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Success Story : Motels: An Ex-Outcast Is Now Inn

Times Staff Writer

In the novel “Lolita,” Vladimir Nabokov lampooned motels and considered them to be the epitome of American bad taste. “All those Sunset Motels, U-Beam Cottages, Hillcrest Courts. . . . We held in contempt the plain whitewashed clapboard Kabins, with their faint sewerish smell or some other gloomy self-conscious stench and nothing to boast of. . . .”

Playwright Sam Shepard often uses motels to convey images of American desolation and in the stage directions for “Fool for Love” describes in detail the generic gloomy motel: “Stark, low-rent motel room on the edge of the Mojave Desert. Faded green plaster walls. Dark brown linoleum floor. . . . Bed covered with faded blue terry cloth bedspread.”

Vilified by FBI Chief

Even J. Edgar Hoover, the late head of the FBI, vilified motels for their contribution to the erosion of American morals. He authored an article in the old American Magazine in 1940 calling motels and motor courts “assignation camps” and “crime camps.”

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Although motels for decades have been the symbol of all that is not first class, but declasse, in travel, they now are being celebrated for their cultural and economic contributions to American society.

A number of books recently have been published on highway architecture and American auto travel that featured the motel’s place in history.

The motel industry is now recognized as a success story almost unparalleled in American business history, said Randy Smith, president of Smith Travel Research, a marketing research firm. Since the 1920s, motel industry profits have doubled each decade, and the summer of 1986 was the most lucrative ever, Smith said.

Museum Exhibit

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And the lowly motel has finally been deemed important enough to warrant an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Entitled “At Home On the Road: Autocamping, Motels, and the Rediscovery of America,” the exhibit, which features a complete array of motel memorabilia, has been so popular it has been extended until January, 1987.

“Americans on the road are important because they reflect changes that are begining to occur at home,” said Roger White, who organized the Smithsonian exhibition. “Just as people began moving away from cities to the suburbs, when they took vacations they began staying in motels by the highway, instead of downtown hotels. This whole movement had a distinctly anti-urban flavor.”

The Smithsonian exhibit opened in 1985 on the 60th anniversary of the world’s first motel--the Motel Inn, San Luis Obispo’s contribution to American travel history. The motel, which first charged $2.50 a night, is still open and housing travelers in small stucco bungalows beside U.S. 101.

Originally it was supposed to be called the Milestone Motor Hotel. But workers could not fit the three words on the sign, said Betty Grau, the current owner. They began testing combinations and measuring space and finally, she said, came up with Milestone Mo-Tel. A few years later the name was changed to the Motel Inn, and the neon sign by the road alternately flashed an “M” and then an “H” so motorists as they drove by would first see “Motel Inn,” and then “Hotel Inn.”

The motel and a gas station next door were built just inches from the highway at the foot of the steep Cuesta grade on the outskirts of San Luis Obispo. So when cars broke down ascending the hill, motorists would be forced to stay at the motel overnight while their cars were being repaired, Grau said.

An early brochure explained the new lodging concept: “The Mo-Tel is neither a hotel nor a bungalow court, yet it combines features of both. You drive your car right off the highway and into your own garage.”

In 1925 motels were a novelty, but today they have evolved into a symbol of the mundane homogeneity that is becoming increasingly common in America.

Motels evoke images of cups in plastic wrappers, ice buckets on Formica counters, Gideon Bibles in drawers, rumbling ice machines, and the faint smell of Lysol and carpet cleaner permeating the rooms.

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Features Satirized

Nabokov in his 1955 novel “Lolita” satirized the uniformity of motels and the impersonal signs posted inside motel doors: “We wish you to feel at home here. All equipment was carefully checked upon your arrival. Your license number is on record here. Use hot water sparingly. . . . Thank you. The Management. P.S. We consider our guests the Finest People in the World.”

Although they have reputations as bland highway landmarks, a number of motels were built during the 1930s and 1940s featuring outlandish architectural designs. During that time, motels were proliferating, competition was growing and proprietors sought outrageous images to attract travelers who were speeding by.

The Motel Inn was a forerunner of the dramatic highway image. As motorists drive by San Luis Obispo, they catch a quick glimpse of what appears to be a miniature Spanish Mission, with white stucco walls, red tile roof and mission bell tower, complete with a powder blue dome and spire looming over U.S. 101. Designed by a well-known Pasadena architect, Arthur Heineman, one of the innovators of the bungalow court, the Motel Inn was at one time painted bright pink to ensure that even more potential customers took notice.

But even a pink mission was sedate compared to some of the motels that sprang up. John Margolies, author of “The End of the Road, Vanishing Highway Architecture in America,” has traveled throughout the country and chronicled the rise and fall of the whimsically designed motel.

His favorites include a chain of Texas motels called the Alamo Plaza Courts with each office shaped like a miniature Alamo. The unusual design, Margolies said in a telephone interview, ensure that the visitor will “Remember the Alamo.”

Idiosyncratic Design

Another memorable structure, Margolies said, was Slappy’s Town of Ghent Motel in Jacksonville, Fla., which closed three years ago. The owner, known as Slappy, was a sailor who married a Belgian woman during World War II. When Slappy returned to Florida, he built a motel office--with a residence on the second story--in the shape of the town gates of Ghent, his wife’s hometown, so she would not get homesick.

