Tag Christof's series Motel 69 pays tribute to America's iconic roadside institutions
There is no setting more evocative in American storytelling than the motel. It is transitory, interchangeable, positively rife with cultural connotations, and seems to be locked in an eternal time warp, somewhere between 1949 and 1999. The definitive literary motel, Hitchcock’s Bates Motel in Psycho, adapted from the Robert Bloch novel, has come to be shorthand for everything from shabbiness to deviance, provincialism, and murder. And the motel’s range as a literary device is far more vast than that: it provided the illicit roadside refuge for Nabokov’s Hubert Humber and his tender young Lolita, the small-town hot-sheet hideout in The Last Picture Show where Jacy Farrow loses her virginity on the second try, the diversion where Thelma and Louise are robbed by a one night stand, and the trap where the sinister villain of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men at last exacts his final revenge on the imperfect hero, Llewelyn Moss. The motel can be anything you want, all smoky and neon and forlorn.
I vividly remember three motels in my hometown in New Mexico, all long closed down, although as a child I only ever saw them through car windows. The first had a simple backlit 1970s marquee with chipped plastic letters that were stolen or fell off one-by-one over the years, never to be replaced. Another, a western-themed spot at the edge of town featured a billboard-sized sign painted in a knockoff back-slanted Holiday Inn cursive straddled by a loopy, faceless cowboy lassoing nothing in particular. The best one, though, was the Arrow Motel, signed by a low-slung neon Indian archer in a multicolor headdress launching animated arrows toward the registration office. This year, more than a decade after the Arrow hosted its last guests, an adjacent structure burned to the ground, the archer belatedly getting some long-sought revenge.
On the night my mother escaped her abusive first husband, I was eight. After a parking lot skirmish between the two of them at a public library, she sped us away, new boyfriend in the passenger seat. That night, we slept in a fortresslike motel under a buzzing fluorescent sign just off the interstate as the boyfriend sat sentry with a loaded gun. By dawn, in a mostly unrelated twist of fate, our car had been stolen from the parking lot. A few years later, my seventh-grade science teacher was busted while attempting to score crack cocaine at another motel just a few blocks away. The site of the bust, the Crossroads Motel, a grimy 1960s-era throwback was later made infamous by one brilliant, cheeky Breaking Bad montage about the trials and tribulations of workaday prostitute, Wendy.
For years after the series ended, the Crossroads, on a downtown stretch of Route 66 right off a busy freeway exit and wholly visible for blocks, was draped with a banner reading, “Private Property: To take pictures, see the office to pay the fee.” Apparently, the owner of the rather un-picturesque motel became frustrated with gawking shutterbug fans of the show whose presence neither generated positive buzz nor proved profitable. In any case, the reactionary signage reveals a certain trendiness of motel iconography over the past few years, with dozens of Instagram feeds dedicated to Googie and postwar neon signage, and countless other feeds peppered with vaguely nostalgic snapshots of dilapidated motels, a sort of waxy-eyed nostalgia bordering on ruin porn.
But of the charming old signs still standing across the country, the vast majority demarcate outdated lodgings that, considering their one-star TripAdvisor ratings, shabby bathrooms, and bad wifi, few fussy middle-class travellers would actually willingly spend a night in. Instead, these liminal places are collected in snapshots, wistfully gawked at, and used, just like in literature and film, to evoke an air of authenticity. In other words, The Crossroads Motel had no use for fans on Instagram if that notoriety wasn’t going to translate into more bookings. Still, this recent fetish belies the motel’s largely misunderstood role in American culture and history. Rather than being time capsules of a quainter, more naïve time, they were in fact products of 20th century capitalism, replete with cutthroat land speculation, countless failed upstarts, and, above all, a means of generating investment returns.
Motels were also a truly democratizing force, helping to transform on-the-road accommodations from pricey, crowded, and sometimes discriminatory old hotels and family-owned guest houses, to a far more modern and inclusive affair thanks to innovations such as those aforementioned warmly welcoming signs, free parking, and set protocols that at least in theory welcomed every paying guest regardless of class, education, or race. Companies like Howard Johnson’s, with its friendly restaurants and keen design sensibility, Holiday Inn, with its standardized quality and pioneering computer reservation system, and Best Western, with its co-operative business model, as well as others like Sheraton and Travelodge, each in some way revolutionized highway travel and were the true progenitors of the hyperconnected, super safe, accessible-to-all travel of today.
Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown’s 1972 book, Learning from Las Vegas, was the first serious consideration of the populist, road-speed architecture used by motels: the decorated shed elevated to serious academic discourse. While many of the signs depicted in the book have been preserved in some form, virtually all of the building structures have been spectacularly demolished. One notable exception is the La Concha Motel’s swoopy conch shell-shaped concrete lobby, a quintessential building-as-sign, which now serves as the entry hall to the city’s Neon Museum. It is still usually the motel signs, rather than the buildings behind them, that merit preservation.
