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Motel Inn in San Luis Obispo, the world's first 'mo-tel'

A version of this article was originally published Dec. 4, 2014.

Born 90 years ago, it was a sprawling 1,200-mile dream, a dream unlike any other.

A syndicate planned a chain of lodges, from San Diego to Seattle along the coast highway, serving the burgeoning stream of automobile travelers.

Only two years earlier the five-story Anderson Hotel had opened in downtown San Luis Obispo, but this design was something completely different.

This inn would be designed for car owners.

Less than a generation after first Ford Model T rolled off the assembly line in October 1908, affordable auto travel was an everyday reality.

Arthur S. Heineman realized the first milestone in his dream by building and opening the world’s first motel in San Luis Obispo on Dec. 12, 1925.

The name of the newly invented motor lodge? Milestone Inn.

The word “motel” is credited by some sources to Heineman, a Pasadena architect and developer and president of the Milestone Interstate Corp. He apparently first used the word “motel” in 1924.

The 1925 San Luis Obispo Telegram headline says "Milestone Inn," while the story refers to the "Milestone motel plan."

“With the opening of the motel Saturday by the Milestone Interstate Corporation, San Luis Obispo can now boast the distinction of being the first city in the United States to have one of these hostelries … the first unit of a series of motels dedicated primarily to the service of the motoring public.”

But the syndicate’s dreams crashed like the stock market, and the name was soon changed to Motel Inn.

According to historian Dan Krieger, the property at the mouth of Cuesta Grade once was owned by Tribune founder Walter Murray.

Krieger said in a Oct. 22, 1988, “Times Past” column that, according to the folklore of the Eliot family, the motel’s first managing partner, the sign did not have room for the words Milestone Motor Hotel and was shortened to Milestone Mo-Tel and soon renamed Motel Inn.

The San Luis Obispo Daily Telegram wrote a front-page story when the inn opened and did not hyphenate the word "motel," though the newspaper was inconsistent with the name.

The Great Depression persuaded most motel builders to build bland-looking, cheap structures.

Up to 160 guests could stay at units that featured the modern amenities of a shower, central heat and carpet. The complex also featured rooms for chauffeurs.

The rigors of roaring '20s auto travel are hinted at in the Telegram story: “A traveler arriving at night, or at any other time, need not climb out of his car and go into the office to register. Instead, the man in charge comes out to the car and one may register without leaving the car at all. That done, an escort is sent with the traveler to show him his rooms, his apartment or whatever kind of combination in rooms he wants.”

“Thus persons traveling may go to their rooms, wash and clean up before going in the lobby or to the dining room. Of course there is a garage for each car, and the escort after showing the people to their rooms takes the car to the garage.”

The concept was so new the Los Angeles Times was compelled to explain the concept in a 1926 article.

“The Motorist’s car is where he is, ready for the road for an early morning start.”

Nestled at the foot of the Santa Lucia range on the northern edge of San Luis Obispo, the complex was in the Mission Revival style.

A single bell tower stood over the office, a miniature echo of the Santa Barbara Mission. A smaller less ornate tower was over the restaurant. The walls were white plaster, with a low-pitched gable roof and arched parapet.

At the rear of the main structure was a bungalow court and garages.

The bungalows were said to be “fireproof,” quiet and comfortable. (A June 8, 1995, bungalow fire proved "fireproof" to be hyperbole.)

The design featured a “Ramada” or corridor with windows that offered a view of the highway on one side or courtyard and was a casual eating area if the formality of the dining room was not required.

The lobby featured a large fireplace and a desk made of copper, bound with strips of wrought iron like a Spanish chest.

A New York Times story from July 9, 1987, by Joseph Giovannini noted the proposed chain of mission-style lodges were to be located a day’s auto journey apart. The Catholic missions were closer, a day’s ride by horseback.

Giovannini quoted an expert who explained why the architect spent so much money on the showy design.

“The building gets you to stop with a grand architectural gesture —that’s what highway architecture has always been about, “ said John Margolies, author of “The End of the Road: Vanishing Highway Architecture in America.”

Famous Motel Inn guests included Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio, who stopped for lunch while on their honeymoon Jan. 16, 1954.

Ronald Reagan appears to be delivering a speech at the Motel Inn in undated file photos from the late 1960s when he was governor of California.

The freeway replaced the old highway in the '50s, and the building was remodeled over the years, including the addition of a swimming pool.

A Nov. 5, 1972, Los Angeles Times story said the restaurant was famous for steaks. The story also said inn owner Marge Calkins had recently died and her will left Motel Inn to several longtime employees, a daughter and brother.

In recent years the complex saw ownership changes and fitful redevelopment plans.

The property has been associated over the last 25 years with names like Bob Davis of the Apple Farm, Rob Rossi and John King.

On Aug. 22, 2000, Mike Stover of The Tribune reported on plans floated by Rossi and King to rehabilitate the property.

Architect Bob Richmond said the bungalows were made of cardboard blocks, wrapped in chicken wire and coated with stucco.

“Really the only thing holding these buildings up as far as I can tell is the chicken wire.”

Perhaps the biggest indignity came to the Motel Inn in the 1980s when a league of fantasy baseball reprobates set up camp in the ramada for draft meetings, scotch taping their draft choices to windows. I may have been witness to more than one draft.

The garages and bungalows were largely demolished by 2010, and all is left is the façade of the restaurant and renovated office with bell tower.

In August 2015, Rossi and King announced a new proposal to resurrect the Motel Inn with CoVelop Inc., a local development company started by two Cal Poly graduates. The new inn, estimated to be about 28,000 square feet, would be a boutique hotel similar in size and scale to the Avila Village Inn near the Bob Jones Trail in Avila Beach, Rossi said.

In 1950 the word “motel” was added to English dictionaries.

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