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The rise of the automobile as the major form of transportation during the early part of the twentieth century influenced new forms of architecture. In particular, the motel emerged as a response to the growing leisure activity of auto-touring. Prior to World War II, a number of independently operated motor inns along newly constructed interstate highways catered to travelers who preferred the autonomy and convenience afforded by car travel. Many notable examples of these inns flourished in California and the West along highways such as U.S. Route 66. Representative of this iconic type is the Milestone Mo-Tel in San Luis Obispo.
In 1925, architect Arthur S. Heineman designed the Milestone Mo-Tel, situated along the old U.S. Highway 1 (later part of Highway 101 and, even later, the 101 Freeway). The Milestone is reportedly the first “motel,” though considering earlier examples of the auto-court type, perhaps it is more accurate to say it was the first to use the term “motel” as designation. Arthur and his brother, Alfred Heineman, had become successful land and real estate developers in Pasadena, where they built houses in the California Arts and Crafts style for families who were lured in by the Southern California climate. Neither had formal architectural training, but the Heinemans’ firm operated successfully until 1939. As architectural historian Robert Winter observed, Arthur often worked closely in the initial planning and business stages of their projects, and Alfred often took over the aesthetic elements of the design.
Arthur’s business acumen tapped into a growing demand for reliable accommodations along tourist routes. The motor court at San Luis Obispo provided travelers with a convenient “milestone” stopping point on the two-day trip between Los Angeles and San Francisco. In the firm’s concept for the motor hotel, the Heinemans borrowed elements of the bungalow court, a multi-family housing typology that had originated in Pasadena. The bungalow court helped to address the housing shortage that accompanied the major population booms of the early 1900s, while providing charming garden settings for middle-class residents. The Milestone Mo-Tel featured six bungalows that could each accommodate four to five people, as well as a number of smaller apartments. The units were accompanied by private parking and some locked garages.
The building displayed features of the Mission and Spanish Colonial Revival architectural styles, such as its tower and arcade reminiscent of the neighboring Mission San Luis Obispo, along with white stucco exteriors and red tile roofs. Other exterior features were its low-pitched gable roof and arched parapet. These nods to California’s romantic Spanish past would have been advertisements in and of themselves to highway travelers, an example of the showy nature of roadside architecture in this early automobile period. In the lobby, a copper desk bound with strips of wrought iron and a large fireplace complemented the Spanish-themed facade. Despite its nostalgic allure, the bungalows were constructed of cardboard blocks, wrapped in chicken wire and coated with stucco, according to a local architect.
Arthur had plans to secure a trademark for the motel name to use in what would become a chain of eighteen “Motel Inn” courts built at 150- to 200-mile intervals along the West Coast. Arthur and Alfred had created the Milestone Interstate Corporation to attract outside investment for the venture; however, failure to secure the name as a trademark, fierce competition from other developers, and ultimately the economic strain of the Great Depression upset their plans. The brothers lost their one motel property to foreclosure, but the facility later operated as the Motel Inn.
After the 101 Freeway replaced the old highway, the motel underwent occasional alterations, including a new swimming pool. It closed in 1991 and more recently served as the business headquarters for the adjacent Apple Farm Inn. Since its closure, most of the motel’s bungalows have been demolished; only the bell tower office and restaurant facade remain. In 2015, owners and developers Rob Rossi, John King, and CoVelop Inc. announced plans to restore the facility as a boutique hotel.
Belasco, Warren James. Americans on the Road: From Autocamp to Motel, 1910-1945. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.
Cervin, Michael. “Grand Motel.” Pasadena Weekly, May 2, 2016.
Jakle, John A., Keith A. Sculle and Jefferson S. Rogers. The Motel in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
Kendrick, Megan McLeod. “Stay in L.A.: Hotels and the Representation of Urban Public Space in Los Angeles, 1880s-1950s.” PhD dissertation, University of Southern California, 2009.
Longstreth, Richard. The Drive-In, the Supermarket and the Transformation of Commercial Space in Los Angeles, 1914-1941. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000.
Longstreth, Richard. City Center to Regional Mall: Architecture, the Automobile, and Retailing in Los Angeles, 1920-1950. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997.
Middlecamp, David. “Motel Inn in San Luis Obispo, the world’s first ‘mo-tel.’” San Luis Tribune, December 4, 2014.
Watters, Sam. “Milestone Mo-Tel, California’s first motel, was a Landmark Design.” Los Angeles Times, July 2, 2011.
Winter, Robert. "Arthur S. and Alfred Heineman." In Toward a Simpler Way of Life: The Arts & Crafts Architects of California, edited by Robert Winter, 137-148. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
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