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La Posada Historic District
Built in 1929, the 11-acre grounds, hotel, and train station that make up La Posada Historic District are, in their own right, historic. But an additional layer of history is here, one invented in the imagination of the architect. In order to design the La Posada complex, architect Mary Colter made up a century and a half of history for the site. She imagined La Posada as a Spanish rancho of the early 1800s. Here lived a wealthy Spanish don. When the don and his family fell on hard times, the hacienda was renovated into a hotel with furnishings and grounds intact. In such an inaccessible location, Colter reasoned, materials would have been local, and the labor native. The complex would have been changed and added onto through generations.
With this story in mind, she designed Mission Revival buildings with adobe walls, complete with niches for saints, roofs of red terra cotta, and windows with wooden shutters and iron rejas (grilles). Floors were flagstone, and exposed ceiling beams were covered with branches to simulate indigenous adobe construction. There were period maids’ costumes and dinner china, vigas (protruding wooden beams) beneath the gables, wrought-iron railings on the stairways, clay tiles on the chimneys, sand-blasted planks on the doors, and a wishing well in the garden. Best of all in this elaborate history-within-a-history confection, Colter faked an archeological site--the supposed ruins of an old fort that had stood on the site before the don built his hacienda.
How well did Colter do her work? Go online today, and you’ll find travelogues and blogs that claim Colter’s whimsical history is fact. The dreamed-up don lives on. Only we know better.
In reality, La Posada was the result of an ingenious turn-of-the-century partnership between the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad (ATSF) and the Fred Harvey Company. The ATSF did not initially provide sleepers or dining cars for its passengers, who were forced to rely on trackside establishments. These were of, to put it politely, uneven and unpredictable quality. Overall, the restaurants were dirty. It was also common practice for railroad and restaurant staff to arrange for the train to pull out after orders were taken and money exchanged but before meals could be eaten. When food was served, passengers complained of “chicken” stew whose main ingredient was really prairie dog. Lastly, brawling among staff members was reputedly common.
Entrepreneur Fred Harvey saw opportunity in the situation. In 1876, he took over the ATSF’s Topeka, Kansas depot, refitted it, and opened it as the first Harvey House. It served full-course meals with tremendous amounts of food (breakfasts finished with apple pie and coffee), and soon did capacity business to locals and railroad passengers alike. Impressed with Harvey’s emphasis on cleanliness, service, reasonable prices, and good food, the ATSF gave him control of food service along the route.
Harvey built a hospitality empire that worked symbiotically with the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad to provide consistently good service at reasonable prices in its restaurants and hotels. Quality was hugely important to Harvey. His restaurants often used fresh, local food, but he did not hesitate to bring in more exotic items like Great Lakes whitefish, Texas beef, or Atlantic shellfish. Where local water quality was lacking, the company shipped in and used its own spring water to make coffee. Menus were planned such that food did not repeat as passengers traveled on down the railroad line. Meals were typically priced at 75 cents. Harvey Houses constantly operated at a financial loss, but their consumer appeal was so important to ATSF ticket sales that the railroad line was happy to underwrite the establishments.
The famous Harvey Girls served the food. Harvey attracted them with the ads he placed in newspapers seeking "young women of good character, attractive and intelligent, 18 to 30, to work in eating houses in the West." These largely white, eastern women agreed to live under fiercely conservative standards, maintain a spotless appearance and competent demeanor, and meet Harvey’s exacting standards for service in return for well-paid employment and a chance at western adventure and opportunities. Between 1883 and the late 1950s, approximately 100,000 Harvey Girls made this bargain. Approximately half of them enjoyed their new environment so much that they stayed, often marrying and establishing southwestern families. Harvey Girls, the 1946 movie starring Judy Garland, paid romantic tribute to Harvey’s business empire. When Garland sang the show-stopping “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe,” she not only garnered an academy award, she reminded the United States of this time of railway travel and new national vistas.
Harvey restaurants proliferated until, by the late 1880s, a Harvey House was located at least every 100 miles along the ATSF route. By the end of the century, Harvey operated 15 hotels, 47 lunch and dining rooms, and 30 dining cars. By 1912, operations had grown to 65 eating houses, 12 large hotels, and 60 dining cars, all in conjunction with the Santa Fe and Frisco Railroads. In 1930, one period writer claimed, the Fred Harvey Company served 15 million meals a year.
During the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, passengers abandoned trains and took to cars. Tourism expanded from an endeavor possible only for the wealthy into something that people of more moderate income also enjoyed. Correspondingly, these new tourists sought out modest accommodations. Declining numbers of travelers arrived at the train station attached to the hotel, and, despite a 1940s boost due to railroad shipments of troops entering the Second World War, La Posada ultimately failed. It lasted longer than many of the grand railroad hotels, which went out of business during the Depression years, but closed by the end of the 1950s. The railroad converted La Posada into office space, installing new walls and lowering the ceilings, and La Posada’s future remained tenuous for the next 40 years. Disrepair and neglect were taking a toll when the complex was listed in the National Register in 1992.
Fortunately, in 1997, new owners purchased La Posada and began restoration of one of the country’s great architectural treasures. That work continues today. The gardens are back, guest rooms are open, and fireplaces, faux-adobe walls, arched ceilings, and period furnishings await the visitor. (Also, cuisine continues to be an emphasis at La Posada—its restaurant is award winning!) La Posada has begun another “life.” Counting the history Mary Colter invented, that makes three.