The Very First Motel
The motel is part our identity as car-driving Americans. We like to sleep near our cars. It's hardly surprising that the first motel was built in my home state of California, that monument to auto eroticism. Nowadays, we want our motels to be predictable, like the Motel 6 where I stayed en route to the first motel. It's got to have an ice machine, a mauve checkered bedspread, and of course, it's got to be cheap. These modern chain motels might be dull, but once upon a time motels promised the same adventure and romance as the open road.
In 1925, some one million people hit the California roads, seeking adventure in their new Model-T Fords. Mostly they stayed in squalid auto camps. Sensing an opportunity, L.A. architect Arthur Hienemen built the first motel, called the Milestone, in San Luis Obispo, halfway between San Francisco and L.A. He coined the term motel, meaning motor hotel, says current the Milestone's current owner Bob Davis.
Davis also owns the swanky Apple Farm Inn next door. He closed the old Milestone in 1991 because it was too rundown. It still stands next to Highway 101, its windows boarded up, its cavernous dance hall gathering dust. Faded wallpaper speaks of more elegant times. Manager Dean Hutton shows me around.
The motel's restaurant resembles a Spanish mission, but it was built for car travelers. For $1.25 a night, guests got a two-room bungalow with a kitchen and a private adjoining garage.
I imagine guests from all walks of life, mingling by the pool over cocktails. The motel was promoted as a kind of melting pot, a place where people of all classes could meet, but it was a myth, says Curtis Marez. He's a professor of American studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
Even when they could afford it, Mexicans and other groups were often not admitted to motels because of segregation. The Milestone, with its separate servants quarters, was aiming for the upper tier of the leisure class. Magazine ads promised a real taste of California. "Skies are clear, the air tingles, and you never saw such blue ocean", reads the copy.
The West as Eden or the West as cowboy movie. Either way, says Professor Marez, the car still played the starring role.
And what better place to stable your new car than the Milestone motel? But the old dusty trail of Highway 101 is now a superhighway roaring a few feet away. Arthur Heineman had planned a chain of motels, strung like pearls from Seattle to L.A. He could have realized his dream if the depression hadn't come along. Owner, Bob Davis:
You can catch a glimpse of the Milestone motel by Highway 101 just north of San Luis Obispo. The sign says "The First Motel in the World". I'm Rachel Anne Goodman for The Savvy Traveler.
|American Public Media Home | Search | How to Listen|