Like most of our installed infrastructure, motels have been around long enough that there’s a wide range of vintages that await you on the Interstates, but there’s a whole legacy of them that are nothing but memories.
The first motel was probably the Milestone Mo-Tel in San Luis Obispo, built in 1925 halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. In the 20s, that distance was a good day’s travel by Model T. This launched the era of the auto court or motor court and they grew like weeds along the US highways that were our main travel corridors before Eisenhower began building the Interstates.
A few of these are still in operation, most of them converted to cottages for low income and elderly residents. You find them on the Interstate business routes that often have exotic names like East Motel Drive, or Old Highway 66.
The Milestone Mo-Tel lived a long life as the Motel Inn, and as the longtime home to KVEC, San Luis Obispo. Today, most of it is gone, parking lot for the Apple Farm Inn. Most of its contemporaries are gone too.
The motel business went through some of the same phases as most other commercial archetecture. During an early period, especially in the West, we built them like tepees or forts. Those were the days before auto air conditioning, and they worked well with the roadside juice stands built like giant oranges, and frozen custard stands that were giant ice cream cones. They’re pretty much gone.
We’re losing most of the next period too: the motels of Googie archetecture, because these were post-interstate and the sites had value. They’re either right at the Interstate offramp, or they’re ocean or lakeside, and they’re knocked down for condos or more modern resorts. Florida’s Satellite Beach area is a great example.
But that leaves motels from about 1970 forward, and its here that things can get dicey if you’re trying to find a nice one, which is a great subject for another post, another time.