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SURROUNDINGS / RIALTO

Aging Outpost for People on a Bumpy Road

A 1950s landmark clings to life along Route66 in Rialto, home to those souls who are trying to start over at $45 a night.

July 11, 2002|DAVID FERRELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Home is a green concrete tepee on a boulevard of barred buildings and weedy lots. Rudy Rios arrived late at the Wigwam Motel--50 years after it became a novelty stopping place for families driving west to Los Angeles. He got here the way so many guests now do, through hardship, after a divorce left him homeless.

"Sometimes," Rios said, "you come out with nothing."

The Wigwam would be just another low-rent motel on Foothill Boulevard, at the Rialto and San Bernardino border, if not for its striking architecture and iconic status on historic Route 66. The 20 tepees left over from 1950 are all 30 feet tall and clustered like an Indian village. The motel's new management has repainted them--blue, red, lilac, yellow and pink--and put in fresh carpet, microwaves and small refrigerators. The air conditioners are working again.

Still, the Wigwam's decline all but blazes in neon. The pool is empty even in the summer heat, barricaded by a chain-link fence. The lawn is dead. The roadside marquee--which suggested, "Do It in a Tepee"--is broken out, and the wooden Indian below it is badly splintered.

Few cars cross the cracked asphalt on weekdays, despite room rates of $45 a night. Fridays and Saturdays get busier, partly because of nightclubs in Rialto.

Rios, a 52-year-old machinist, moved in nearly two years ago. He and his girlfriend, Jennie, pay by the week--a little less than $200. For a while, he was embarrassed by his address. But the Wigwam is no worse than a studio apartment. The grounds are quiet, no longer the domain of young children.

The tepees are roomier than they appear. He and Jennie have a queen-size bed, a small table with chairs, a full-size refrigerator and a bathroom. Blue curtains frame a tiny window covered by exterior bars. Over the bed hang a framed picture of Jesus, and--on the ceiling--a broken mirror. Every tepee has a mirror above the bed.

"For two people, it's great. This is ideal," Rios said. He has watched movies being filmed. People still drive by to snap pictures. Managers are "trying to build it back up," Rios said, "and they should, because a lot of our landmarks are being torn down."

At least two Wigwam motels are known to exist; another is in Holbrook, Ariz. A chain once extended as far east as Kentucky, where the original Wigwam was built in the 1940s, according to Jim Heimann, author of "California Crazy and Beyond: Roadside Vernacular Architecture." Buildings shaped like giant toads, dogs, windmills and the like--which proliferated more than half a century ago--are nearly gone now.

"I'm always shocked," Heimann said, "whenever these buildings manage to stay up."

Jim Conkle, executive director of the California Route 66 Preservation Foundation, noted that the famed thoroughfare from Chicago to Los Angeles gave rise to innumerable examples of outlandish design and popularized roadside neon. After crossing the Mojave Desert, families of the 1950s often spent their last night on the road at the Wigwam before motoring on toward Disneyland, Conkle said.

The pouring of the San Bernardino Freeway in the 1970s, a few miles away, drained the lifeblood from the highway. The Wigwam's owner, Chen Lung Kuo, paid $235,000 for the property in 1993. He leases it to Suresh Patel, who funded recent improvements and installed his son, Manish Patel, as manager.

Manish lives in the only tepee with a TV antenna sticking out the top. He sleeps on a blanket on the floor. His TV shares space with a lone security monitor.

Patel, who is well-liked by the long-term guests, turns away a sizable share of the prospective patrons because he doesn't want prostitution or drug abuse in the rooms. To help with refurbishment, he allows Jay Johnson, 51, to stay for free in an orange tepee near the highway in exchange for doing painting and maintenance.

Asked about the lawn, Johnson admitted that the sprinkler system is ruined. "I had it up and running last year, or the year before," he said. "But when customers come, especially kids, they kick the sprinklers and break them."

Johnson spoke evasively about his past. He moved out here from South Los Angeles. He was married once. "That's over," he said, "and it's all personal."

Some guests express a nostalgic affection for the Wigwam. Frank Estrada, who will turn 40 next week, spoke fondly about his first stay, in 1964. His family had left Lewiston, Maine, to move west, and "we came right here. As a matter of fact, it was the next room over." The tepees featured patterned Indian carpet then, and fire pits outside.

Estrada, a railroad employee, is back after all these years because of being laid off. His wife, Yrayna, who supports them both with her job at Molly Maid, was not exactly thrilled to be moving into the cone-shaped room two months ago, but she's grown to like the place. "It's quiet--no traffic going in and out."

"She's fascinated with the mirror," Estrada joked. The other guests are mostly like themselves, he said. "People in transition, between jobs. People passing through."

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To see video online, go to latimes.com/surround

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