Memories with much detail are hard to dredge up about many of the times in childhood that we all piled in the family car, a black 1948 Chevrolet and headed out for several days on the road aiming for the homes of distant relatives or joining the tourists to gawk at the mysteries of Mammoth Cave or the grandeur of Pike’s Peak. The most endurable memories of those times are the Burma Shave signs, the ever-present Stuckey’s around the next curve and the car games we played, making words from the letters glimpsed on fleeting roadside signs and billboards. Certainly we stayed nights in motels along the way, but mental pictures of those temporary stops have all but disappeared. We never stayed in any of the wigwam-style rooms, but in one place Daddy chose a log cabin court under flashing neon where at dinner the friendly and helpful waitress took the story about my fondness for rice and gravy to heart. Dessert included a bowl of raisin-studded rice pudding with a slosh of chicken gravy on top—just for me.
The Writer’s Almanac recently carried an interesting tidbit about the world’s first motel, planting the word in my head and nagging me to pursue this ‘first motel’ story farther.
The Milestone Mo-Tel opened in San Luis Obispo, California in 1925, brainchild of California architect Arthur Heineman and the first roadside accommodation for travelers in the world. Heineman wasn't exactly going out on a limb with his venture. 1925 was a time when cars and road trips were enjoying new popularity and overnight rest options were limited; people either slept in their car or stopped at one of the few campsites or auto camps. Heineman decided to build a group of one-story bungalows 200 miles north of Los Angeles, each bungalow set around a tree shaded courtyard and allowing guests their own small garage. The price for a one-night stay was $1.25. The motel was built in an ornate Spanish mission style with white pillars and a three-tiered bell tower at a cost of $80,000, not more than fifty feet from Highway 101 skirting the California coast. Amenities included a restaurant famous for its steak and pretty young waitresses in Spanish outfits and big vaquero hats. Marcella Faust, one of the motel’s first employees described her days at the Milestone this way: “My sister and I and a girlfriend all worked there. My mother, she wanted me to finish school. But I wanted to work. She had eight kids and I told her there were enough legs under her kitchen table. And oh, it was wonderful to work. They trained us to fold the white linen napkins, to polish the silverware. In those days, there really was service. We were paid a dollar a day.”
The Depression years were hard ones for Heineman and his plan to open a string of motels up and down the California coast was never realized. There were also other developers who saw the sense in Heineman’s vision and imitators weren’t long in cropping up along America's highways.
Today the Milestone Mo-Tel is a sad site of crumbling plaster and old furniture piled up in a dusty lobby. Many of the buildings were torn down in 2006 and only two fragments of the original buildings remain, including the bell tower. The motel closed in 1991 and is now used as an administrative building by a next door business.
Another example of Arthur Heineman’s work is the Fuller House in Los Angeles, sitting on almost three-quarters of an acre near Runyon Canyon off Franklin Avenue, the house was built in 1916 for a Hollywood developer named Fuller. It was designed by Arthur Heineman, who with his brother Alfred, designed several mansions and bungalows in the area. Samuel Goldwyn moved into the house with his second wife in 1925. It includes seven bedrooms, six and a half bathrooms, a dining room with butler’s pantry, a screening room, sunroom, breakfast room, tile fireplaces, a guesthouse, pool and outdoor living room.