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Motel revivalism: How hipster hoteliers created a new roadside attraction

The renovation and re-opening of classic motels is picking up steam

The Drifter Motel in New Orleans. “The motel, by nature of its privacy, cost and roadside location, makes it the democracy of hospitality, claimed in equal measure by the lone traveler, the family, the trysters, explorers, adventurers, and weary travelers.”
| Nicole Franzen for Design Hotels

When interior designer Nicole Cota was hired to work on the Drifter, a recently renovated roadside motel in New Orleans that reopened last year, she felt like she was bringing a building back to life.

Located on a commercial stretch of Highway 61 known as Tulane Avenue, near the city courthouse, the former Rose Inn Motel was part of a stretch of faded commercial properties the NOLA Defender called “dilapidated, flea-ridden, and pimp-frequented.” The area was just beginning to see the stages of bohemian revival, but was still most likely to attract the young and hip who had a court date to catch.

But Cota saw something in the old motel, a vision that has motivated numerous investors, hotel guests, and designers to pursue similar projects over the last decade. Like other motels that came of age during America’s budding romance with the highway, the Drifter had faded, fallen out of favor, and found itself off the beaten path of the typical tourist.

The Drifter in New Orleans was designed to “feel uniquely New Orleans” without falling back on local architectural cliches.
Nicole Franzen for Design Hotels™
The pool at the Drifter.
Nicole Franzen for Design Hotels™

But Cota and the developers felt this property, an affordable adaptive reuse, could be reimagined to “feel uniquely New Orleans” without falling back on local architectural cliches—ferns, wrought iron, and gas lanterns.

“The motel, by nature of its privacy, cost, and roadside location, makes it the democracy of hospitality, claimed in equal measure by the lone traveler, the family, the trysters, explorers, adventurers, and weary travelers, all wanting to escape in the sweaty tropical scenery of New Orleans,” says Cota. “This was about creating a property that felt playful and extravagant in subtle ways.”

The reimagined, 20-room motel—with terrazzo floors in the lobby, a restored neon sign, and a lush tropical garden where the parking lot once stood—exemplifies the current trend of turning old mom-and-pop motor-court motels into hip boutique accommodations. Call it motel revivalism: cashing in on inexpensive property, employing adaptive reuse, and playing to the country’s obsession with updated midcentury design.

A sign for the Hilltop Motel, a classic roadside motel on Route 66 in Kingman, Arizona, in 2003.
Library of Congress

It’s the perfect time for motel revivalism

These kind of renovations and re-openings have been happening for at least the last decade, if not more, from poolside haunts in Palm Springs to the Austin Motel in the Texas capital city, but recently seem to have picked up speed.

“Hoteliers ... are purchasing America’s dilapidated 20th-century motels in droves,” wrote GQ in January, and last year Vogue found that “new owners are sprucing up the joints with a nod to indie craftspeople and artisans.”

The Bunkhouse Group, led by Liz Lambert, who runs the Austin Motel and a number of other properties, has been a pioneer in this movement, and is now partially owned by the Standard Group. The Drifter is looking to expand and open locations in Detroit, Nashville, and Houston, while the parent company of the national Red Lion chain, RLH, plans to open the first locations of its relaunched Signature Inn brand of motels in San Francisco this July and Bend, Oregon, later this fall.

AHEAD Americas, a hotel industry group that presents an annual design award, said the Calistoga Motor Lodge and Spa in Napa Valley, this year’s best design, shows how “motels are making a comeback.”

The country’s stock of motels has dramatically decreased, from an estimated 61,000 in 1964 to roughly 16,000 in 2012, according to Mark Okrent, author of No Vacancy: The Rise, Demise and Reprise of America’s Motels. Not every location—particularly smaller, out-of-the-way properties—can be reborn by today’s hipster hoteliers into more fashionable and expensive lodging. But like a parent on a family vacation pushing that station wagon to the next rest stop, many see plenty of gas in the tank for this trend to continue.

“There is a love affair with midcentury modern that is sort of taking over design, and often these properties are so neglected that they offer a great value to investors and developers,” says Cota. “The success of the current projects seems to be sending a clear incentive to developers and hoteliers that these are properties that have a lot of life still.”

Calistoga Motor Lodge and Spa.
Aubrie Pick

Taking advantage of a changing hospitality landscape

This retro, boutique motel aesthetic, and the repositioning of roadside motels as hipster hangouts, taps into numerous established design trends. But it also arrives at an ideal moment in the changing hospitality industry.

“We definitely think the ‘high-low’ approach to hospitality is something that’s very prevalent right now and something that hospitality enthusiasts are demanding in most markets,” says William Harris, a principal at AvroKO, which designed the Calistoga. “Being approachable and experience-driven is vital, and we’re seeing this not just with hospitality design, but in many other industries as well, including retail, beauty and wellness, health care, and more.”

According to Jou-Yie Chou and William Brian Smith, partners at Brooklyn-based Studio Tack, a firm that has designed these types of properties, such as the Sound View in Long Island, New York, a confluence of two factors is making motels so popular. The hospitality industry continues to look for alternatives to the cookie-cutter flagship brands and even the proliferation of formulaic boutique hotels. From a business standpoint, a generation of independent motel owners—many motels are family businesses that have been passed down for a generation or two—is sitting on properties it’s ready to sell.

“Developers and first-time hotel owners are jumping on these properties because they can be affordable and scalable, and very approachable in terms of a first-time project,” says Chou.

Scalability and appeal is one reason that RLH began concepting, designing, and building out the reborn Signature Inn brand last fall. According to Amanda Marcello, the senior vice president of brand strategy for RLH, retrofitting these motels can offer a unique, playful, and affordable option for travelers, a sort of boutique-economy option.

