California's Roadside Motel Renaissance Has Arrived

Super 8, these most definitely are not

July 16, 2020 10:35 am
coachman motel
The Coachman Motel offers stunning views of Lake Tahoe

Zoom, treadmills, artisanal flours: few could have predicted the winners of our singular coronavirus economy. Still fewer could have predicted in January that by July, the global travel industry would be gutted, with the country’s biggest airlines threatening to lay off half their staff. And no one would have guessed that among the few bright shoots from a wrecked landscape would be the humble motel — as well as the not-so-humble motel, design-forward lodgings that marry high-end aesthetics with suddenly necessary conveniences like open-air corridors and drive-up access to guest rooms. The age of concierge — along with buzzy lounges and busy elevators — is over for now.

“Our guests didn’t need a concierge to book them a dinner reservation anyway,” says Liza Hinman, owner of Santa Rosa’s sleek motel, The Astro. “Our guests now are looking to minimize their exposure. Everybody wants to feel like you made a safe choice, and a motel offers that.” 

While newly celebrated for its hygienic advantages, the motel until recently had become, with some notable exceptions, a relic of mid-century Americana, as aptly illustrated by Don Draper’s visit to a gleaming Howard Johnson’s Upstate New York in a Season 6 episode of Mad Men. (The hotel providing exteriors was, in fact, a former Howard Johnson’s, operating as a Regency Inn and Suites, in Baldwin Park, California.)

The motel’s debut and ensuing golden age — in post-World War II America, to a country full of ambition and promise relative to its bombed-out cousins in Europe — was auspicious. With money in their pocket and access to President Eisenhower’s new Interstate Highway System, Americans wanted to drive,  and they needed somewhere to stay along the way. “Motels developed everywhere in a similar way,” says Michael Karl Witzel, author of The American Motel. “It started off as the ‘autocamp,’ where people would just pull in and camp out of their cars, and then it developed into a format where you’d have individual bungalows and you could pull up next to them. The motor court sort of combined that. The architecture advanced in the 1960s so that it was more modern, and they connected everything up, into  a low building with all the units under one roof. They’d still have separate stalls or carports so you could pool in right there, which gave you more privacy. You could pull in, open the door, and you were in your place.”

Witzel says he can see the appeal now: “If this continues, there’s going to be a continued resurgence,” he says. “People aren’t going to want to jam themselves into a five-story building.” 

Originally opened in 1959, Skyview in Los Alamos had been abandoned for several years when Kimberly Walker, of the Nomada Hotel Group, acquired it with her husband/co-owner Mike Kyle. “We used to drive by Skyview all the time — we thought of it as the Bates Motel,” says Walker. “It always felt really creepy.”

Three years ago, a colleague encouraged the pair  to take another look. “We just immediately were like, ‘This is incredible,’ because the bones were so great,” she says. “There’s something very special about properties that have a history. You can’t build that — that comes from having age, and time, and stories, and spirits.”

Their renovation work included reclaiming the property: “People had been having bonfires in the center of the parking lot.” 

Photo courtesy of The Skyview

The now-glossy motel benefited from a massive physical upgrade, but the stories remain the same: “We’ve had people tell us about the Beatles staying there on their way from L.A. to San Francisco, about how the Mamas and the Papas wrote songs there — and just local things, like learning to swim in the pool or people who got married there in the 1970s.”

Thankfully, the motel has retained that direct access to guest rooms; contactless check-ins are performed online, breakfast is offered in-room, reservations are required at the pool, and questions that might have been handled during a quick stop by the front desk are now often addressed by text message.

“You never really have to come in contact with other people if you choose not to,” she says. It’s a paradigm shift with a mid-century aesthetic — all rooted in instincts about the importance of warmly receiving guests that go back as long as humans do. “You get into hospitality because you have a love of strangers — and the most important thing you can do is keep guests safe, which might have meant literally keeping the building secure before,” she says.

“Hospitality just means something different now.” 

Three suggestions …

The Skyview, Los Alamos

Surrounded by: The calm and peaceful Santa Ynez Valley (also vineyards) 
But everything’s closed: Find a quiet spot within Los Padres National Forest
Eat at: Low-key farm-to-table spot Plenty on Bell

The Astro, Santa Rosa

Surrounded by: Sonoma Country’s vineyards
But everything’s closed: Head to Trione-Annadel State Park
Eat at: Sister property Spinster Sisters — purveyor of our favorite grilled peach salad in the entire state of California

The Coachman, South Lake Tahoe

Surrounded by: Lake Tahoe! 
But everything’s closed: Take your pick — ours would be Van Sickle Bi-State Park
Eat at: Café Fiore — definitely the closest we’re going to get to eating in Italy for a while


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