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Feisty Developer and His Oddball Inn Stood Apart

Special to The Times

In Alex Madonna’s world, nothing succeeded quite like excess. His motto was “go whole hog,” and he did just that in designing one of the world’s most eccentric hotels, with its Pepto-Bismol-pink color scheme and jaw-dropping waterfall urinal in the men’s room that drew tittering tourists with cameras.

Madonna -- cowboy, developer and proprietor of the Madonna Inn along U.S. 101 -- died early Thursday, apparently of a massive heart attack. He was 85.

A barrel-chested man with a sharp tongue for any bureaucrat who dared cross him, Madonna and his inn were iconic symbols of California’s Central Coast for visitors from around the world, many of whom flooded the inn’s website Thursday with condolences. His “tremendous personality” will “live on in my mind,” wrote one admirer. Calls were coming in from as far away as Florida.

And the gaudy Madonna Inn, described as “Swiss country with a gingerbread fairy motif,” with its oddball suites -- the Caveman Room where one could sleep under a rock ceiling and shower in a waterfall; the 33-foot-long sofa in the Pick and Shovel Room -- was itself nothing less than a monument to Madonna’s outsized persona: a bit coarse, mocking of convention.

But behind the wiseacre facade was a man of uncommon intelligence and fierce determination.

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“If you get halfway up the hill with the wheelbarrow,” his daughter, Connie Pearce, 38, recalled him advising her, “it’s harder to go back down than to keep going to the top.”

Madonna also was devoted to the future of the Central Coast, a region he helped transform from a cattle-grazing backwater to a flourishing tourist mecca. Given that, some found it ironic that he had come to be held in such affection as a tie to the area’s past.

“He was often fed up with [the provincialism of] San Luis Obispo,” said Dan Krieger, a history teacher at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. “But if anybody represents old San Luis now, it’s Alex Madonna.”

“My wife and daughters are grieving right now,” said Mayor Dave Romero, who fought with Madonna off and on for five decades. “This is a very personal thing for all of us.”

Pearce said her father had recently had hernia surgery, but recovered quickly and was looking forward to getting back to the ranch.

Madonna’s holdings included the inn, cattle and horse ranches, a shopping plaza and a highway construction company that built or repaved much of U.S. 101 from San Luis Obispo to Salinas.

“It’s going to be business as usual,” said Pearce, who showed up for work Thursday at the inn, where she is general manager.

“He wouldn’t have wanted us to shut anything down. He set everything up so it could continue on as if he’s gone on a long ride.”

At the same time, Pearce said, her father was not one to worry about death. “His whole purpose in life was to live large,” she said.

If so, he carried it through with a combination of perseverance and an often-uncanny sense of timing.

He was born Nov. 19, 1918, on a ranch between Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo, and attended a one-room schoolhouse in his early years. His education didn’t come from books, however. He started Madonna Construction in 1935, two years before graduating from San Luis Obispo High School.

Still a teenager, he bid $440 to tear down the old courthouse, about a tenth what the pros in town were offering. “I think the Board of Supervisors gave him the contract as a lark, or to prove that he couldn’t do it,” said Krieger, a longtime friend.

Madonna not only did the job on budget, but also managed to salvage copper wiring and plumbing fixtures from the building. When World War II started and copper became dear, he sold his salvage materials for a huge profit.

His willingness to play brinksmanship with local bureaucrats began early, when he decided to open an inn along the 101 to serve travelers between San Francisco and Los Angeles. In a squabble over the building permit, San Luis Obispo city officials threatened to shut down the project unless Madonna paid up.

Minutes before the deadline, Madonna’s attorney appeared with a check -- for $4,000 less than the city wanted.

“We took it,” said Mayor Romero.

The first dozen rooms of the Madonna Inn opened on Christmas Eve in 1958. But even that was something of a miracle, since another problem developed over the men’s urinal, the likes of which local officials had never seen before. It was an 8-foot-tall waterfall pouring over a rock formation set in green tile.

Madonna refused to compromise on the design and he was proved right, as his newly arriving guests became the first of thousands of gawkers.

He brought in other curiosities, from a 28-foot fake gold tree to the shocking pink coloration -- which he later trademarked -- but it was the urinal that became and remained the biggest attention-getter.

Madonna’s wife, Phyllis, said her husband was inspired to create the urinal after he saw the lavish but more tasteful women’s restroom, which Phyllis designed. Alex Madonna decided he “was going to outdo me,” she said in a 2001 interview with The Times.

The couple met at a diner in the town of Orcutt, 40 miles south of San Luis Obispo, where he was working on a road project. “It only took one date and I was hooked,” she told the Chicago Sun-Times several years ago.

Madonna liked to say that he sketched out plans for the inn on the back of a napkin. He said he had tried architects but went his own way after deciding they were “pretty much into doing the same things over and over. I don’t like building in straight lines. I like building in curves.”

And he loved rock. “Rock is made to go together,” he once said in an interview. And at his inn, rock was given a free hand. Showers and sinks were built of oddly shaped polished stones that made the place feel like a grotto.

The suites are done in pinks, reds, greens and blues. The Old Mill Room contained a 3-foot mill wheel with dancing Bavarian figurines. One room featured a replica of a moonshiner’s still.

“Anybody can build one room and a thousand like it,” he 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?”

Today the inn is showing its age. Some of the furnishings look a bit tattered. People still come for the thrill of luxuriating in all its luscious pinkness, as musician Graham Nash did for his 60th birthday two years ago, when he rented all 109 rooms for a guest list that included David Crosby, Peter Fonda and Bette Midler.

But like Disneyland, with which it is frequently compared, its garishness has begun to look less like your hip teenager and more like your middle-aged neighbor in platforms and hoop earrings.

Aware of this, Madonna had been updating the rooms.

At one time, Madonna was a ranching partner with actor John Wayne. In later years, he liked to sit with his wife in his special “Gold Booth” at the inn’s restaurant, known for its huge steaks and pastries, where he could be seen exchanging pleasantries with regular visitors.

Madonna was a generous supporter of local charities and the Catholic Church.

“He was generous, but he wasn’t showy about it,” said Dan Weber, lay administrator of the Old Mission Church. “Someone would pass away and the family would not be able to afford much. We’d call out to the restaurant and ask if they could spare a cake and 15 beautiful cakes would show up.”

Whatever the future of his famous inn, Alex Madonna’s mark on the Central Coast is indelible.

The peak behind the inn, one of the area’s most distinguishing physical features, is San Luis Mountain, but locals call it simply Madonna Mountain.

A rosary will be said at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Old Mission Church in San Luis Obispo. Mass will be held the next day at the church and a private burial will follow.

Besides wife Phyllis and daughter Connie Pearce, survivors include a sister, LaVerne Osborne of San Luis Obispo; daughters Karen Twisselman of San Luis Obispo and Cathie Twisselman of Carrisa Plains; a son, John Madonna of San Luis Obispo; and 10 grandchildren.

Johnson is a Times staff writer and Connell is a special correspondent.


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