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Once four wheels replaced four hooves, there was no keeping Americans down on the farm—to the point where today there are very few farms left to be kept down on. In Home Away From Home: Motels in America, author/photographer John Margolies captures the world Old MacDonald encountered when he hit the road during the first half of this century. A frequent chronicler of lost, forgotten, and unnoticed Americana, Margolies is so consumed by his calling that he signs register books “Johnnie Motel.”
Assembled largely from Margolies’ photographs and collection of artifacts, Home is filled with wonderful examples of this nation’s indigenous can-over-do-ism: The Madonna Inn, where every room has a different theme and even the bread is pink; the Capitol Court, with its exact half-inch-scale model of the Denver statehouse; and Lane’s Redwood Flat, whose cabins were hollowed out from giant sequoia trees. Grand schemes—like Pierce Petroleum Co.’s plan to build luxury accommodations every 150 miles from New York City to San Francisco—seem quaint and almost appealing when presented in such a handsome package at the distance of seven decades. (Only five Pierce Pennant Terminals were built; one remains as a retirement home.)
So taken for granted is the motel that it is interesting to learn that the very word was first copyrighted in 1925 by Arthur S. Heineman, architect of the Milestone Mo-Tel in San Luis Obisbo, the first such dwelling to be so identified. But “motor camps” had been around for years. Even in 1913, there were enough “auto gypsies” bivouacking in fields to create a no-camping backlash. Fervid motoring supporter Frederic Van De Water wrote, “Our flivver and our tent enabled us to visualize America….There is a powerful national value in motor camping. It is bringing people face to face, tin supper plate to tin supper plate, with a holiday atmosphere about their meeting.” Photographs of early campers, seated outside at tables next to their bulgemobiles in coat and tie and gown and hat underscore the point that Home is a portrait of another world.
In the chapter “Sleazebo Motels,” Margolies confronts the dark side disguised by his pretty pictures. Out-of-the-way roadside bungalows often deserved the nicknames “hot-sheet joint” and “no-tell motel.” Margolies quotes an early trade journal, the Yellow Octagon Guide: “Beware of the disreputable roadhouse. Places which tolerate drinking parties, or maintain public dance halls of the questionable type, have no place in the “Approved Wayside Stations.’ ” In 1935, students from Southern Methodist University undertook a survey and found almost all “tourist camps” morally lacking. Such establishments provided “no resting place for the weary, but…an abode of love, a bower of bliss in which amorous couples devote themselves to the worship of Venus.” None other than J. Edgar Hoover, presumably no stranger to questionable drinking parties, wrote in the American Magazine in 1940 that motels were a “threat to the peace and welfare.” Thank heavens people don’t gather to arrange illicit assignations anymore.
In 1920, Sinclair Lewis saw both the future and the end of the motel phenomenon. In particular, he predicted the appearance of Kemmons Wilson 30 years later. Lewis saw a need for a “chain of small, clean, pleasant hotels, standardized and nationally advertised, along every important motor route in the country”; during “the most miserable vacation in my life”—to Washington, D.C., thank you—Wilson recognized what Lewis had envisioned. Wilson opened the first Holiday Inn in 1952, and the days of Margolies’ beloved, idiosyncratic lodges were numbered. Holiday Inn’s original philosophy, “the best surprise is no surprise,” stands in direct contradiction to Margolies’ celebration of “product[s] of individuality and excellence.” (Wilson was not quite so good at prognostication, having advised his pal Sam Phillips to sell that Presley boy’s contract ASAP.)
Circumstances once forced me to pass the night at the Kangaroo Motel in Midland, Texas. Similar situations have found me in Holiday Inns. I have fond memories of the former experience. The latter incidents are blurred in my mind. The modest mom-and-pop motel phenomenon that began as a reaction to high-priced, inconvenient, exclusive downtown hotels has been transformed into the prosaic “hospitality industry.” Now that we have Home Away From Home, some might argue that we can begin bulldozing the remaining examples of “roadside bravura”—the train, plane, and giant-wine-casket motels, and the cowboy-, Indian-, and wigwam-style motels—to make way for bright new Wal-Marts and Marriotts. Those are the people who make terrible traveling companions.