The first stop on the road to America's motel history: California's Motel Inn

May 09, 1993|By Kristin Jackson | Kristin Jackson,Seattle Times

SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. -- The Motel Inn looks pretty sad these days. A jumble of old furniture is piled in its dusty lobby. The dry Southern California wind whistles around the motel's crumbling white plaster. Travelers zip past on Highway 101, just 50 feet away, oblivious to the Spanish-style building.

Yet the Motel Inn, now closed for renovation, has a big claim to fame in the travelers' world: it's the world's first motel -- the place where the word "motel" was coined.

In 1925, California architect Arthur Heineman decided to get into the lodging business. He chose a site on the outskirts of San Luis Obispo, a ranch town about 200 miles north of Los Angeles (a long day's drive in those days).

Heineman designed his place so guests could drive right up to the door of their rooms. He decided to call it a "motor hotel" and then shortened it to "motel."

"There were a few 'auto courts' around where travelers stayed, but you couldn't necessarily park right in front of your room. And this was the first place in the world to be called a motel," says Mark Hall-Patton, director of the County Historical Museum in San Luis Obispo.

For Marcella Faust, the Motel Inn is a big part of her personal history. She's 85 now, and lives in the San Francisco Bay area. As a teen-ager, back in 1926, she was one of the first waitresses to work at the motel's restaurant.

"It was wonderful to work at the Motel Inn. They trained us to fold the white linen napkins, to polish the silverware. In those days, there really was service."

The Motel Inn was the first in what architect Heineman envisaged as a chain of 18 motels along the West Coast, stretching from San Diego to Seattle.

But the Depression soured those plans, and the Motel Inn (which briefly was called the Milestone Motel when it opened) was the first -- and last -- one he built.

By the 1930s, as Americans' love affair with the car deepened, mom-and-pop cottages cropped around the country -- places with pseudo-Tudor architecture and names such as "Kozy Kottages."

As highways and car travel mushroomed in the 1940s and 1950s, the era of the classic American motel dawned -- a long, low building with all the rooms under one roof (a more economical way to build bigger places) and plenty of shiny molded-plywood and plastic furniture. The Holiday Inn, one of the first of the modern chains, opened its first motel in 1952.

Meanwhile, the Motel Inn has been outgunned by more modern, comfortable motels on a nearby strip. It sits forlorn, its restaurant and guest rooms closed.

But there's life in the old motel yet: Bob Davis, the new owner (and owner of the modern Apple Farm Inn next door) plans to restore and reopen the main Motel Inn building next year as a restaurant and banquet facility. He also plans to create a small museum on the history of the Motel Inn and other early motels.

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