San Luis Obispo
Nobody in the hotel business ever tried harder to make a splash than Alex Madonna. So what did he have against swimming pools?
Over a span of 46 years, this builder-rancher-hotelier crafted his Madonna Inn, turning it into one of California's best-known roadside institutions. It beckons newlyweds and road trippers with its garish pink sign, its boulders, its stained glass, its clear contempt for anything resembling restraint and, of course, the storied waterfall in the lobby of the men's room, which may be the site of the most-admired and most-photographed urinal in North America.
"Let's say," the Italian semiotician Umberto Eco once wrote of the inn, "that Albert Speer, while leafing through a book on Gaudí, swallowed an overgenerous dose of LSD and began to build a nuptial catacomb for Liza Minnelli. But that doesn't give you an idea. Let's say ... Chopin's Sonata in B-flat sung by Perry Como in an arrangement by Liberace and accompanied by the Marine Band."
And yet from the 1958 opening until his death in 2004, in a locale where 85-degree summer days are common, Madonna never put in a pool.
But now — trumpet fanfare, please — the digging has begun. Led by Madonna's widow, Phyllis, the inn's management aims to unveil a 90-foot-long whopper, fed by a 25-foot waterfall, by the end of August. At the shallow end will be a 30-foot-wide beach. A new spa complex and fitness center are expected to be completed by the end of August.
"It's like trying to keep a museum relevant," says Clint Pearce, the Madonnas' son-in-law and real estate manager for Madonna Enterprises.
This development may not put San Luis Obispo in competition with the extravagances of Las Vegas, but it probably will get the attention of many families with young children who have traditionally bypassed the inn for the swim-friendly amenities and comforts of such competitors as the Embassy Suites just down the road. Pearce acknowledges that the inn's occupancy rates have fallen in recent years.
So here's the question: How does a man design waterfall urinals and garden fountains and cascading showers, and outfit his guest rooms with water features including a moonshiner's still and a working waterwheel yet never turn earth on a simple swimming pool?
First, consider the man. Alex Madonna started his construction business as a teenager and made much of his fortune building roads for the state. He built the inn and opened it with 12 rooms in December 1958 — just six months after Hearst Castle, 40 miles north, opened to public tours.
Madonna designed much of his inn's exterior — three parts Swiss, one part Old West — and took his breakfast, lunch and dinner daily on the premises for decades, running his construction and ranch ventures from the tabletop of his chosen dining-room booth. Table-mate Phyllis handled the interior design, making promiscuous use of pink.
Despite a 1966 fire that destroyed the original guest rooms, the inn caught on, thanks to its location as a midway point between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and it grew to 109 rooms. From the much-requested Caveman Room to Love Nest to Oriental Fantasy, no two are alike, though many feature bold hues, carved wood, boulders dragged from Madonna's surrounding acreage and liberal deployment of water features.
"Anybody can build one room and a thousand like it," Alex Madonna told the New York Times in 1982. "I want people to come in with a smile and leave with a smile. It's fun. What fun do you think Paul Getty got out of his life?"
Madonna would take a check from just about anywhere, son-in-law Pearce recalls, but turned away credit cards and didn't get around to adding air conditioning until the 1990s.
"He didn't build it the way the industry experts told him to. He built it exactly the way he wanted to build it," says Pearce. "He was always against adding a swimming pool, he says, because people would get out of the pool and come back and ruin your carpets, tracking all that water in."
Yes, Pearce acknowledges, that sounds sort of flimsy. But Madonna often played his cards close to the vest. Maybe he wanted couples, not families. Maybe he figured travelers would check in, grab dinner, turn in for the night, then hit the road. Or maybe it was something else.
"He was a bit frugal by nature. Yet he went to the nth degree of cost in building the Madonna Inn," Pearce says. "Who knows? Maybe he just didn't like pools. He didn't have one at home. I never saw him in water."
Besides the guest rooms, the 2,200-acre inn property includes two restaurants (one with a 28-foot golden tree made of copper tubing and other metal leftovers from construction projects), a pastry shop, cocktail lounge, a convention facility that holds 2,600 people, and the 1,292-foot Cerro San Luis, a mountain whose trails have long been popular with local hikers. Double rooms rates run $168 to $380 per night. On Internet guest-review sites, the inn gets mostly good marks for service and cleanliness, although, perhaps inevitably, it is occasionally denounced in terms such as "a horrible, horrible waste of money and pink paint," as someone wrote in 2005.
About six months after Madonna's death, family members began murmuring about a pool, Pearce recalls. Phyllis Madonna was in favor. So was daughter Connie Pearce, who is the hotel manager.
Now the project is mostly done, and none too soon.
A new Courtyard by Marriott — with a swimming pool — is due to open nearby this summer. And since 2005, artist Suzi Kyle has been running a converted 1880s medical office building in downtown San Luis Obispo as an artsy bed-and-breakfast called the Sanitarium. No two of the seven guest rooms, which bear such names as Euphoriasm and Hydrolucinogen, are alike.
Whether it's amenities or eccentricities, the Madonnas these days face more competition than ever.
"The last thing we want to do is abandon what made us famous," says Clint Pearce, back at the inn. "But at the same time, we want to make sure we still have what it takes."
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