Tales of a Mary Colter masterpiece in Winslow, Arizona

Tina Mion and Allan Affeldt still remember when their first guest arrived. They had spent a year living in the abandoned 80,000-square-foot La Posada Hotel in Winslow, Arizona, trying to fix it up. Now it was showtime.

“We panicked,” Mion says. “We thought, Oh my god, we don’t have the little hotel soaps.”

That was nine years ago. Today La Posada has the little soaps, along with a reputation as one of the nation’s most beautiful historic hotels. And it offers a lesson about the ways in which buildings, people, and towns can reinvent themselves.

La Posada’s home, Winslow, is known by an entire generation ― mine, actually ― as the town where the Eagles stood on a corner eyeing the girl in the flatbed Ford. But before there was 1970s rock and roll, Winslow was a tourist center on the Santa Fe Railway, gateway to wonders like the Painted Desert. Which was why, in the late 1920s, a woman named Mary Colter arrived here.

If you want to credit one person for making Americans fall in love with the Southwest, Mary Colter is it. As chief designer for the Fred Harvey Company, which worked with the Santa Fe Railway, she created hotels as luminously romantic as the landscape they inhabited. And La Posada, Colter decided, would be her masterpiece.

The secret of Colter’s architecture, Allan Affeldt says as we walk through La Posada’s lobby, “is that she’s a great storyteller.” Colter envisioned La Posada as a grand hacienda. Passengers would step from Santa Fe railcars into a world of aristocratic luxuries ― lavish gardens, hidden courtyards, antiques-filled public rooms.

It was a potent dream, but ill-timed. The hotel opened as the Great Depression began and the era of cross-country train travel was ending. La Posada never flourished; by the 1960s, the Santa Fe Railway had turned it into corporate offices, and by the 1990s it was set for the wrecking ball.

Then Affeldt and Mion heard about it. She was a painter, he a University of California, Irvine, graduate student and social activist. But when they learned that a Mary Colter building would be demolished if someone didn’t buy it, they drove to Winslow to visit, and were hooked.

“Allan and I were the only people here for the first year,” Mion recalls. “It was surreal.” Winslow, while pleased La Posada might be preserved, doubted its future as a hotel. “We told people we’d be renting rooms for $100,” Mion recalls. “They said, ‘You mean $100 for a week?’ ” Still, the couple persevered, applying for grants, taking out loans, restoring La Posada room by room. Mion began painting larger canvases, she says, “to fill up the space on the walls.”

Today, the hotel draws guests from as far away as Germany and Japan. As for Mion’s canvases, some are being shown starting May 25 at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

After we finish the hotel tour, Affeldt walks me down Winslow’s main street. As things worked out, its fate mirrored that of La Posada. Railroad jobs dwindled, downtown withered. Even Winslow’s other famous attraction ― the Eagles’ street corner that had become a city park ― suffered a fire and closed.

Affeldt channeled some of his energies from hotel to town. He bought Winslow’s old movie theater and restored it. Distressed by the pace of progress, he ran for city mayor and was elected; he is now in his second term. As La Posada drew visitors, investors began buying other downtown buildings and spruced them up. The corner park is being restored.

Affeldt and I walk back toward La Posada, which is glowing in tile-roofed splendor in the morning sun. “This town had so much going for it,” he says. “It just lost its vision.”

Maybe that’s why La Posada is important. Mary Colter was a great storyteller, and storytellers are inherently visionaries. Step into La Posada’s lobby, and you envision yourself as someone you never imagined before. A Spanish grandee, an artist showing at the Smithsonian, the mayor of a newly thriving town. Great stories, all of them, waiting for you to live them.

INFO:  La Posada Hotel (37 rooms from $99; 928/289-4366). To see Tina Mion’s work, go to www.tinamion.com.

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