The Western America Rail Museum is proud to be housed in the legendary "Casa Del Desierto."
Back in the late 1800's to the 1930's, when rail travel was glamorous and trains were considered the transportation of choice, Fred Harvey set up a string of dining rooms and boarding houses for Santa Fe passenger travelers. In 1911, he opened up the "Casa Del Desierto" and for many years it was considered one of the jewels of the Harvey House system.
Dining was gourmet cuisine and quality drink served in crystal and on fine china. Comfortable, luxurious rooms rested weary rail travelers. Harvey Girls, women employed to not only serve food but to provide conversation and information, gave the Harvey House its reputation for friendliness and hospitality. Many Harvey Houses were the focus not only for travelers but for locals. Barstow's Harvey House was equipped with a full ballroom, and was the site for many of the town's dances and social events.
Santa Fe started serving meals on the trains, and eventually the Harvey Houses became shadows of their former selves. Used mainly for a machine shop, with a cafeteria and a small Amtrak ticket office becoming the only public places, the Casa Del Desierto was eventually abandoned altogether.
In the late 80's, Santa Fe Railway decided to tear down the old Casa. By that time it wasn't much more than a disaster waiting to happen. Inside, there was not much left. The fixtures had long been vandalized or stolen but what was left gave a good idea of its former beauty. An example of neo-Southwestern architecture, the ballroom inside was fully tiled with light-turqoise ceramic tile. Two oak-trimmed staircases from the ballrooms led up to the hotel rooms, and to the right was the dining room.
Upstairs, the rooms were ransacked. A few of them were too unsafe to enter. The safest ones were the rooms on the dormitory floor, wings of the hotel that provided small rooms and shared bathrooms for the rail crews and Harvey Girls. There was one brass soapdish left-- apparently even the crews got some of the more "luxurious" fixtures. Downstairs, below the floor level, the basement had been converted to a machine shop, now long abandoned. Previous to that, it had been a storeroom for the hotel and restaurant.
When Santa Fe announced it wanted to tear down the Harvey House, there was enough of an outcry from the locals, historians, railfans and architect buffs to delay their plans. Santa Fe was willing to work with any preservation groups; however, there wasn't one organized at that point. Some demolition had already ocurred-- a small room at the end of a promenade had been destroyed and cleared, but further demolition was halted, on the condition a buyer could be found and plans could drawn. Eric Ziegler, Barstow's City Manager for many years, took up the challenge. The architectural firm of Robbins, Jorgenson and Christopher took on the project.
The restoration started in earnest, with the Greyhound station open and operating in 1990. Already several million dollars worth of renovation was done to the outside, including some earthquake proofing. However, In 1992, one day before the building's re-dedication, the Landers Quake hit the desert area, sending the restoration project back another several years and millions of dollars
Fortunately, the earthquake gave the renovators a chance to apply for federal and state grants. 8.3 million dollars later, the Casa Del Desierto was re-dedicated in 1999 is now home to the Greyhound and Amtrak stations, several arts groups, the Mother Road Route 66 Museum, and now the Western America Railroad Museum.
Richard Friedman's Harvey House, the only site on the net dedicated to all the Harvey Houses in the Southwest.
The Heard Museum's Fred Harvey site. A full history of Fred Harvey's impact of the Southwest is presented here, especially his interest in Native American art.
The Grand Canyon Railway home page with rates, fares, and pictures of the El Tovar, the Harvey House at the Grand Canyon. This is the group that is restoring the Casa del Desierto.
An early photo of El Garces, the Needles Harvey House, from the incredible California Route 66 Historical Society W^3 site.
Exploring Barstow's Harvey House page, which contains great information on the history of the renovation itself.
Barstow's Mother Road Museum, a museum dedicated to Route 66, also housed in the Casa del Desierto.
Return to the Western America Railroad Museum home page.
Photos c. Lisa Canjura-Clayton or the Western America Railroad Museum. Please do not use without permission.