Travels June 2007

Motel Paradiso

In Florida, a quest for the classic family motel
From The Atlantic Unbound:

Slideshow: "Motel Nostalgia"

Wayne Curtis leads a tour of his favorite stops in Miami and Treasure Island.

Also see:

The Travel Advisory
A guide to the motels of the Florida coastline.

When I checked into the Sands Motel on Treasure Island, just off St. Petersburg, Florida, I was pleased to find everything precisely as I remembered it. The white exterior walls gleamed in the sun, and everywhere I found invitations to lounge—under yellow-and-white beach umbrellas, around the well-tended swimming pool, and at the shuffleboard court, which was conveniently lit for night play.

My fond memories of the Sands were not in the least complicated by the fact that I had never been there before. I needn’t have been. The Sands is just one principality in a loose and sprawling confederation of independent motels that spread across the nation during the golden motel era, the quarter century or so following World War II. These motels were towering landmarks in my childhood. I loved everything about them, from the drinking glasses wrapped in crisp “sanitized” paper, to the individually controlled heating and air-conditioning, to the second-floor exterior walkways, which allowed me to peer fleetingly into open doors and the untidy lives of others. And of course there was the pool, where I spent many hours perfecting tsunami- generating cannonballs. Motel life was a glimpse of paradise.

Off-brand motor courts have been disappearing from the landscape of late, displaced by boxy three-story chain hotels that cluster at freeway interchanges. Occasionally I pass old motels that have been converted into unsettling little office parks, homes to psychic healers and vacuum-cleaner fixers, and this always saddens me. But as the number of these old motels falls, I like to believe that their value will rise and they’ll be saved and savored. At least that was my hope when I set out on a drive through Florida last winter in search of them.

Alas, even equipped with motor-court guides from the 1940s and ’50s, I didn’t find much in Florida’s Panhandle. But I struck gold on Treasure Island—a sort of Motel National Park. The Sands was the first motel built there, in 1947; it triggered a wave of several dozen others, many of which employed the flamboyant architecture styles of the mid-century, some featuring space-age and tiki motifs. My second-floor room was spacious and had windows that opened as wide as a barn door. So many new motels are hermetically sealed against the elements, requiring one to turn on the Weather Channel before deciding what to wear. But at the Sands, the sounds and smell of the gulf filled the room, and a soothing breeze feathered across my bed as I slept.

A walk along the beach at Treasure Island shows that this is a place in transition. As is the case almost everywhere in Florida within view of the ocean, the low buildings are coming down, and the condo towers are going up. One of the grandest motels on the island—the Surf, with its wondrous Flintstones-modern styling—was bulldozed in 2004. Chain-link now surrounds the blue-and-white-diamond facade of the Algiers, and a signboard shows its planned replacement: six stories of “Ultra Luxury Condo Hotel Units” with a sort of Mediterranean-Moorish design scheme.

Back in my room at the Sands, I rang up Michael Stutz, an Ohio-based writer who a few years back launched a campaign to save the motels of Treasure Island. He’d thought that, with some shrewd marketing, the island could be made into a destination for young urbanites with a finely honed sense of irony and the cash to pay multiple hundreds of dollars a night, as they do at some revived Palm Springs motels. But nobody in Treasure Island was interested in his scheme. At one town-council meeting, he told me, he was informed that if he didn’t like the way the island was headed, he was free to vacation elsewhere. He soon abandoned his quixotic quest. “It really could have been something,” he said.

What that something could be is possibly taking shape in Miami. You’d need to have a hyperactive sense of irony (or be aesthetically numb) to see the city’s Biscayne Boulevard as a place to vacation: It’s a busy stretch of highway cluttered with beauty salons, convenience stores, and non-class-A office space. Yet here, mixed in with splashes of art deco, is one of the state’s finest collections of postwar motels. They have names like the Sinbad, the Shalimar, and the South Pacific, and they’re architecturally striking—a collage of angles, swooping curves, and neon lights.

In the era before online booking, motels were essentially billboards for themselves. “You’d drive down for two weeks from Iowa and wonder, Where should I stay?” says Teri D’Amico, a Miami interior designer who specializes in resorts. “It was all about the curb appeal.” D’Amico helped coin the term MiMo (for “Miami Modern”), which describes the city’s peculiar brand of austere modernism leavened with whimsy.

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Wayne Curtis is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic.

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