Spring has officially sprung here, and I’ve been itching to get out and about. Usually by this time of year I’ve already posted about an annual auction we attend.
This year, however, (as you can surely guess) it was held online. I didn’t even bother with it. More than half of the fun was people-watching and stopping off at our favorite watering hole on the way home. That just doesn’t translate very well electronically.
But none of this is going to stop me from
time traveling. You’re invited to come along! Since time isn’t really a big issue, we can take lots of it. Since gas is cheap, we’ll dart all around the country in the least efficient manner possible. Rather than making a journey based on logical and geographic constraints, our journey today will be a journey through time. We’re not going to any museums, national parks or historic sites. Nope; we’re just going to go to one motel after another… picking up a souvenir postcard at each stop to remember our journey by! We’ll begin in the 1920’s and stop in the 1970’s, just about the time that everything started to get boring and ugly and needlessly bureaucratic.
This isn’t meant to be a scholarly treatise on roadside architecture or the evolution of lodging, but will serve as a brief introduction to a subject which is fascinating and has been looked at more exhaustively by others. Pack your bags and let’s get going!
When the automobile first gained popularity, tourism became accessible to a greater number of people than before. In the 1910’s it was common for travelers to pack a tent and camping equipment for their time-consuming journeys. Tourist camps, as they were called, sprang up along popularly traveled roads. Entrepreneurs located along these roads were happy to meet the demand for overnight lodging and soon built more permanent “camps” for the motorists’ convenience, often alongside their own homes. Early camps, such as this c. 1920 example outside of Abilene, Kansas, would even rent you a mattress with your cottage — for an extra fifty cents. If you were on a budget, a quarter would get you a space on which to pitch your tent. Note the small gas station with single fuel pump! Four of these “cottages” have an attached carport. Many early camps lacked these features. I’m guessing that the kitchen, laundry and showers were likely located in another, shared, structure.
By the 1930’s tourist camps were being marketed as tourist courts. Many were indeed arranged around a small courtyard (rather than the giant parking lot which was to follow in later years). In this example from Greencastle, Pennsylvania, the individual cottages have been replaced with more substantial duplex units — each with its own color scheme.
Here, lawn chairs pepper the court at Dickens’ Deluxe Motor Court in Lake City, Florida. These cottages are also of the duplex type and appear to date to the late 1930’s.
The 1930’s Coronado Court in Longmont, Colorado, illustrates a growing trend… duplex units joined by a common roof with the spaces in-between serving as a garage. This development helped to shape the this type of lodging into the more recognizable form soon to be called a “motel” (motor hotel).
Also from the 30’s, the more refined Sage and Sand in Tucson, Arizona was geared for the more well-heeled tourist. The comfy furnishings assure us that this is a nice place!
This Art Moderne tourist motel court is arranged around a central office with parking replacing much of the “court”. Bismarck, North Dakota, c. 1940.
The Faralu Motel in Santa Monica, California, still maintains a courtyard arrangement but looks decidedly motel-like in the 1940’s.
Great! This room has a phone. I need to make a few phone calls because I think we’re going to be on the road a bit longer than I had told everyone when we left! This place is the first two-story joint we’ve run across, too… It really is modern! El Rancho Motel, Williston, North Dakota, c. 1950.
While seemingly everyone is going modern, a few places are retaining a sense of dignity and history (even if a tad contrived)! Williamsburg Motor Court, Williamsburg, Virginia, c. 1950.
Many mid-century motels featured a large office, sign, or other structure to anchor the motel itself and give some architectural character to the premises. Here, a jaunty service station anchors the Ideal Motel in Rawlins, Wyoming, c. 1955.
The three-story construction seen here reflects the cost of land and development in Las Vegas, Nevada, c. 1960. Who wouldn’t want to stay at a place called the Orbit Inn? The space age is upon us!
It would be hard to miss this sign and office combination! The pool is a bit close to the highway, but I could sure use a dip about now. Del-Mar Motel, Valdosta, Georgia, c. 1960.
The roof of the A-Frame office/lobby serves as type of billboard in addition to the swell sign! Bryant’s Motel, Statesboro, Georgia, c. 1965.
While the sign here is graphically assertive, the motel lobby itself suggests a more traditional and residential look. Thunderbird Motel, Lake Tahoe, California, c. 1960’s.
Look! A television! I haven’t bashed HGTV for a while; let’s turn it on! Motel 70, Crystal Springs, Pennsylvania, c. 1960’s.
Oh, thank heavens… this place has got a Denny’s attached to it. After all this driving around I’m absolutely famished! When did we last eat, was it in Valdosta? Foothill Motel, Auburn, California c. 1965.
This place looks swanky! I love the arcaded roof. Holiday Inn, Savannah, Georgia, c. 1960’s.
Year-round fun in the Holidome! Holiday Inn, Grand Forks, North Dakota, c. 1970.
