I don’t often write book reviews in this space, in part because I don’t read many books cover-to-cover these days. Motel California was an exception. I’ll admit it’s a “coffee-table book,” so it didn’t take me long to cover its 184 pages, but it’s worth taking your time for the quality of the artwork, the presentation and the nuggets of information you’ll find there.
Heather M. David has created a beautifully illustrated, record of the motel in California that’s a worthy addition to the library of any highway history buff or fan of 20th century Americana. Motel California chronicles the heyday of the motor lodge in the Golden State, offering a glimpse at the kind of man-made scenery that transformed highways into something like an amusement park ride all their own, even if you didn’t stop for the night.
David approaches the motels from an architectural standpoint, briefly spotlighting the architects themselves before embarking on a series of chapters dedicated to various motel themes and styles: Storyland, The Western Frontier, Desert Oasis, Tropical Paradise, Cosmic Voyage, Seaside Escape and Mountain High. (David points out that these distinct themes allowed motels to distinguish themselves from one another and stand out from the pack.)
Other chapters focus on the restaurants/coffee shops adjacent to many of the motels; rooms; pools; and, of course, the neon and plastic signs that lit up the night, beckoning travelers to their destination.
David does a good job covering most of the state, dedicating significant space to the Orange County/Disneyland area, as well as Lake Tahoe. I was pleased to find pages on some of the motels I’m familiar with and a few that I covered in my own book on Highway 99 and my forthcoming work on Highway 101. Those include the Motel Inn – the world’s first “motel” – and the nearby Madonna Inn, both in San Luis Obispo.
She also includes a vintage picture of the Western Motel in Santa Clara, with its distinctive cactus sign. I took a photo of this one myself for Highway 101, so it’s still there, although (unfortunately) the neon has been removed.
As a native Fresnan and the author of Fresno Growing Up, I also particularly enjoyed the material on Fresno’s old motels, one of which (The Tropicana Lodge) is featured both on the cover as well as inside. I was pleased to see the chapter on signs included both the old Fresno Hacienda sign and the iconic “diving girl” sign from the old Fresno Motel. The picture of the interior of the old Pine Cone Restaurant was a particular treat, as I remember visiting that place as a child and digging into a “treasure chest” for trinkets they gave away to youngsters.
The book is handsomely illustrated with postcards, historic and modern photos, souvenirs and vintage ads, all in vivid color on glossy pages. I was struck by the off-kilter sign on the Jump n’ Jack Motor Hotel (page 28), the camel attraction at the Pyramid Motel in Anaheim (page 60), and the outrigger-style architecture of the Palm Springs Tropics (page 76) and San Diego’s Half-Moon Inn (page 78).
In terms of the text, the book is at its best when it traces the history of the various locations, pinpointing when the motels opened and letting the reader know what happened to them. Something I didn’t know: The Palm Springs Tropics was adjacent to a Sambo’s, which also operated a “Congo Room” cocktail lounge on the site. There’s a cool photo of the interior of the Congo Room, too.
I’ve long been fascinated by once-ubiquitous pieces of our culture that have faded from view over time: old motels, gas stations, shopping malls, department stores, sporting venues, concert halls. For me, buying Motel California was a no-brainer, and I wasn’t disappointed. If your interests run parallel to mine, I’m betting you won’t be, either.