On the route to a renaissance
A town attempts a renewal on old Route 66
WINSLOW, Ariz. - Few and far between is the American of a certain age who cannot sing the lines: "Well, I'm a-standin' on a corner in Winslow, Arizona / And such a fine sight to see / It's a girl, my lord, in a flatbed Ford / Slowin' down to take a look at me." Though that corner, popularized in the Eagles' song "Take It Easy," existed only in the imagination of songwriter Jackson Browne, the town of Winslow eventually cashed in on its notoriety, turning a downtown corner into a mini-park.
Though I initially resisted, my friend David coaxed me to lean against the life-size bronze of a long-haired, '70s-looking dude toting a guitar for a photo. Behind me rose a mural by master trompe l'oeil artist John Pugh of a girl driving a pickup and in an upstairs window an amazingly realistic couple embracing. It turns out that there's nary a visitor passing through town who doesn't have a photo taken on that corner.
At first glance dusty Winslow still appears a bit hardscrabble, but it has made a remarkable comeback reclaiming some of its heyday past. Once a prominent location on both Route 66 and the transcontinental railway, and home to an airport designed by Charles Lindbergh, Winslow was northern Arizona's largest town until the 1960s. With the decline of rail travel and the advent of nonstop coast-to-coast flights, the death knell was sounded when Interstate 40 bypassed downtown in the 1970s. Winslow's shops boarded up; many residents moved on; and it became a near ghost town.
Central to Winslow's resurrection was the restoration of La Posada Hotel a stone's throw from the train tracks. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the hotel's plight caught the attention of Allan Affeldt, a California resident who believed that if the hotel were properly restored, it could jump-start a citywide renaissance.
Showing me around the hotel, Affeldt explained that in 1928, Mary Jane Colter, the genius behind tourist facilities like Hopi House and the Lookout Tower at the Grand Canyon, was commissioned by the legendary Fred Harvey Co. to design La Posada to cater to the burgeoning tourist trade coming to admire the nearby Grand Canyon, Little Painted Desert, and Petrified Forest. Rather than another posh lodge, Colter incorporated indigenous Southwest motifs and styles to create a work of art right down to the painted-tin light fixtures and whimsical jackrabbit ashtrays.
With no background in hotel management, Affeldt rescued the endangered landmark and painstakingly restored much of Colter's original woodwork, murals, and stone. Once restoration got underway, numerous original furnishings were returned by families who had bought them at auction decades ago. Affeldt and his wife, artist Tina Mion, moved in upstairs and within the year the first rooms opened to guests. In addition to 37 rooms (with 14 suites in the works), grand foyer, ballroom, Orangerie, and extensive grounds, the former Harvey lunch room is now The Turquoise Room, touted by several national magazines as the finest dining in northern Arizona.
"Nowadays . . . when asked what brought them to Winslow, most visitors reply 'La Posada,' " said Lila Atkins, director of the Old Trails Museum, just off the main street in a former bank. "The crown jewel of the town is La Posada."
Atkins pointed out some of the highlights of the museum, including Fred Harvey china and uniforms, Anasazi pottery, items from early Mormon settlements, and a whiskey still discovered behind a boarded up wall.
We dropped in at the visitors center across the street where Bob Hall, Chamber of Commerce director, talked about the annual Christmas parade. "The parade always falls on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, and with about 10,000 people showing up, it's the biggest in northern Arizona," Hall said.
Several other annual events also fill the town. Besides the Fourth of July parade, the Just Cruisin' Car Club hosts a two-day vintage auto show in October. The Standin' on the Corner Festival in September is a boisterous two-day block party with live bands, food vendors, carnival, and a beer garden. In April, railroad enthusiasts converge for Winslow Railroad Days featuring memorabilia, model train displays, and train-spotting some of the 100 daily trains rattling past. One afternoon, after peeking into several elegant Pullman cars on side rails, we sipped margaritas in lounge chairs on La Posada's lawn and watched the trains.
The next day we drove to Meteor Crater and, after taking in the museum displays and video, walked the rim of the massive impact crater (a mile across, 2.4 miles in circumference, over 550 feet deep) created about 50,000 years ago. Later we drove to the Little Painted Desert for a short hike, the waning sun's rays deepening the hues in the multicolored, layered sand.
Meeting locals always makes traveling more interesting, as was the case with Glen Blake. Blake, who hails from Salem, Mass., met his wife in Boston, and they wound up moving to her hometown of Winslow. A steeplejack by trade, at night he's the projectionist at the vaudeville house that Affeldt renovated into a first-run theater. That evening Blake gave us a tour that got spookier as he pointed out the backstage catwalk where a janitor hanged himself, the balcony where an actress hanged herself, and the auditorium where a workman plunged to his death from above the stage.
"A while back a truck driver leaving the theater asked me who was that strange man wearing the golf cap sitting in the second row," Blake said. "Actually, he's a ghost, and several people have seen him, always in the second row, third seat."
The next morning we visited SnowDrift Art Space, a 24,000-square-foot former department store where Dan Lutzick creates his fantastic sculptures out of plywood, plaster, wire, and discarded junk. Equally prolific, Mion is generally holed up in her studio at La Posada. Throughout the hotel you can admire her witty and sometimes surreal paintings, several of which have been shown at the Smithsonian.
Across from La Posada beckoned a faded red and white cafe. Similar classic Valentine Diners once dotted Route 66 and this one, slated to reopen this year, will be another Winslow refurbished jewel. Peering through the dusty window at the chrome and vinyl interior, I felt a strange longing to occupy one of the dozen counter seats. And that's when I realized the attraction of Winslow: Whether lured by the fabled Route 66, the talent of Mary Colter, the romance of the rails, or simply the Eagles' song, Winslow offers a dose of nostalgia for just about everyone.
Bill Strubbe can be reached at email@example.com.