Joetopia

Why this Paso motel and its 1950s schtick aren’t worth preserving

The River Lodge Motel in Paso Robles was built in 1954. Supporters say its a historic landmark that deserves preservation.
The River Lodge Motel in Paso Robles was built in 1954. Supporters say its a historic landmark that deserves preservation. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Which would you prefer at a high-profile gateway property in Paso Robles? A dumpy, low-slung motor lodge whose way-past-its-prime architecture dates to the 1950s or a spacious, modern accommodation filled with all the latest wonderfulness the American hotel industry can imagine?

That’s the question surrounding the worn-out, redundantly named River Lodge Motel, whose owner wants to bulldoze the 22-room, space-wasting homage to uninspired mid-century design and replace it with a snappy 116-room Hyatt Place.

One would think this shouldn’t be much of a debate, what with Paso continuing its meteoric rise as a wine country destination needing to appeal to 2017 travelers and not families in wood-paneled station wagons.

Yet, here we are and here it is, with not one but two Paso Robles groups stomping their feet over the potential loss of a building they claim is a historical landmark.

The River Lodge Motel near the Highway 101 interchange with Highway 46 West was built around 1954 as part of a larger development that included a drive-in theater, gas station and restaurant.

In its heyday, I’m sure young Betsy and Johnny were thrilled when Dear Old Dad drove up to the Suburban Lodge (as it was then named, surprisingly worse than its current moniker) on the way from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

I can imagine the tacky sign beckoning to them from the highway to a room filled with shag carpet and orange-upholstered furniture. Once settled in, they could catch a movie, grab a burger and a malt and enjoy a good night’s sleep with their car parked right outside the door.

I’m sure it was all kinds of swell then. But it’s nothing that needs celebrating — or even preserving at all — today.

The Paso Robles Historical Society and the Downtown Paso Robles Main Street Association say razing the motel would wipe out a piece of Paso Robles history.

However, that history is more than well-represented by other, similar, far-less-egregious motor lodges tucked in other parts of town.

How many of these things do we need to remember that time?

The fact is, most modern travelers have certain expectations for where they choose to spend the night these days.

They want interior corridors so people aren’t walking by peering into their rooms.

They want larger common areas that allow for amenities like an included breakfast in the morning.

They want a website.

No kidding, this place doesn’t have one, at least that I could find. Is that too much to ask? Word is, it’s mostly used for long-term rentals, so maybe they have no need for Travelocity.

I’d like to say I appreciate people’s fondness for those days gone by, but when we’re talking the 1950s, I really don’t.

Paso Motels007
The single-level River Lodge Motel in Paso Robles was built in the Hacienda Ranch style popular in the post-World War II era. It occupies a prime location at the corner of Hingway 101 and Highway 46 West but is now mostly used for long-term rentals. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

The “Father Knows Best” attitudes, the love affair with cigarettes and the rampant rise of TV-dinner suburbia paired with Communist paranoia and beatdowns on civil rights combined for a thoroughly milquetoast and forgettable decade — though this is coming from someone who wasn’t even there to create memories worth forgetting.

Thankfully, much of that past has been swept into the dustbin of history, so why excessive examples of the era’s throw-away architecture should be saved is beyond me.

The River Lodge Motel is a footnote in Paso’s history that doesn’t come close to places like the Paso Robles Inn or other more handsome buildings.

It has occupied a prime location for 63 years, and the city has passed the motel by.

It now squats in the shadow of the luxury property behind it, just taking up space beside Highway 101 like your deadbeat uncle sleeping on the living room couch.

Today, it is out of place, out of touch and out of time.

The City Council should dispatch with the objections and let the owner, Zenique Hotels, proceed with its plans. The sooner they can flatten this eyesore, the better.

Joe Tarica: 805-781-7911, @joetarica

The Motel Inn once hosted the famous and glamorous, like Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe, who stopped there during their honeymoon. Plans have been announced to rebuild the world's first motor hotel.

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