To be sure, the usually generic designs and cheap, modular construction of motels have meant that very few individual motels have risen to the status of monument. Perhaps the best exception to this rule is the Lorraine Motel just south of downtown Memphis, the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 assassination, reopened in 1991 as the National Civil Rights Museum. A small number have caught the attention of preservationists purely for their architectural quality, while others, such as a small strip of typical postwar inns in what is now Miami’s Design District, the Ace in Palm Springs, the Jupiter in Portland, the Thunderbird in Marfa and a handful of others have been renovated into boutique hotels to capitalize on their midcentury appeal. Others, by virtue of their conspicuous decay, live on through artistic intervention, the best example being the Sunset Pacific Motel in Los Angeles, whose vacant carcass and landscaping were painted entirely in stark white by artist Vincent Lamouroux.
Most others, though, live and die ignominiously, regardless of social significance or architectural novelty. Some served as the crucibles for historic events that became cultural flash points, such as the long-demolished Algiers Motel in Detroit, where three black men and two white women were massacred by police during the bloody 1967 12th Street Riot, or the Days Inn (now a run down Knights Inn) in Corpus Christi, where pop star Selena was shot and killed by the president of her fan club in 1995. Others facilitated more serendipitous encounters, such as the dive motel from which Ron Woodroof built an improvised network for distributing helpful drugs to HIV positive men in Dallas, or the Sundowner Motel in Albuquerque, where Paul Allen and Bill Gates were living when they founded Micro-Soft, later Microsoft, in 1975—a nicely tawdry corollary to Silicon Valley’s overblown mythology of the suburban garage.
Late last year, I traveled to Colorado to meet a motel pioneer of a different sort. Gerald Foos, the now octogenarian subject of Gay Talese’s 2015 book The Voyeur’s Motel, lives with his second wife, Anita, in a stately house just off a golf course in Brighton, a suburban city near Denver. In the late 1960s, he built a stealthy, carpeted viewing platform above several guest rooms at the Manor House, an Aurora motel he purchased with the explicit aim of watching his guests have sex. Over decades of spying through bespoke louvered grates he engineered and installed, the self-described ‘greatest voyeur of all time’ was never caught, thanks in no small part to his fastidiousness: his first wife, Donna, was in on the scheme, he confided in virtually no-one aside from Talese, and he meticulously catalogued every encounter in a stack of comprehensive ledgers.
His journals detail evolutions in sexual mores from the 1960s to the 1980s, the staggering monotony of domestic life, the general dishonesty of patrons, and a fair few seedy business deals. On one occasion, he ostensibly even indirectly caused a murder by entering a guest’s room when he was away and flushing a stash of drugs down the toilet. The owner of the drugs, bewildered by their inexplicable disappearance, blamed his girlfriend and promptly strangled her. Foos witnessed part of the scene unfold, but did not report the incident to local police for fear of being found out and a belief that the woman was not dead, but merely passed out. The following morning, a maid found the girlfriend’s body. In any case, according to several articles published after the release of Talese’s book, local police have not corroborated his story of the murder.
For his part, Foos incongruously sees himself as an unfailingly moral man. His obvious distaste for illegal drugs and decades spent fastidiously cataloguing hundreds of hours of human drudgery within a few square feet of domestic space year after year don’t quite square with his cunning, calculating, nature and apparent lack of compunction. He told me he believes that the anthropological value of his voyeurism exempted him from being considered a predator, though he regularly masturbated while observing something that turned him on. He added that the NSA’s mass collection of communications data exonerates him doubly, since no video or audio recording ever took place and not a single guest ever caught on.
The Manor House was demolished well before Foos’ story came to light, although his singular addition to the readymade motel typology is in some ways a predictable one. A motel is by nature impermanent, indefinite, always incomplete. There is, in fact, a well-worn pattern of development in which a new motel is built and thrives, then steadily devolves over the decades as it is bought and sold, shoddily renovated and redecorated, swapping out its signage every few years for ever-less-prestigious brands, before inevitably falling into ruin. This has been repeated ad-infinitum along hundreds of car-centric corridors across America since at least the 1970s, and it plays perfectly into social critic James Howard Kunstler’s narrative of an America so endemically ugly that it is no longer even worth defending.
But amidst the rhetorical decay, time spent on the road in an old motel in 2017 feels like cathartic respite from the oppressive, schizophrenic gloss of hypermodernity. Foos’ insistence that his voyeurism was benign compared to the NSA’s at the very least reveals the basic truth that the motel room is still one of the few spaces unbound by incessant electronics and exempt from all pretense and good taste. And like the protagonist of Will Wiles’ excellent novel, The Way Inn, who is caught up in an epic struggle to escape a “metaphysical Möbius strip” of a generic world dominated by corporate space, I find momentary reprieve in the ruins of an earlier modernity.
The motel can be anything you want, all smoky and neon and forlorn.