Archival Exhibit Reveals the Magic of Motels, Kidney-Shaped Pools and Continental Breakfasts

Fancy a dip? Post-war motels epitomized fun and freedom. Photo: National Archives.

Do you remember the scratchy brick walls? The paper-wrapped glasses and the tape across the toilet? How about brocaded polyester bedspreads or the hutch through which a “continental” breakfast magically appeared, more or less when you ordered it?

In the optimistic post-war era, when all shiny and bright came from California, motels with names like El Dorado or Beachcomber sprang up all over regional Australia, promising a world of kidney-shaped swimming pools , orange upholstery and individual packets of cornflakes.

The rooms were upstairs, you could park the car out front, and there was probably a restaurant attached where you could order Chicken kyiv or Steak Dianne.

1950s motel

Names like El Dorado alluded to the motel’s American origins. Photo: National Archives.

“They looked so chic. They seemed a world apart,” says broadcaster, comedian and fan of mid-century architecture Tim Ross.

“Until then you’d be staying in a pub and sharing a bathroom, or a pretty shitty guest house. The motel meant a bit of luxury, a real adventure on your family vacation.”

He dug into the National Archives for an exhibit titled Reception here, documenting the history of motels. There’s an accompanying book, full of images like the Oakleigh Motel in Victoria (built for the 1956 Olympics but didn’t open until 1957) and the Gold Coast, where sprawling motels have transformed the resort strip.

Ross says there was something of a frontier spirit at play architecturally.

“People would go overseas, take pictures of motels in Florida, LA, come back, develop the film, show it to their builders and say, can you build this? There were no actual architects or plans involved, so a lot of the early ones are a bit out of whack. The dimensions are all wrong.

motel exterior

While the Black Dolphin Motel in Merimbula attempted Australian design excellence, it may have lacked the fun element of its counterparts. Photo: National Archives.

Robin Boyd, the great Melbourne architect, tried his hand at a quintessentially Australian version when he designed the Black Dolphin in Merimbula (still standing although heavily modified). But Ross says that while his intentions were noble, Boyd missed the fact that motels were meant to be kind of fun and fantastical, a slice of suburban Hollywood and regional Australia.

Along with the resurgence of interest in mid-century modern architecture has been a resurgence of interest in motel buildings and the social history they represent.

“When we erase these kinds of buildings, we erase our memories,” Ross says.

“Motels are coming back. There are people who buy them and remake them and make them groovy again, which has certainly been happening in America for a while. And of course, it is also the history of the automobile.

“I love those stories where dad wants to get up at three in the morning and pack his bags and put everything in there for the big family vacation two weeks a year or maybe a week.

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“You have four kids and a dog in the backseat and you’re driving from Sydney to Brisbane to see the grandparents and spend the night in a motel. This is when our most precious memories are formed.

Ross is an exhibit partner of the Archives and says he loved digging through their files to unearth images like families at poolside lounges or skiing down to Thredbo’s bar in wool sweaters.

“I can sit in the Archives for hours,” he says. “Staff are always trying to tell me how to look a little better, but I have my own way of doing things because every picture tells an amazing story.

“It’s not someone else’s story. This is our story.

motel exterior

Motels evolved from our post-war love affair with the car. Photo: National Archives.

To celebrate the show’s opening weekend, Tim Ross and musician Kit Warhurst will resume their much-loved MOTEL Live Show for Canberra audiences on Friday 27th May.

Billed as sentimental, nostalgic and, of course, hilarious, the show is a must for anyone who’s checked in and helped themselves to a double-pack of cookies at a classic motel. General admission and tickets for NAA members are available here.

Reception here takes place at the National Archives from May 27 to September 4, 2022.

Original article published by Geneviève Jacobs on Riotact.