The Rise and Fall of the Iconic American Motel

Motels were once quite novel and quite respectable.

The idea of a smart place to rest for the night soon spread as the number of cars on the road increased. “Touring motorists” were encouraged by the ease of a motel and when the Motel Inn first opened they advertised that a weary traveler need not even approach the front desk: a clerk would register the patron from the vehicle.

Parking spaces and bungalows of the original Motel Inn. Via/ Library of Congress

Alternatives to the standard motel were cabins and KOAs, which offered far less (if any) amenities, unlike the modern motel. The hybrid of cabin and motel was soon a charming and popular compromise. So-called tourist homes were usually the only thing on offer for African American travelers, sometimes listed in the Jim Crow era Green Book, a guide of services and businesses they could actually use.

Clearwater, Florida. Via/ State Archives of Florida
Motels were seen as affordable luxury during the 1950s and 1960s. Via/ State Archives of Florida
Coastal Motel in Wells, Maine. Via/ Library of Congress
The English Motel, Amarillo, Texas, 1977. Via/ Library of Congress

Sadly, Heineman’s dream to have a chain of motels up and down the West Coast never materialized. The Great Depression hit in 1929, stifling such frivolities as vacations or even car purchases for many, while Heineman eventually lost the motel to foreclosure. It remained a motel until the 1990s when, in great disrepair, the first motel ever was sold for use as office space before being torn down. Today only fragments of the buildings remain.

Interestingly, San Luis Obispo is also home to one of the kitschiest m/hotels in the whole country, with theme rooms decorated to frantic heights. The Madonna Inn was opened in 1958 and is part hotel, part motel, and all flash. We can’t help but think that the area’s long reputation for motel service and car-friendly accommodations had a role to play in the long-standing popularity of the Madonna Inn.

The Madonna Inn, 1978 Via/ Library of Congress
The dining room of the Madonna Inn decorated for Christmas, 2013. Via/ Library of Congress
Starlite motel in Cocoa Beach, Florida, 1960s. Via/ State Archives of Florida
Safari Motel coffee shop Ocean City Maryland in the 1960s. Via/ Flickr

Sadly, less ornate motels have not stood the test of time like the Madonna Inn. Viewed as sketchy, dangerous, and inferior to hotels or the new AirbnB, which lets bookers stay in everything from spare rooms to treehouses to empty apartments, motels are seen as a less enticing prospect today than they did in the era of motor tourism. Will these icons of American travel be around for much longer?