La Posada, once a haunt of Hollywood film stars, had declined into a derelict shell by 1993. Then Allan Affeldt and Daniel Lutzick stepped in. Gillian Drummond charts the hotel’s rebirth in a town whose main claim to fame is a mention in a 1970s pop song.
When architect Allan Affeldt and sculptor Daniel Lutzick announced they were buying a derelict old hotel in the wilds of Arizona, their friends declared them mad. When they arrived in Winslow, Arizona, in 1997 from California, the sleepy town had little going for it.
One thing Winslow did have was a little bit of fame. The Eagles mention it in their song Take It Easy in a line in the second verse: “I’m standin’ on the corner in Winslow, Arizona… ” The 1970s song put the town – about 150 miles from the Grand Canyon – on the tourist map, and for the past three decades visitors have stopped by to be photographed on the main street corner.
But the passing tourists were not enough to keep the town afloat, and in 1993 a group of residents made it their aim to revitalise the town centre. As well as planning a monument to celebrate the song, they secured funds to save the historic La Posada hotel.
La Posada was part of a chain owned by Fred Harvey, who developed and ran all the hotels and restaurants on the famous Santa Fe railway at the beginning of the 20th century. The then 70-room hotel, on the historic Route 66, opened in 1930 and became a favourite retreat for Hollywood stars such as John Wayne, Bob Hope and Carole Lombard. As train travel declined, so did hotel business until in 1957 it closed.
In 1993 Affeldt, then chairman of an architectural think-tank in southern California, discovered that the town was looking for someone to take over the property. He and Lutzick bought the land for $200,000 (£141,300); the money was raised through two-thirds private funding (much of it put up by another silent partner) and a third public funds. As part of a deal to escape bills for environmental work on the property, owner Santa Fe Railroad donated the building.
“It was a shell,” says Affeldt. “The gardens were dried up, all the mechanical systems were shot.” Undaunted, Affeldt moved in with his wife, painter Tina Mion, and the three began the restoration work, designing the new interior themselves. Five years and $2.5m (£1.75m) later La Posada is a mix of hotel, museum and art gallery. Pieces from the old days remain, like vintage telephone kiosks. Mion’s paintings fill the walls, and heavy rustic furniture gives a Mexican feel to the two-storey hacienda-style building.
The journey has been tough for two people with no experience of running a hotel. They had to learn the ropes quickly. Before the doors were even open, railroad enthusiasts were calling and asking if they could stay. In the early days guests were stepping over rubble, Affeldt says, although he maintains the work has followed health and safety codes.
Affeldt acts as accountant, business manager and architect, while Lutzick is construction manager and general manager. They introduced a computer system only last year; before that everything was done on paper.
Affeldt likens the business to a large bed and breakfast, a feel he wants to maintain. “People like the idea of being able to go into a hotel and meet with the owners. We have so many repeat guests [30% of business] we treat them more like family.”
Room rates range from $79 to $99 (£55.58 to £69.64). “It’s low for such a neat building but higher than anything around. You could stay down the street for $45 (£31.65),” says Affeldt. Average occupancy has risen from around 30% at opening – when there were still just a few bedrooms – to, last year, 90%.
Last year, for the first time, the business showed an operating profit and the extra $200,000 (£140,000) went straight back into renovation work, which is supplemented by government tranportation grants and preservation funds from the state of Arizona.
La Posada has grown from six to 28 rooms and nine more are being added on the ground floor this year. The plan is to turn 15,000sq ft of space above the restaurant into a museum, and to develop the surrounding eight acres of gardens true to the property’s original architectural plans. Mary Colter, chief designer and architect for the Fred Harvey company, had intended a maze and cottage garden, but the railroad company ran out of money.
Affeldt and Lutzick live on minimal salaries. They say they are deferring most of their income to the day they sell, when they hope to make a substantial profit. But, rather than sell to another business operator, Affeldt would prefer to transfer La Posada to a charity as he wants to be assured that the building would retain its museum-like status.
Support for the project has been widespread throughout the town. Winslow has a high level of unemployment, and Affeldt reports almost no turnover among the 30 staff he has recruited to the hotel.
Moving to a town of 11,000 people with very little entertainment, arts or retail has been a culture shock for the owners. Nevertheless, they managed to persuade some friends to come and run the hotel’s restaurant, the Turquoise Room (see panel below), which opened in 2000.
But for John Sharpe, the straight-talking Durham man behind the restaurant, the venture has been bittersweet. Sharpe admits he had grand ideas of mentoring and teaching young upcoming chefs when he moved to Winslow. In fact, recruiting and retaining staff was so much of a headache at the restaurant that by last May Sharpe and his wife Patricia were ready to throw in the towel.
He has since lured two friends and former employees from California as chef and assistant chef, and the wife of one of them is working as a waitress. Still, Sharpe is following through his plans to teach. He wants to build a market garden on the property that can be used as a teaching ground for local high school students.
Affeldt and Lutzick are keen to take more of a back seat in the running of the hotel and are now advertising for a general manager.
They plan to concentrate on restoring the gardens, adding a museum, and doing some more to improve Winslow. Affeldt and his wife have bought the town’s old Opera House, which they plan to reopen this summer as a cinema.
Fine dining in a ‘culinary wasteland’
Nearly 30 years of running his own restaurants in California had been getting the better of John Sharpe.
Originally from Durham, the chef came to the USA in the 1970s, working at hotels in Los Angeles before opening his first restaurant, Mirage, in Beverly Hills in 1977. Three more restaurant openings followed in Orange County, California.
Sharpe, facing tough competition from chains and finding himself more immersed in business issues than cooking, was already considering a move when Affeldt bought him a book on Mary Colter, the architect for La Posada, for his birthday and first talked to him about helping with the project.
It took another five years and three visits to Winslow for Sharpe to make the move. “My wife and I were looking to move but not to an area where there’s hundreds of miles of nothing. It’s a culinary wasteland,” says Sharpe.
But he realised that the chance to open a fine-dining restaurant in such an area was unique. And after doing his homework Sharpe discovered that far more tourists visited Winslow’s neighbouring town of Flagstaff – with its proximity to the Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest – than visited the whole of Orange County.
“Orange County has about 3.25 million visitors a year and little old Flagstaff has five million,” says Sharpe. “I asked myself, ‘Where the hell do they eat?'”
Sharpe sold his share of his company, West Coast Productions Catering in Santa Ana, Orange County, to a partner. He named his restaurant the Turquoise Room after a Santa Fe dining car designed by the hotel’s architect Mary Colter. He leases the space from Affeldt and gives him a percentage of revenues.
The Turquoise Room, open Tuesday to Sunday, seats 85 and average spend is $25 (£17.58) per person including wine.
It is doing 800 to 1,000 covers a week serving breakfast, lunch and dinner with a South-western and Native American theme.
La Posada hotel, Winslow, Arizona
Average room rate: $75 (£52.76)
Turnover 2001: $800,000 (£562,826)