About halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles sits Cayucos, a sleepy little surf village that calls itself the “last of California’s beach towns.” This coastal community is known for its delicious blue corn tacos and brown butter cookies, a walkable pier that juts out into the Pacific Ocean offering some incredible sunset views, and a perennial summer fog that keeps the evenings cool. It’s also a place that’s brimming with old motels.

“There are pretty strict building moratoriums around here,” says Ryan Fortini, a Cayucos resident who co-owns the town’s Pacific Motel with his wife, Marisa Fortini. “If you really want to go after a creative project, you’ve got to reinvent something that already exists.” So in January 2020, the couple bought a run-down Cayucos motor lodge called the Dolphin Inn and then spent the next two and a half years transforming it.

The Fortinis updated the inn’s once-drabby rooms with white shiplap walls, clean aesthetics and loads of light. They replaced frumpy comforters with parachute linens and added extra beach towels, a lobby stocked with botanical skin-care products and handbags made by Mexican artists, and communal fire pits on the grounds for use by guests and local residents alike. When their newly named Pacific Motel finally opened its doors in September 2022, the revamped property introduced a new kind of boutique lodging to the tiny beachside town. It also became part of a wave of re-envisioned motels that are infusing new life into old properties across the United States—and creating new ways of engaging with communities in the process.

The Pacific Motel
When the Pacific Motel opened its doors in September 2022, the revamped property introduced a new kind of boutique lodging to the tiny beachside town of Cayucos, California. The Pacific Motel

Over the past few years, dozens of mid-20th-century motels and travel lodges that had fallen into disrepair have been reopened as boutique properties. Places like Rhode’s Motor Lodge, remade from a dilapidated 1950s motor inn tucked away in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains; the Ranch Motel & Leisure Club, a 1940s motor court in San Antonio that sat neglected for decades; and the High Country Motor Lodge, which was at one time a Howard Johnson’s motel, along Route 66 in Flagstaff, Arizona. Along with stylish and updated design elements—many that pay homage to their property’s historic past—these newly envisioned lodges also include amenities like on-site restaurants, ping-pong tables and outdoor pools that are often open to non-guests as well as those staying overnight.

The history of the motel

The word “motel” comes from a combination of the words “motor” and hotel.” Unlike at a hotel, which typically has guest rooms accessible from an inside corridor, motel rooms are entered from the outside. Motels grew out of a need for affordable and convenient lodgings alongside the advent of American car culture and the birth of two-lane highways. “Convenience and anonymity have always been two of their biggest draws,” says Douglas Towne, publications editor of the Society for Commercial Archeology, a U.S. organization devoted to the 20th-century landscape of drive-ins, diners, neon signs and roadside attractions. “With a motel, you drive to the office, check in and drive to your front door. What could be simpler?”

Architect and developer Arthur Heineman opened the world’s first motel (he abbreviated the words “motor hotel” to “Mo-Tel,” and created a new term in the process) in San Luis Obispo, a California coastal town less than 20 miles down the road from Cayucos, in 1925. But the real boon of these low-rise establishments—I-, L- or U-shaped structures that typically stuck to one or two stories, making it easier for guests to unload their suitcases—occurred after World War II, when “road tripping” became a part of the American lexicon. Motels began opening by the thousands, beckoning to travelers making their way along Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles and catering to vacationers up and down the U.S. eastern seaboard.

With most motels being individually owned, proprietors were always looking for new and inventive ways to attract guests. Some installed brightly colored neon signs sporting names like the “Caribbean” and the “Gondolier,” while others put up plastic palm trees and installed kidney-shaped swimming pools to evoke a sense of faraway places. “Half the fun was checking into a place with an exotic atmosphere created by a fanciful name, make-believe buildings and a huge neon sign,” says Towne. “Whether it was a Polynesian village or a Middle Eastern oasis, that fantasy setting created an indelible memory and let travelers know they were somewhere other than home.”

The Riviera Motel
Motels grew out of a need for affordable and convenient lodgings alongside the advent of American car culture and the birth of two-lane highways. Here, visitors chat in the parking lot of the Riviera Motel in Bass River, Massachusetts in the 1960s. Aladdin Color Inc/Getty Images

But, thanks to a few factors, the stand-alone motel soon became an endangered species. First, there was the emergence of chains like Holiday Inn (which began as a motel chain in 1952, before later converting to “hotel”), Best Western and Travelodge. Next, in 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower introduced the U.S. Interstate Highway System—which eventually made numbered roadways like Route 66 obsolete. And then, of course, air travel took off, with the number of air passengers more than quadrupling between 1955 and 1972.