Finally! A lounge with a decent piano player. I think it’s Miller time! Town House Motor Inn, Fargo, North Dakota, c. 1975. You don’t mind if we stay here for a while, do you? I just don’t think I’m ready for the 80’s ( or the twenty-first century which awaits).
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Thanks for the trip down memory lane (at a time when we can’t take a trip on any lane, named “Memory” or not…) Maybe 15 years ago I made a grand road trip tour of the West (e.g. Yellowstone, Rushmore, etc.) and a goodly number of real Motels still exist in that region. The convenience of being able to pull your car up to the front door of your room and park it there was greatly appreciated, and something we have lost with the motel-replacements of multi-floor Hilton Garden Inns and the like, where you have to haul your luggage up elevators and down hallways. Given their utility I wonder why they have gone out of style.
There is no doubt that the mid-century motels were more user-friendly than the stack ’em and pack ’em designs which typically characterize new construction today! Not only is it easier to get your luggage in and out of your room, but the best part is that you can keep an eye on your vehicle and not have to worry about it being out of sight – especially important in “marginal” areas.
Corporations favor the current format for its limited number of (lockable) entries which make monitoring with security cameras much easier. This design discourages dubious or illicit behavior. Smile… you’re being recorded!
Fortunately a good many of the older motels still exist in the central states, too, though many are not operated with the same standards that were established originally. Some are, however — especially those that are still owned and operated by the families of their original owners. As mainstream chains adopted the current sterile format, many of the older establishments fell into less capable hands — tarnishing the entire genre in the process. There are a few 1950’s motels in my county which have recently been renovated — competing with the newer but soulless and awkward corporate options in the area. Hopefully even more of these historic resources will make a comeback in the future.
Great post! It brought back a lot of memories of Folsom Blvd (near where I grew up) headed out of Sacramento towards Folsom. Until the new parallel freeway was completed in the 1970’s, it was US Route 50 and it sported many motels. I have so many fond memories of the neon signs of the motels along the stretch near our house. Especially one motel whose name escapes me (and is no longer there). The motel had an animated sign featuring a woman diving into a pool. Every time we would drive by, I was transfixed by her diving in head first, over and over. By the 1980s, these motels had devolved into rooms by the hour, and the sign was dismantled. Some of those motels are still there.
Then as those memories were flooding my head, I scrolled to the Thunderbird Inn, in South Lake Tahoe. Wowzers!!! I hadn’t thought about that place for a long time. I remember spending a weekend there with my parents sometime in the early 70s. I loved the multi-colored panels on the railings. I remember it being located about half a block from the California/Nevada state line and there being casinos across the intersection.
These places were truly of their time and except for few which have survived out of nostalgia, they would never be able to compete with the boring and bland banality we call lodging today. People go for the corporate places because it feels safe and they know what they are getting. I will admit to having fallen for that as well when traveling and only needing a place to rest my head for a night. Thanks for those fond memories.
How cool that you’ve stayed at the Thunderbird! I like the colored panels, too… they remind me of the Joy Motel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas — another motel which has largely escaped the ravages of time. At the Joy the doors were painted alternating colors, but they’re just as mesmerizing.
The neon sign sounds amazing… so much great neon was produced mid-century and present-day signs are just boring. I, too, have stayed in corporate options, but if a reasonably clean vintage option is available, I’ll always go with that. Housekeeping can be sub-par in the corporate box motels, too. Glad you enjoyed the road trip!
Before I sold my huge collection of hotel and tourist cabin postcards, I had a lot of ones in New Hampshire and Vermont including that one across the road from the mountain that has an Indian head in profile. That place had cabins that looked like teepees in the front and another place had ones that were little log cabins. There were many themes around the White Mountains and Vermont-all gone now although in 2013, we stayed in some cabins in Lincoln, New Hampshire that were built in the 30s and hadn’t changed much. Plumbing appeared to be original and no air conditioning. They were fantastic. The parking space was beside each cabin but most were too narrow for my minivan.
It was very sad when “the old man of the mountain” fell. I have an old stereoview which depicts it in the 1880’s. Also sad that New England has lost most of its themed tourist cabins. Time marches on to mediocrity! At least you got to experience one that hadn’t yet been purged.
Thanks for such a fun post! Seeing a Holidome still evokes excitement in me. I can smell the chlorine and feel the astroturf under my feet.
We still have a couple motels around me. People used to travel from Chicago to Wisconsin and various lake resorts on some of the local roads. This is about a mile from my house. Been there since at least the early 1950’s and the current owners might be the original ones.
Looks the same except for **giant** pine trees out front.
The Keyes Motel is wonderful! So glad to see another rare survivor which has been well maintained. Those little pine trees sure did grow up… here’s the place today!
That was the best road trip ever!
I’m exhausted though!
Well, time-travel always does that to me!