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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ALBUN / San Luis
Obispo

World's First Motel Aims for New Lease on Life

Its owners plan to refurbish the crumbling inn and reopen it as a tribute to what was a novel idea in 1925.

September 17, 2000|SALLY ANN CONNELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN LUIS OBISPO — Freeway noise echoes across the cracked sidewalks of the courtyard and through crumbling bungalows at what history officially recognizes as the world's oldest motel. So decrepit is the structure that history buffs have worried that it would never again house a weary traveler.

But city leaders are excited by the new owners' plans to resurrect the old Milestone Motel in the shadow of U.S. 101 and exploit its rightful place in car culture. If all goes as planned, within two years travelers should be able to grab a steak at the motel restaurant and sleep in the new bungalows out back.

Opened as the Milestone on Dec. 12, 1925, and now named the Motel Inn, it ushered in a new era for drivers still in the throes of first love with their newly minted Model Ts.

It was a time when cars came without locks, a time for turning away from downtown hotels to easy-access motor camps on the outskirts of town, a time for repaving State Route 2 and renaming it U.S. 101.

The plans by owners Rob Rossi and John King, who own resorts, golf courses and ranches across the Central Coast, call for refurbishing the main buildings with their mission-style bell towers and keeping one original bungalow.

The courtyard design will remain intact, with new bungalows resembling the old built around it. The garages that gave travelers a place to lock up their cars have been gone for decades, long before the Motel Inn closed nine years ago.

"I think what we are going to do is rebuild in the spirit of the place," Rossi said.

Rossi said he and his partner will pay particular attention to retaining the views of nearby peaks from the central courtyard and the aged fruit and palm trees on site.

"We can't save everything, but we can clearly save the best of the oldest," said city planner Jeff Hook. "For San Luis Obispo and the state, it's a cultural landmark. There's the whole ambience emphasizing outdoor living which was so typically California in the 1920s."

The motel sits at the base of the Cuesta Grade, which was one of the major obstacles to north-south travel in the state. In 1925, the grade was a steep 9% with 71 curves. By comparison, the infamous Grapevine on Interstate 5, connecting Los Angeles and the Central Valley, is only a 6% grade, and the Cajon Pass, between San Bernardino and Victorville on Interstate 15, is 5%.

A $38-million state and federal project to widen and add shoulders to the Cuesta Grade is under way.

"Motorists back in 1925 had to be pretty resourceful," said Bob Pavlik, Caltrans historian for the San Luis Obispo area. "They carried toolboxes, water bags, rags and baling wire.

"Because San Luis Obispo is almost exactly midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, there was a whole proliferation of auto camps, a huge amount for a town this size."

King and Rossi bought the Motel Inn in August as part of a $30-million package that includes the adjacent Apple Farm Inn. The plan, which has yet to be approved by the city but is supported by several officials, also calls for building additional units in the Victorian theme of the Apple Farm. The two projects will have a total of 240 rooms.

Bob Richmond, architect on the project, emphasizes that the Motel Inn will be treated separately and will keep its historic mission elements.

"We expect to try to open the restaurant in the main building as a steakhouse since that's what people remember most about it," said Richmond. "It just had the greatest steaks."

The Motel Inn's origins go back to Pasadena, where developer and architect Arthur S. Heineman was building a series of bungalow courts in the teens and 1920s. Then Heineman and his brother, Alfred, decided to adapt the concept to the travel industry.

They envisioned a series of motels from San Diego to Seattle, with each a day's drive from the next. The mission theme was chosen to remind travelers of the historic California oases, also a day's travel apart, but only the prototype San Luis Obispo motel was built.

Heineman's efforts to copyright the name "motel" were unsuccessful, and the word worked its way into Webster's Dictionary in 1950.

Authorities ranging from the Automobile Club of Southern California to the Smithsonian Institution recognize the Motel Inn as the world's first motel.

Rossi maintains that Heineman's instincts were good: "You couldn't ask for a better location."

Today there are 14 motels, including such large chains as Holiday Inn Express and Days Inn, within a few hundred yards of the Motel Inn.

"San Luis Obispo is on the old El Camino Real, and there was a whole series of developments that sprang up to support the new motoring tourists: all the gas stations, the motels, the auto courts," said Steve McMasters, a member of the city's cultural heritage commission.

"We've lost a number of them . . . because people can't believe they are truly historic. It makes saving the Motel Inn all the more important."

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