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“‘With the advent of the interstate, motels all became codified,” Margolies said. “It no longer mattered what buildings looked like because of the 800-number reservation system and television commercials.”

Southern California used to be a mecca for outrageously designed motels, Margolies said. But the Wigwam Village Motel in Rialto is one of the few that remain. For the traveler driving down Foothill Boulevard in Rialto, the old U.S. Route 66, the Wigwam is an arresting sight: 19 enormous stucco tepees silhouetted against the San Bernardino Mountains in the distance; a 12-foot wooden Indian in front of the office; and a large orange and red neon marquee with the suggestion: “Do It In a Tee Pee.”

The Wigwam was part of a chain of seven tepee motels built throughout the country in the late 1930s and only a few are still operating. When Route 66 was the gateway to the West and automobile travel was still considered high adventure, the Rialto Wigwam represented the exotic and fantastic for those visiting California for the first time.

The tepees, which are next door to a used-car lot, are laid out in a semicircular pattern with an expanse of grass and several palm trees in the center, to resemble an Indian village. For verisimilitude, the tepees have diamond-shaped windows, orange stucco simulations of rolled-back tent flaps and faded zigzagged stripes circling the tepees at mid-height.

At one time the marquee at the Wigwam proclaimed: Sleep in a Wigwam--Get More for Your Wampum. The furniture was rough-hewn wood, the walls were stained plywood panels, and rugs and bedspreads were decorated with Indian patterns. But today the bedspreads are crushed velour, the plywood panels are covered with wallpaper and the tepees feature adult movies and mirrors over the bedposts.

“Now we get mostly couples because families don’t think the tepees are that cute anymore,” said manager David Fu. “But the couples like them because they give you more privacy then a typical motel room.”

Motels like the Wigwam, where each unit is free-standing, are becoming increasingly rare because they use space inefficiently, Fu said. And the current owner is considering tearing down the motel and building a market on the property.

In today’s motel business, corporate chain operations have replaced the visionary entrepreneurs and builders of eccentric highway lodges. The garish Madonna Inn, built in 1959 off U.S. 101 in San Luis Obispo, a glowing pink and white structure that looks like a ride at Disneyland, is a conspicuous exception.

California Leadership

Much of the innovative motel architecture was created in California and it has had an effect on American society, said David Gebhard, a professor of architectural history at UC Santa Barbara and co-author of “A Compleate Guide to Architecture in Los Angeles.”

“Motel architecture certainly introduced and made many things popular like the carport--the idea of not having an enclosed garage,” he said. “Motels were really the major impetus in spreading that idea into the arena of domestic architecture. And motels popularized and helped make acceptable the whole idea of patios and the indoor-outdoor style of architecture.”

No state has contributed more to the evolution of the motel than California, motel mavens say. The first motel was founded here and now there are more motel rooms in California than any other state. And the most famous motel ever filmed--the Bates Motel in the movie “Psycho"--was set near the fictional Southern California town of Fairvale.

The first motel evolved from a series of more primitive accommodations that were created after the invention of the automobile, said White of the Smithsonian. During World War I, touring cars were designed for camping and “auto-tents” were bolted to running boards, “auto-kitchenettes” were stored on fenders and seats could be pulled out to create berth-like beds.

Source of Business

Small-town businessmen, who at first denounced auto campers as undesirable drifters, soon began to view them as an untapped source of income and opened campgrounds at the edge of towns. The campgrounds evolved into spartan tourist cabins, then fully furnished cottages. In the 1950s chain operations entered the lodging business and motels throughout the country began to resemble one another. The Holiday Inn made predictability a selling point and at one time its slogan was: “The best surprise is no surprise.”

While motels proliferated, many local communities were outraged by the patrons. A 1935 study on sex and motels conducted by the Southern Methodist University sociology department determined that “the whole atmosphere is that of a rendezvous--of a trysting place. Secrecy, furtiveness--quick slipping in and swiftly stealing away. This tourist camp is no resting place for the weary, but is an abode of love--a bower of bliss in which amorous couples devote themselves to the worship of Venus.”

To counter this reputation, Kemmons Wilson, who founded the Holiday Inn chain in 1952, made sure Gideon Bibles were in every room and maids were told to open them to new pages every day. Wilson also contacted clergymen so they would be on call at many of the motels in his chain.

Successful Enterprise

Motels now are so successful at attracting families that the lodging industry is a $46-billion-a-year business. And many motels have moved into downtowns, evolved into multistoried motor inns and are competing with hotels for customers. The distinction between hotels and motels is becoming increasingly vague. The only official difference between the two, according to a spokesman for the American Hotel and Motel Assn., is that motels always provide parking spaces.

The parking spaces and easy access are reasons why motels have had such success, said Randy Smith of Smith Travel Research in Lancaster, Pa.

“Turn on a game show and people are given the choice of all kinds of things,” Smith said. “But you can count on them taking the trip to Hawaii. Americans are essentially restless people who love to take trips. And motels cater to that, they reflect that typically American desire to just pile into the car and go.”


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