was being renovated as a multipurpose building this winter. A visitors center employee said a springtime opening was the goal.

La Posada Hotel: 303 E. Second St. (Route 66), Winslow, Ariz.; www.laposada.org

El Garces: 950 Front St., Needles

Harvey Houses: Learn more at www.harveyhouses.net

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