Motels of the 1950s and Historic Investment Tax Credits

By John Tess President & CEO, Heritage Consulting Group | August 25, 2010

That threshold is 1955, an era for the hotel industry marked by the startling rise of chain motels - often around newly constructed interstate highway exchanges. These motels targeted the family vacationer, focusing on standardized quality, family-friendly amenities and convenience for the automobile traveler. The traveling public considered doormen, bellhops and luxurious lobbies negatives; it meant dealing with inner city traffic and parking, and tips, tips, tips. For the frugal family, the motel was simpler: Drive up to the office, get your room and then drive to you room. You parked free right outside the door - allowing easy unpacking and a quick escape to the highway in the morning. Miles, not memories, were the measure of vacation success.

Rise of the Motel: As detailed in The Motel in America, the roots of the term "motel" lie in a cacophony of building forms. Where the first motel was established is a matter of conjecture, with one possibility being the Askins' Cottage Camp established in 1901 in Douglas, Arizona. The term itself was first used in San Luis Obispo, California in 1926 when Arthur Heineman opened the "Milestone Mo-tel", contracting the words motor and hotel. Dozens of synonyms were used -- included motor court, tourist court, auto court, hotel court, cottage court, tour-o-tels, to name just a few. In these years, it was easier to define a motel in terms of what it was not - it was not a hotel, whether in town or rural resort. It was not multi-story. It was not large. It did not include expansive formal spaces such as grand lobbies, dining rooms or ballrooms. It did not have elevators, corridors, doormen or bellman. The motel was typically a one-story affair comprising several small buildings.

In mid-century America, the motel concept boomed. In the ten year period beginning in 1928, the number grew from 3,000 to 13,521. By 1954, the number was 29,426 and in 1961, it peaked at 60,951. The rise of the motel followed from America's adoption of the automobile as the preferred mode of transportation. The growth in motels paralleled the growth in automobile registrations that aided in part by the rise of the federal interstate highway program, begun in 1956.

In the post-war world, motel generally described a motor court. These lodging enterprises were organized around large courtyards rendered as informal outdoor "lobbies." A frequent amenity was the swimming pool incorporated as part of this courtyard. Parking was typically restricted to the outside of the U-shaped courts and rooms were provided with both front and back doors, often with a patio on the pool side.

"Perhaps no other society experienced more profound changes than the U.S. society did in the fifteen years after 1945. Demands pent up during the Depression and World War II broke loose in every facet of life during an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity. By the mid-1950s, Americans, who constituted but 6% of the world's population, consumed more than one-third of the earth's goods and services."

This era of prosperity directly translated into leisure dollars. In 1956, the average American income was 50% higher than in 1929. More importantly, disposable income and leisure time boomed. Whereas prewar mortgages demanded 50% down payments and repayment in 10 years, mortgages in the 1950s allowed small down payments and mortgages to be paid over 30 years. Labor hours dropped substantially, from 52 hours per week in the 1920s without vacation to 40 hours per week in the 1960s with 8 paid vacation days annually. By 1950, Americans spent twice as much on entertainment as they did on rent and society encouraged consumption over savings.

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