“During the mid-20th century, motels were known as fun places to visit,” says Daniel Elder, general manager of the Campfire Hotel in Bend, Oregon. “They had charm. They had character. But eventually, luxury hotels and high-end resorts took over, and the concept of the motel just kind of faded into history.”

Elder says that when the Campfire Hotel—a revamped 100-room motel lodge tucked away in Bend’s industrial stretch—first opened in October 2020, its owners were well aware of the negative connotation that had become associated with motels over the past few decades. “Many people began thinking of motels as low-tier, dingy and old,” he says—places where crime and bedbugs both ran rampant. It’s why they decided to go with the “hotel” name. “But the reality is,” says Elder, “over the last five or ten years motels have really taken on a new life form.”

Across the United States, Vintage Motels Are Being Imagined for Modern Times
The Campfire Hotel is known for its “camp vibes meet urban lifestyle” aesthetic. Campfire Hotel

That’s because hotel chains have become very sterile and cookie-cutter, Elder continues. “If you’ve stayed in one, you’ve stayed in them all,” he says. “But with these stand-alone motels, they’re all doing similar things, yet they’re each so different from one another too. And that’s exciting for people.”

Motels also provide travelers both a sense of community that you won’t find in an Airbnb and an intimacy that a larger property can’t offer. “In the case of the Pacific Motel, it’s just so easy to come off the beach full of sand, walk into your room and fall down,” says Fortini.

Motels, reimagined

The Campfire itself is known for its “camp vibes meet urban lifestyle” aesthetic, with rooms done up in browns and oranges reminiscent of a 1970s campground, all surrounding a heated saltwater pool. Orange lights are strewn among the property’s towering trees, illuminating the nights like fireflies.

“Motels already have such a casualness to them, an approachability,” says Fortini. The key to recreating them, he says, is in reimaging what’s already there, and then building on it to create a destination that also serves the community. “Not just aesthetically, but as a place for people to hang out with friends.”

As with many of these resuscitated properties, the Pacific Motel doesn’t require you to be an overnight guest to enjoy the amenities. Its ping-pong table is fair game to anyone who’d like to use it, and local residents are welcome to purchase some beer or wine from the lobby’s curated selection and settle in around a fire pit. They’re even creating an on-site speakeasy called the Salty Tiger in one of the motel’s bungalows, scheduled to open in mid-May.

Over at the Campfire Hotel in Bend, DJ-led pool parties are a norm on Sunday afternoons come summer. The lodging is also planning on hosting a local artisan marketplace every last Wednesday of the month throughout the summer season, complete with live music, food trucks, and brews or spirits.

“Everything that we do, we do it with a view that it’s for the locals, too,” says Meg Sullivan, who co-owns the Blue Fox Motel in the New York Catskills with her life partner, Jorge Neves. The two took a rustic 1950s lodge and completely reinvented it, while still paying homage to the region’s resort history.

The Blue Fox Motel
Meg Sullivan and Jorge Neves took a rustic 1950s lodge in the New York Catskills and completely reinvented it. The Blue Fox Motel pays homage to the region's resort history. Blue Fox Motel

The motel’s Blue Fox Restaurant is a destination unto itself (Neves is a former New York City restaurateur), serving up dishes like grilled pork belly and vegetable gratin in a cozy fireside setting. Not to mention, the couple is currently adding a community pickleball court that will be easily accessible to the neighboring woodland, with many pathways and hiking trails.

Preserving the past

“When we took over the space, we knew it needed a lot of work,” says Sullivan, “but we felt very passionate about trying to restore it rather than tear it down.” In fact, she says, most of the upgrades that they’ve made to the property—from refurbishing the restaurant’s knotty pine walls to sandblasting the entire pool in order to remove its old paint—were to recreate exactly how it might have been in the 1950s. “Even though it took a fair amount of work to get there,” says Sullivan, “in some cases it looks like nothing at all was done.”

For fans of vintage motels, like Towne, the reinvention of these historic lodgings is welcome. “Not only are they giving fresh life to some places that might not otherwise survive,” he says, “but they’re introducing a whole new generation to the classic motel experience.”

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