66 Motels

66 Motels is a documentary project about the independently owned and operated historic motels of Route 66.  The project combines audio interviews and photos of motels and owners online, allowing users to connect a place with its owner and to see what it's like to actually run a business on Route 66.  The first phase of the project, which began in 2008, is a collection of photos and interviews.  You can see the photos on my flickr page, and the interviews are slowly coming online on www.66motels.com.  


One of the project's central ideas is that the people who own and maintain these pieces of the American cultural landscape are playing an important role in the development of Route 66 as a cultural corridor; many of these owners are Asian and Asian-American, and this project hopes to bring attention to this population's role in preserving and developing the Route 66 landscape.  The project also looks at 66 as a place where the simple nostalgia of 66 clashes with the present-day realities of living and working in the communities along the road. 


Currently, I am documenting motels between Tulsa, OK and Joplin, MO, between Albuquerque, NM to Tucumcari, NM; and in northern Arizona. If you are a Route 66 property owner or know of a particular motel that you'd like to see included in this project, please contact me at acdodge at gmail dot com.

 

 

WHAT IS ROUTE 66?

 

Route 66 is a 2,500-mile heritage corridor that runs through eight states, from Chicago to Los Angeles.  The Route 66 corridor’s surviving motels represent three decades of American commercial architecture, in forms ranging from conventional U-shaped motor inns to the eccentric “wigwam” motels of the southwest.  Both the structures themselves and their associated neon signage have come to define American roadside architecture, despite the decades of neglect, abandonment, and demolition that have destroyed nearly half of the corridor’s original motels.  This abandonment is a consequence of the federal decommissioning of Route 66 in the 1970s and 80s and the construction of the Interstate Highway System, which redirected the stream of commercial traffic away from Route 66 and toward the Interstate’s new and inexpensive chain motels.

 

 

WHAT MAKES ROUTE 66 MOTELS INTERESTING?

 

Ask this question of Route 66 aficionados, and you'll hear a million different answers. Chief among these is the fact very few Route 66 motels survive; those that are still around are widely recognized as culturally significant and historic properties that represent a distinct era in American road travel. In fact, Route 66 Motels collectively were listed as one of the 11 Most Endangered Places in 2007 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. People along Route 66 and around the world have begun to recognize the unique vernacular architecture of these motels as worthy of preservation and even celebration.

 

The surviving properties also speak to the tenacity of Route 66 business owners and the long history of small-business entrepreneurship that has shaped the American economic, cultural, and architectural landscape.  Although the meaning and purpose of Route 66 have changed, its motels are still run by owners who make a living off of these properties.  The demographics of these owners have also changed over time; today, an estimated 30 to 40% of motel property owners in America are Indian or Indian-American.** 

 

Route 66 motels are also interesting because of the ways they have adapted to changes in the road and the concurrent changes in the economy lodging business.  Today, in the face of competition from chain motels that are closer to the Interstate, most remaining Route 66 motels survive by serving as weekly or monthly rentals for locals who cannot afford stable housing.  A few businesses get by on the seasonal Route 66 traveling population, but most businesses and their owners require a more steady flow of income; this explains why many motels cater to weekly or monthly residents.  Some motels are essentially apartment complexes where tenants stay for years.    

 

 

THE CHALLENGES for MOTELS

 

For the independent business owner,  running a motel is difficult in the best of times.  Most motel owners live and raise their families on-site in order to make the proposition an affordable one.  Historic motels are particularly challenging properties because of maintenance costs; new roofs, deleading, and other code compliance issues can make owning and operating an historic commercial property a real challenge.  Owners hoping to restore a motel to its original condition or to the condition required to meet the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Historic Properties face an even greater challenge.  While the hard costs for historically-accurate renovation may not be as high as some owners fear, the time, effort, and technical expertise required to meet these standards may be beyond the capacity of many small business owners whose first priority is maintaining a functioning, high-quality lodging property.  Others, understandably, don't see the advantage of restoring their properties to meet externally-defined preservation standards.

 

There are also certain economic challenges intrinsic to being located on Route 66.  When Route 66 was decomissioned and replaced by the Interstate Highway system in the 1970's and 80's, traffic gradually moved away from 66 and left the road bereft of travelers and outside commerce. In small towns, this had a devastating effect (which was romanticized in the movie Cars).  Even cities where Route 66 ran through the center of town felt the impact of the road's decommissioning.  In places like Tulsa, the strip that was once Route 66 is now characterized by used car lots and other large-lot businesses.  Many of these sites were once 66-related restaurants, motels, or service station.  

 

The decommissioning of Route 66 left the owners of these properties with few options, and many motels were abandoned or torn down and sold as vacant lots. Because of the need to serve the market that was available, some motels found themselves catering to transient populations that engage in on-site illegal activity.  As a result, some Route 66 tourists who are accustomed to the convenience and availability of chain motels avoid patronizing the few historic motels that still serve the traveling public.  A dwindling number of historic motel owners attempt to lure tourists at all, focusing instead on maintaining a local customer base, even if this means, for some owners, turning a blind eye to illegal activity. There are many notable exceptions to this pattern; motels like Jack Patel's Desert Hills Motel in Tulsa, OK and the Blue Swallow in Tucumcari, NM, thrive as safe places for both tourists and local residents in search of safe and clean weekly or monthly housing. But in general, the combination of chain competition and the expense of maintaining older motels has led to a general, corridor-wide disinvestment in the development and interpretation of Route 66 motels as heritage resources, despite these properties’ architectural and historical importance. 

 

 

WHAT'S the BIG IDEA?

 

Many people know “Route 66” as a brand or theme that inevitably conjures a nostalgic vision of a carefree, post-war America.  But the simplicity of this vision does a disservice to the present-day Route 66, where the challenges of interpreting the corridor are nearly as difficult as the challenges of preserving it.  If the Route 66 heritage corridor is to become a place that truly reflects the American experience, then the image of Route 66 needs to be informed by an examination of the present-day realities of heritage resource management. Adding this new series of stories to the complex history of Route 66 is one goal of the 66 Motels project.

 

Another goal of this project is to understand the power of signage and the history and contemporary practice of labelling a property as "American Owned".  I began this project thinking that "American Owned" was a label that was used exclusively by white motel owners to promote their properties to customers who were disinclined to rent a room at an Indian-American owned motel.  This is, without a doubt, the origin of the "American Owned" sign, and some motel owners today defend this language and signage as a legitimate component of their advertising strategy.  But I've learned, thanks to several generous interviewees, that this type of signage is often an accident of history, something that came with a property when purchased, or something that Indian-American owners themselves use to make a statement about themselves and their properties.  


In the end, this project aims to start a dialog about the role of Asian Americans and other motel owners in the preservation and development of the emerging Route 66 heritage corridor.  This debate is part of a broader conversation about racial and cultural diversity in America’s preservation movement, and ways in which the work of public historians, preservationists, and other interpreters of the past can better represent the narratives of new Americans.

 

 

** The Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA) estimates that 37 percent of all hotel properties in the United States are owned by Asian Americans. 

 

 

Copyright Anne Dodge, 2009   •   Contact acdodge at gmail dot com