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.

I drove north of downtown on Biscayne Boulevard and pulled into the Vagabond Motel, identifiable by the three plaster-white nymphs frolicking with dolphins at one corner of the building and a neon sign with falling stars on the other. The motel—a 40-room establishment with a low-slung and perfectly proportioned profile—is being fully redone and is scheduled to reopen by the end of the year. When I visited, most guest rooms were gutted to the studs, and the future restaurant was filled only with the attenuating echoes of passing traffic.

I found the owner, Eric Silverman, reviewing construction plans in a temporary office. Silverman is 53 and has long, untended hair that makes him look a bit like Scooby-Doo’s Shaggy on a high-carb diet. He was wearing baggy cargo pants and a yellow T-shirt with a coffee-colored stain the shape of Chile down the front, attire that did not square with what I knew of his past: During the 1990s, Silverman was a president at both Hugo Boss and Dolce & Gabbana. One day he disappeared from the fashion world as cleanly as if he’d stepped into an open manhole. He resurfaced in South Florida as a real-estate agent; two years ago, he and his cousin bought the vintage motel and, with decorating help from D’Amico, set about restoring it to its former glory.

The Vagabond was designed in 1953 by Robert Swartburg, the architect of the 1947 late-deco Delano Hotel, in Miami Beach, which was given a high-gloss makeover by celebrity hotelier Ian Schrager a decade ago. In its heyday, the Vagabond had a raffish, Rat Pack charm, and in one otherwise empty room Silverman riffled through cardboard boxes of old framed photographs to show me shots of Jackie Gleason and Dean Martin, who performed in its bar. Then he took me to a model guest room, where I admired a dappled terrazzo floor, a Swiss-cheese headboard (inspired by the facade of the Fontainebleau Hotel, in Miami Beach), and an atomic-age ceiling fan. By today’s standards, the room was small. But, as Silverman noted, sitting in your room like a lump is antithetical to motel life—you’re supposed to be at the pool.

And outside, workers were busy making the pool the motel’s centerpiece, building a long bar on one side, next to a sinuous white brick wall and an outdoor grill. Silverman grew animated when describing his vision. On Saturdays there will be poolside bingo and performances by synchronized swimmers. “We’ll have the old-world charm, but WiFi, music in the pool, flat-screen TVs, a great common area, and a great restaurant,” he said. “I think this will be a destination for people to come see what life was like. And it will be better than it actually was—we won’t have the orange shag carpeting.”

Other motels along the boulevard are watching to see what happens at the Vagabond, but none seem quite ready for retro-tourism. One of my policies is to avoid motels where you need to communicate with the clerk through a slot in dingy bulletproof glass. (Also, no motels where a guest has removed his car’s engine block and is working on it just outside his room.) The owner of the King Motel, Hemant “Henry” Patel, told me that for the past 15 or 20 years, the job of motel owner on Biscayne Boulevard has basically been that of security guard.

Silverman admits he might be “a little bit early” in his redevelopment scheme, but he’s confident the boulevard will one day shine again. “When the street is done, everybody’s going to say, ‘Wow, that happened overnight.’”

That night was not over yet, so I drove up to Fort Lauderdale, where I’d heard there was another cluster of vintage motels. I found them a couple of blocks off the beach and secured a room at the Vistamar Villa, a two-story L-shaped motel bent around a woggle-shaped pool and lushly landscaped courtyard. The owners, who have kept up the place immaculately, told me the hotel was built in 1959 and has easily survived every hurricane thrown at it.

Yet, as at Treasure Island, this enclave was under siege by construction cranes, and from my back window I could see the vacant lot where the old motel across the street had recently been demolished to make way for a residential tower. Four blocks away, the Trump International Hotel & Tower Fort Lauderdale was going up behind a tall fence covered with black-and-white photos of fabulously handsome people. I hoped that someone like Eric Silverman would show up soon with a big idea for these little places. Perhaps synchronized swimmers could save them as well.

My room at the Vistamar was large and had a bright bathroom full of yellow tile. The front window slid open, and in the back were jalousie windows that I cranked wide to let in the breeze. Then I sprawled across the bed and drifted off to the gentle nattering of venetian blinds.

Sometimes you can go home again. It’s just that home may not be where you left it.