“Many motels and hotels are looking for a new beginning, and instead of demoing or ripping out the personality of what’s there, we saw an opportunity to embrace it,” she says.

Vintage color photograph in dreamy blue and pink tones featuring the Motel Star-Rest, a single-story pale blue-and-white metal structure with jalousie windows and doors and a parking lot with three 1950s cars.
The blue-and-white Motel Star-Rest in the 1950s.
Corbis via Getty Images

The origin of the motor hotel

While the explosion of motels as we know it happened in the ’50s and ’60s, the first example of the form opened in San Luis Obispo, California, in 1925. The word “motel” was supposedly a bit of a signage error. “Motor hotel” was mashed together, and the Motel Inn, offering rooms for $2.50 a night, was born.

The motel was born out of necessity right as travel radically shifted after World War II. Before the war, in the early days of motoring, Americans would pitch tents on the roadside or stay in shabby tourist cabins, looked down upon as being “hideouts for criminals and gangsters, or one-hour rentals for the ‘hot pillow’ trade,” according to design historian Rebecca Gross.

But after the war, as the middle class boomed, bought cars, and had more leisure time to explore, a small network of mom-and-pop motels grew to cater to the curious, car-driving public. Strips of motels clustered together in offbeat places like Tucumcari, New Mexico, and many utilized the design styles and visual language of the day, blending neon signage, midcentury style, and, occasionally, Polynesian and Native American themes. Plastic flowers, neon cacti, and concrete teepees proliferated at these quirky rest stops. Boasting family-friendly rooms, pools, and locations near a highway off-ramp, they offered a promise, according to Gross, that lodging was “economical, informal, and hospitable.”

But in many ways, the growth of the highway system and the rapid changes in the travel industry that helped hotels proliferate also led to their downfall. Larger and more efficient interstates allowed travelers to bypass smaller roadways and the motels that flocked around them. The hotel business became standardized, most notably Holiday Inn, a chain started in Memphis, Tennessee, that created the blueprint for reliable, indistinct lodging. In 1963, a company executive said that “what we’re trying to do here is finish the job that Henry Ford began. Ford put a set of assembly-line wheels under the average American. It’s up to us to supply the assembly-line lodgings.” By 1972, Holiday Inn had 1,400 locations.

The spa at the Calistoga.
Aubrie Pick
The Calistoga Motor Inn. “Restraint is one of the most difficult aspects to achieve in design, but we see it as crucial.”
Aubrie Pick

The recent motel comeback

By the ’80s, according to Lonely Planet, motels were in retreat, bypassed by freeways and in many cases unable to compete with budget, no-frills chains. Overlooked areas such as Wildwood, New Jersey, became neon-fringed tourist destinations seemingly locked in amber. While many older motels have since been upgraded to compete for the modern traveler, they still struggle against massive chains with better locations and substantial advertising budgets.

But as Studio Tack’s Chou and Smith pointed out, there’s always demand for something off the beaten path. Developers and designers see potential in properties with a history and unique layout, and tried to meet the challenge of creating “gentrified motels” that tap into nostalgia without becoming cliches.

In the case of Studio Tack and its Sound View project, it involved exploring the midcentury aesthetic while taking cues from regional architecture. A quarter-mile-long building located on top of the ocean in the North Fork, the Sound View could have easily sank into nautical platitudes. Chou and Smith’s design aimed to capture vernacular touches—the rooms are covered in cedar shiplap and filled with custom-designed furniture and lighting—while referencing more organic and local midcentury and modernist designs, such as nearby Cape Cod modernist homes or the work of Horace Gifford on Fire Island.

There’s also value in preserving the original courtyard-style layout, a unique indoor-outdoor experience many of these new motel designers attempt to capture.

“We’re not going to fight against the location or do something unnatural to the existing architecture,” says Smith. “The typology of having the exterior corridor to walk around creates an amazing experience of guests interacting with each other. We’re not going to create some kind of hermetic seal around everything and make the motel more hotel-like.”

The Sound View on Long Island. “The typology of having the exterior corridor to walk around creates an amazing experience of guests interacting with each other.”
Read McKendree

The rooms at the Sound View, covered in cedar shiplap.
Read McKendree
The deck at the Sound View.
Read McKendree

Cota’s work for the Drifter in New Orleans tried to capture the same balance between respecting history and location without being too cliched. During an initial dig into the motel and its past, the design team found little to work with, such as an old postcard bearing a photo of the building, originally called the Crescent City Inn. Instead of a history lesson, Cota focused on something eclectic, diverse, and playful, grounded in references, including some to Mexican architect Luis Barragán and Italian architect Gio Ponti.

According to Greg Bradshaw, a principal at AvroKO, the firm behind the Calistoga, “restraint is one of the most difficult aspects to achieve in design, but we see it as crucial.” While the firm referenced a mashup of influences for the Napa Valley motel and spa project—playful apothecary references and Wes Anderson motifs for the spa, nods to Napa’s hot springs and agricultural vibe, as well as midcentury family trips—it tried not to overwhelm the setting and structure.

It’s the original character of these places, even after they’ve been updated with bold patterns and new paint jobs, that shines through, according to RLH’s Marcello. Signature Inn, which aims to hit 20 total properties within the next 24 months, looks to go cross-country, but it’s not focused exclusively on top tier cities. Looking for places with the right profile, the company literally going where the road takes it.

“Some of these motels are really beautiful boxes,” Marcello says, “and they’re only in very unique places.”