Retro Motels Are Having Their Moment This Summer
Old-school vibes. Modern amenities. Bean-shaped pools.
In 2006, Debbie Harvey and her sister decided to cruise from Chicago to LA on the iconic Route 66. Along the way, they stopped to snap photos of the Boots Court Motel in Carthage, Missouri, an artifact on the highway Harvey calls “the largest museum in the United States.”
In its heyday from the '40s-'70s, the motel was a legend. Its glowing neon sign attracted guests to its rooms that had the latest in modern amenities, including ceramic tile bathrooms, thermostatically-controlled floor furnaces, and carports. The Court’s rooms initially went for a whopping $2.50 per night -- a lot for the time, but not too much for Hollywood superstar Clark Gable, who allegedly rested his slick hair on one of the motel’s pillows. But in the '80s and '90s, motels like the Boots grew out of fashion with the rise of hotel chains, new interstates, and international travel.
By the time Harvey drove by in 2006, the motel “looked sad and it was not being cared for,” she said. “The neon was broken, the building needed paint, and the landscaping had grown up…. We thought 'if we came by here again in two years, it'll be gone; somebody will have torn it down.'"
So she and her sister bought it.
That investment is looking pretty damn good right now. With more of the country reopening after COVID-19, Americans are expected to rediscover the open road. And retro motels -- with their outdoor access and lack of elevators or hallways -- could become the preferred lodgings for folks looking for something with a little more character.
Harvey said she usually sees older folks and international travelers check into the Boots, but since March, much of the clientele shifted to young road trippers.
“I have noticed that we are getting some younger travelers because we had to explain to them how a window air conditioner works and ‘don't stand on the floor furnaces or you'll melt the soles of your shoes,’” she said. “It may be that people who normally go to France would take Route 66.”
The potential rise in popularity of motels this summer would coincide with an ongoing renaissance in motor inns, especially retro spots with chic modern touches like the Ace's Palm Springs oasis; Portland, Oregon's musician-courting Jupiter; and Bunkhouse Group's Austin Motel and Phoenix Hotel in San Francisco. Gone are the ratty towels and bed bugs of motels yore. In are signature cocktails, flatscreen TVs, speedy WiFi, and amped-up safety measures.
The bean-shaped pools, primary-colored solair chairs, and touch-tone phones, though, are all still there.
The Downtown Clifton in Tucson is closer to the chic side of things, though it like the Boots, it embraces its classic 1940s roots. The rooms have a stunning aesthetic with vintage furniture, Southwestern saddle blankets, red brick walls, ochre-tinged concrete floors, and wood beam ceilings. Owner Moniqua Lane kept her business open during COVID-19 (it was deemed an essential service in Arizona), and she says it’s almost exclusively been road trippers walking through her door.
“I'm actually half Black and half white, and my mother did take us on road trips all the time,” she said. “The car feels safer, more in control, in a time where it’s like the whole world is out of control. It gives you a chance to do things more slowly, sort of take your time and look at things, and experience things, and I think motels are really well-suited to that even if they're off the side of a highway.”
Lane bought her motel in 2014, and is frustrated she can’t treat her clients with the kind of care and intimacy she normally does. “Before COVID we would greet our guests with hugs,” she said. “We always try to make people feel like they're in a home that's better than theirs.”
But even if she can’t give hugs, she said motels like The Clifton are part of something bigger happening in travel. “I think that COVID has essentially accelerated a trend that we're probably already seeing -- that desire for something a little more smaller scale, a little more incremental, a little more genuine, a little more authentic.”
As Americans rethink their vacations, they're making good on the prediction that this summer will all but be defined by the open road -- often off the interstate, and away from the identical chain hotels. They're seeking places with character and history, playing into the retro narrative of a lifestyle being embraced en masse, both out of necessity and the desire to get out there. These retro motels provide modern comforts without skimping on the nostalgia and kitsch that people so crave.
After all, who wants to take selfies in a Motel 6?
“I think for our younger guests [the retro design aesthetic] just feels more interesting and authentic,” Lane said. “For older guests, it actually does feel nostalgic. They enjoy the retro because they saw the original and they think that it's done well. And we do, too.”
These gems are tucked alongside the highways and in cities across America. Here are just a few more of our favorites.
Sonoma County wineries just popped the cork on their season, and this "luxury motel" will certainly be circled on many a road tripper’s list. First opened in 1963, this place is retro to the nth degree, from the beds and chairs to the art on the walls to the spacy lamps. And if you like what you see, you can actually buy decor right from the room or via the online shop.
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Heaven knows New Yorkers need a break after being the eye of the COVID storm. Fortunately, peace, love, and luxury await at this retro boutique motel in the Catskills two hours from the city. The motel’s 22 rooms are beautifully designed as an ode to the wildly famous 1969 festival that happened in town.
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This Door County motel two hours north of Milwaukee dates back to 1952 and has kept its original character despite an overhaul in 2008. The aesthetics here are pure '50s, from the midcentury furniture retro with original 1950s furniture to the serious rock vibe: local musicians have used the rooms as studios to record thousands of tracks.
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Owned by a savvy husband-and-wife team, this renovated '50s lodge has Instagram written all over it. You can stay in one of its 16 rooms featuring artisanal Mexican fabrics, or opt for a night in an Airstream or teepee. The Amigo is 145 miles from Denver and is surrounded by a playground of mountain trails, skiing, and white-water rafting.
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According to the website, this is “where hip pets stay.” The Thunderbird Inn is committed to its 1960s vibe with bright vintage decor, retro neon sign, and all the sugary synthetic sweets to go along with it -- you’ll get complimentary Krispy Kreme donuts, Moon-pies, and RC cola with a night’s stay.
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