Friday, November 23, 2012

Check-In Time: A Fascination with Historic Hotels and Motels

Check-In Time:
A Fascination with Historic Hotels and Motels.
Ellen Jo Roberts
November 2012

"Ellen @ Monte Vista" ©10/96 Debbie Leavitt

el vista     

Check-In Time:

A Fascination with Historic Hotels and Motels.

Ellen Jo Roberts


      I have history with historic hotels. My first job upon arrival in Arizona was working the front desk day shift at Flagstaff’s famous Hotel Monte Vista. Affectionately known as The Monte V or simply The V in local vernacular, the massive brick structure has firmly shored up the city’s downtown since it first opened in January of 1927. There is something beautiful and sinister all at once about that grand ol’ dame. Heavy energy. Haunted, sure. Legendary stories oft-repeated, and many famous guests and wild nights adding to the intrigue. A crossroads of  European tourists, Navajo and Hopi, musicians, bar patrons, college students, hobos, old-time locals having daily breakfast in the cafe, off track bettors playing the ponies and average travelin’ folk made the hotel a colossal vortex of magic in my world.  The late night lounge scene and high lonesome train horns certainly added something to the mix.
flagstaff cocktails
Soon, the only surprise was a day when nothing surprising happened. The guests and their stories, a clash of randomness and coincidence. The hotel staff who alternated from being tightly-wrapped like family to hissing and spitting at each other like alley cats. I sometimes felt like an extra in a movie, orchestrating a concerto of check-outs and check-ins, decked in pencil skirts and pearls, playing 1940s tunes and Nuyorican jazz on cassette.  The rooms were mostly named after the famous guests who had slept there, including Michael Stipe and Bon Jovi, and each had their own quirk, angle, view, perks. Windows could be opened to access the mountain breeze above and the street sounds below. From my years spent in the cinematic lobby of a historic hotel I am forever stuck on vintage lodging. Such places always have the best neon signs. No fresh construction or easy parking for us. No anonymous chain motels. We prefer to share space with the memories of the thousands who slept there before us. Luckily, our region is chock full of historic accommodations both high and low brow.

the monte vista has never looked better than this photo

I always think of La Posada during the winter, as we spent one cozy Winslow Christmas there with friends and dogs, playing board games in the great room, warmed by the fireplace and whiskey-spiked egg nog.
la posada exterior 2
One of the few remaining Harvey House railroad hotels, La Posada was rescued from destruction by creative California couple Allan Affeldt and Tina Mion in the 1990s. Tearing away the false ceilings and walls, installed when the building was converted to office space for the Santa Fe Railway, bit by bit the architectural glory of Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter’s 1929 grand design was restored. The real appeal of La Posada is the wealth of public space both indoors and out: cozy reading nooks and seating areas, fine art, shelves full of coffee table books to borrow, and in recent years, lush gardens, broad lawns and al fresco hideaways.
la posada interior 2
Trains both freight and passenger cruise past regularly, punctuating your world class dinner at the hotel’s Turquoise Room. La Posada is like its own island, its own self-contained nation in a threadbare location. Winslow (once on track to become The Next Santa Fe before travel patterns changed from railroad to highway and airline) does become more interesting and artistic each year, expanding beyond The Eagles’ “Standin’ on a Corner” nostalgia. Travelers from all over the world visit La Posada, adding to the sophisticated atmosphere.
have you slept in a wigwam lately?

Have you slept in a Wigwam lately?

We have. It was slightly pointy and totally fantastic. From the 1930s ‘til the 1950s there were seven Wigwam Villages nationwide, each featuring a row of the same concrete tipi-shaped cabins, inspiration for the “Cozy Cones” of Disney’s “Cars”. Now only three villages remain: No. 2 in Cave City, Kentucky, No. 7 in Rialto, California, and Wigwam Village No. 6 in our very own Arizona. Route. 66, Holbrook.  Holbrook’s Wigwam Motel has been owned by the same family for six decades, and it’s consistently booked full, a popular overnight spot for Europeans touring the Mother Road.  The parking lot is decorated with sun-faded automotive relics parked at each wigwam, enhancing the sensation of time-travel. Holbrook is friendly, with a good archive of Route 66 artifacts and roadside dinosaurs, but there’s not much happening to keep the average city-slicker engaged beyond the nearby Painted Desert and Petrified Forest National Parks. Onward east on 66, to New Mexico, and just over the border into Gallup.

