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Design History Lives On in Motels : Architecture: Motor courts like those along old U. S. Route 1 are valuable roadside attractions, preservationists say.

June 17, 1993|PANCHO DOLL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Cold War was well under way when Bruno Zizic chose a name for the motel he bought near the Point Mugu Naval Weapons Station. He called it The Missile and marked the spot with a winged neon projectile, creating a cheery greeting out of the militarism of the era.

Zizic, a die maker who longed for self-employment, considered motels a good business choice. He was not alone. Small, independent motels prospered as middle-class America belted across the country on summer vacations with the baby boom in the back seat.

The stream of travelers along U.S. 1 deposited a wealth of motel relics in west Ventura County where, like outdated hostelries nationwide, they now languish, appreciated mainly by novelists and semi-permanent lodgers living from day to day.

Sadly, motels never achieved the cultural icon status of diners. While diners are now trendy, motels, to most people, still seem tacky.

Architects and historians are somewhat more charitable. They call motels neglected examples of roadside architecture, and some say they are worthy of preservation.

Ventura County architectural historian Judith Triem said that although she has only made casual observations, the commercial strip beginning on Ventura's East Main Street and continuing along Thompson Boulevard appears to be a glossary of motel styles from the Mission revival to Art Moderne.

But these days, the only revival that interests most motel owners is the economic kind. Interstate highways and competition from chains have left independent owners struggling to survive. During the four years Sung Kim has owned the Meta Motel, he's been forced to lower his room rates 22% while the value of his property dropped an estimated $400,000.

"If the economy wasn't so bad, I think I'd sell out," Kim said.

For Leo Jennings it's the opposite: If the economy weren't so bad he wouldn't be in the motel business.

Jennings and a partner had to foreclose on the Mission Bell in April and took over operation of the business. When they sold it seven years ago, he said, it was still a popular stop for tourists.

"Lots of Germans used to come here during the nine years we owned it," said Jennings. "The people we sold it to didn't look after it and started using it for welfare housing."

Just then a tenant stepped into the office where Jennings sat surrounded by remodeling rubbish, fugitive curtain rods and empty spackle buckets. Jennings talked briefly to the man, took the printed government check and, after the tenant left, he shrugged.

"We don't know what we're going to do with it, whether to fix it up and operate it again or just sell it. Whatever, the place shouldn't look like this. It has too much history."

History is right. As the oldest motel in Ventura County, the 63-year-old Mission Bell predates what David Gebhard, a professor of architecture at UC Santa Barbara, calls the golden age of motels.

"The golden age began after World War II when motels were used by the traveling middle class," Gebhard said. "Then interstate highways and chain motels ended the growth of independent motels around 1960."

According to Gebhard, who co-authored the book "A Guide to the Architecture in Southern California," there is no catalogue of important roadside architecture, but there ought to be.

Chris Wilson, assistant professor of architecture and planning at the University of New Mexico, agrees, and he's doing something about it. Wilson led a tour of notable roadside architecture along Route 66 for a recent architectural conference in Albuquerque.

"I think that we need to study and appreciate all aspects of our history and environment," he said. "The motel aspect of the car culture was a populist development that arbiters of culture denigrated at first. It's taken architects a long time to step back and appreciate their vitality."

Wilson describes the classic motel design as an L- or U-shaped layout built around landscaping, a playground or, in later plans, a swimming pool. Parking is in carport bays between the units, a design holdover from the days when they were called motor courts and individual cabins were arranged in a row, with parking beside each.

Later designs put parking in front of the rooms, but that was a departure from a long, low roof that gave the classic motels their characteristic horizon-hugging profile.

Of motels with two floors, we will not speak.

AN AMERICAN INVENTION

The word motel was coined in San Luis Obispo in 1924, but it was slow to catch on in Ventura. The telephone directory preferred to list auto courts until 1947 when it switched to motor courts. Motel was finally accepted by the telephone company in 1957.

As if the phone company's stubbornness were not enough, motel had to compete with such early rivals as "autel," which probably had the disadvantage of sounding vaguely French.

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