Most modern hotel designs are synonymous with banality. Their cement-gray exteriors stand on the edge of freeways, and weary travelers enter the cookie-cutter lobbies to rest their heads on the same beige loveseats and ottomans. Popular hotel aesthetics are dominated by mind-numbing homogeneity and virtually no flair, which is a real shame, considering how hotels and motels of yesteryear looked.
In fact, mid-century accommodation was in direct opposition to many of the tedious temples of today’s monotony. These buildings were buzzing with charming architectural details, like bold signage and carpeted conversation pits. Pools glistened with frolicking guests, decks lined with color-blocked sun loungers and large foil umbrellas, and interiors were adorned with vibrant floral patterns on curtains, sofas, and rugs.
Luckily, those of us who long for the character of that bygone era can explore the project Dead Motels United States. Since 2018, retro motel enthusiast E. Hussa has devoted himself to lovingly archiving these endangered relics through postcards and found photographs. Below, Hussa and I discuss the project and reflect on their efforts to keep these architectural gems alive, long after they are gone.
What was the genesis of the Dead Motels USA project?
I have to attribute my interest in motels to my mother. She was an avid traveler and as a child going on vacation was the highlight of every summer. We frequented New England and for some reason every motel we stayed in is etched in my memory.
One of our favorites – the American Motor Lodge in Sturbridge, Massachusetts – lay abandoned for years after it closed. Over time, I realized how many motels I had stayed in had disappeared or died out, and decided to do some research. After collecting postcards of each and finding their current condition on Google Street View, I had enough “then-to-now” comparison photos to make a website. A year later, I created my Instagram account, and it hasn’t stopped growing ever since.
What is the mission of the project?
To bring these forgotten motels back to life, long after their “no vacancy” sign went out for the last time.
To archive what they looked like, why people stayed there, their ultimate downfall and redevelopment.
Highlight changes in U.S. regional tourism, architecture, and travel trends.
Push for the preservation or continued use of surviving older motels, especially those that are architecturally unique or have historical significance.
To create a feeling of nostalgia.
What is your personal journey with this sect of American history, and how did it lead you to such an obsession with old motels?
I have wandered into many abandoned motels and vacationed in many living motels. The only expertise I had was having spent 25 years being a customer and explorer of these places, before creating my website in 2018.
While researching, I found that the topic itself is endless and there is an endless amount of information and photos about old motels. The book The motel in America by Jefferson S. Rogers, John A. Jakle, and Keith A. Sculle states that in 1961 there were approximately 60,951 motels in the United States. By 1987 that number had dropped to 40,424. I’m sure it’s a lot less now. This is a lot of dead motels, and I took it upon myself to find them (or what’s left of them) for my project.
What exactly is the aesthetic of the old motels you love so much?
Each is so unique. Today we have a handful of channels that all look the same no matter where you are. They all share a gray, white or beige color scheme and have the same furniture, signs, etc. serial products.
50 years ago, your local family motel wouldn’t dream of being ordinary and would actively try to be the most unique and attractive lodging site in town. I like the thoughtful and creative aspects of vintage motels (signs, keys, etc.) and I don’t like the generic motel/hotel chains of today.
What is your process for selecting the motels you feature?
I usually start with a postcard and try to locate it on Google Street View. Most of the time, I find a dirt lot or a new Walgreen built in its place. If I’m lucky, I’ll find a motel, or the remains of a motel, and I can compare it to the postcard I have. I also use archives, like the Library of Congress online photo catalog.
Sometimes I come across a motel while driving or traveling. These are my favorite finds because more often than not they get totally overlooked and forgotten, which makes them the most fun to seek out. You really have to dig into local libraries or historical societies to find out more.
Why do you think so many people today are still so captivated by old motels?
Aesthetics and nostalgia; longing for a happier time, or romanticizing a time we never had. I think that rings especially true now, as we’ve seen a motel revival happening across the country. Business is booming for motels that embrace the vintage look, like the Starlite in Kerhonkson, NYWhere the Koolwink Motel in Romney, West Virginia.
What have we lost, in a larger sense, with the loss of these old motels?
We basically traded unique, sometimes themed, mostly family-friendly and affordable stays for cookie-cutter marketed accommodations. I think the same story can be told for many industries in the United States, but for tourism, we are rapidly losing what makes road trips and summer vacations memorable. Who honestly remembers their last stay at a modern Hampton Inn as an essential travel moment?
Does it cost you at all emotionally to sort through all those once bustling buildings that are now gone? How does mining this material make you feel?
Yes and no. I’ve always had a strong emotional connection to certain buildings or places, and I feel a sense of loss when a unique motel is demolished. But I also feel a sense of pride in being able to share so many of these places with such a wide audience.
Do you have a favorite old motel that you featured?
It’s hard to pinpoint just one, and my answer definitely changes from day to day. I love so many old Poconos resorts. Back in the 1950s and 60s, the Poconos was known as a honeymoon destination, but many don’t realize it had a huge variety of resorts trying to appeal to so many different types of people. The three most popular — Penn Hills, Pocono Gardens, and Mt. Airy — were resorts for couples. Fernwood was for families. Unity House was a union-owned resort. Tamiment began as a socialist camp. Hillside Inn was black owned and featured in green book.
ALL of these hotels are closed now.
The whole area is fascinating to me, and I’ve spent a lot of time vacationing here and exploring these long-forgotten places.