holga pontiac wigwam

“The Charm of Yesterday and Convenience of Tomorrow” can be yours at Gallup’s El Rancho Hotel. Built in 1937 by the brother of the Hollywood director D.W. Griffith, the hotel served as base camp for movie crews and stars on location in New Mexico during the hey-day of western films. Its script neon sign is the only 20th century touch to the exterior, built to resemble a wealthy western rancho of stone, brick and Spanish tile. The rooms share some famous guests with the Monte Vista; Spencer Tracy, John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart have their names emblazoned on doors, as do a lengthy collection of other midcentury celebrities, including Ronald Reagan.  On our most recent visit we stayed in the Betty Grable room, named after a 1940s actress most famous for her fantastic gams. 
at el rancho ellen and dogs

Like most of the hotels we visit, El Rancho is pet-friendly, so your dog is welcome to join you for no additional fee (though you do need to mention your pets when booking). An impressive two story lobby features a wishbone-shaped staircases wrapping around a stone hearth and is decorated with Navajo art, elk heads and hundreds of framed black and white autographed head shots of El Rancho’s famous visitors.
holga- el rancho lobby
A player piano entertains folks as they enjoy a card game and their iced-teas.  The upper deck opens to a front veranda, a vantage point to enjoy views of Route 66, Interstate 40 and the BNSF railroad passing by all at once. El Rancho is a real place, a beating heart of Gallup, and a favorite with the locals who utilize the restaurant and its adjoining 1960s-flavored Andalusian Room banquet hall for their special events. During our most recent stay, a large family celebrated a noisy Sweet 16 birthday party, dance music and balloons cascading out past the restaurant and tumbling into the lobby.
el rancho lobby desk
Gallup is somewhat lonely and the streets, even downtown, are empty most days, except for a regular flow of panhandlers. Route 66 beggars of the west are generally non-aggressive, but that’s counterbalanced by the sheer number of them. Often times they offer a very specific reason why they need your money…. “I need to get to Flagstaff.” “I need minutes for my phone.”  If you say no they don’t offer any resistance other than a pained expression and pleasantly walk on.
begging is illegal

Gallup is famed as a trading center for the bordering Navajo and Zuñi tribes. A visit to the Zuñi Pueblo is recommended for anyone in the vicinity. Thirty miles through sagebrush-scented landscape brings you to the compact pueblo. Adobe structures of varying vintages crowd the hilly community. A photography permit may be purchased at the visitor center for $10.00 per day, allowing you to snap images of the monolithic “Corn Mountain”, also known as the Zuñi stronghold Dowa Yalanne, and the adobe exterior of the old Zuñi Mission, a classic symbol of New Mexico-style Christianity. The A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center is a wealth of information on the tribe, ranging from historic films to modern art and future goals.
greetings from floyd street zuni mission

The sunny southwest is a harsh climate, but history preserves well here.  A cruise along Arizona’s Highway 60 in any direction is a museum of sun-baked neon signage.  Classic cars fade from UV rays but not rust. Historic buildings are never damaged by hurricanes or earthquakes. If it’s built solidly, a desert structure can live on and remain useful for centuries. Locally, Jerome is home to several classic overnight options, including the 1898-built Connor Hotel, well-maintained and regularly restored, anchored on the corner by its popular Spirit Room bar. Though 21st century Jerome features a great variety of vintage lodging possibilities, the Connor may be its only remaining hotel originally built as a hotel. The oldest continuously-operating business in Cottonwood, since 1917, is Old Town’s Cottonwood Hotel, best known as a place where Elvis once rested his pompadour.
spirit room self portrait

Historic lodging is often times less expensive than modern chains, simply due to their lack of 21st century amenities and their propensity for hobo sightings in the lobby. They’re odd, sometimes spooky, and definitely native to their locations. You may have strange dreams. You can check out any time you like but you can never leave. A historic hotel is always a treasure, with its strange idiosyncrasies, rowdy cocktail lounge, ghosts and awkwardly-shaped bathrooms. A recurring character starring in much of the town’s history, celebrations and fame, it’s an important citizen of its community in its own right.

 ellen on the monte vista roof

Ellen Jo Roberts is a fan of 20th century automobiles, architecture, cameras, and husbands,

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