‘Dead Motels USA’ is Keeping the Memory of Retro Motels and Hotels Alive

Posted inArchitecture

Most modern-day hotel design is synonymous with mundanity. Their cement-grey exteriors loom on the side of highways, and weary travelers enter cookie-cutter lobbies to rest their heads on the same beige loveseats and ottomans. Popular hotel aesthetics are dominated by mind-numbing homogeneity and next to no flair whatsoever— which is a shame, really, when you consider the look of hotels and motels of yore.

In fact, mid-century lodging stood in direct opposition to many of today’s wearisome temples of monotony. These buildings buzzed with charming architectural details, like spunky signage and shag-carpeted conversation pits. Pools glistened with frolicking guests, decks lined with color-blocked tanning chairs, and large aluminum umbrellas, and interiors were adorned with vibrant floral patterns on curtains, couches, and carpets.

Fortunately, those of us who pine for the character of this bygone era can explore the project Dead Motels USA. Since 2018, retro motel enthusiast E. Hussa has dedicated themselves to lovingly archiving these vanishing roadside relics through found postcards and photographs. Below, Hussa and I discuss the project and reflect on their effort to keep these architectural gems alive, long after they’re gone.

What was the genesis of the Dead Motels USA project?

I have to attribute my interest in motels to my mom. She was a big traveler, and as a kid, going away for vacation was the highlight of every summer. We frequented New England, and for some reason, each motel we stayed in is ingrained in my memory.

One of our favorites— the American Motor Lodge in Sturbridge, Massachusetts— was abandoned for years after it closed. Over time, I realized just how many motels I stayed at were gone or fading away, and decided to research it. After collecting postcards of each, and finding their current state on Google Street View, I had enough “then and now” comparison photos to turn it into a website. A year later, I created my Instagram account, and it has consistently grown since then.

What’s the mission of the project?

To give life to these forgotten motels, long after their “no vacancy” sign has turned off for the last time. 

To archive how they looked, why people stayed there, their ultimate downfall, and redevelopment. 

To highlight changes in American regional tourism, architecture, and travel trends. 

To push for preservation, or continued use of the older motels we have left, especially those that are architecturally unique, or have historical significance.

To spark a sense of nostalgia.

What is your personal background with this sect of American history, and how did that lead you to such an obsession with old motels? 

I’ve wandered around a lot of abandoned motels, and I’ve vacationed at a lot of living motels. The only expertise I had was spending 25 years being a customer and an explorer of these places, prior to creating my website in 2018.

When researching, I have found that the topic itself is never-ending, and there is an infinite amount of information and photos about defunct motels. The book The Motel in America by Jefferson S. Rogers, John A. Jakle, and Keith A. Sculle states that in 1961, there were an estimated 60,951 motels in the U.S. By 1987, that number had dropped to 40,424. I’m sure it’s much less now. That’s a lot of dead motels, and I’ve taken it upon myself to find them (or what’s left of them) for my project.

What is it exactly about the aesthetic of old motels that you love so much?

Each one is so unique. Today, we have a handful of chains that all look the same, no matter where you are. They all share a gray, white, or beige color scheme, and have the same mass-produced furniture, signs, etc.

50 years ago, your local mom-and-pop motel wouldn’t dream of being ordinary, and actively tried to be the most unique, attractive lodging site in town. I love the well thought-out, creative aspects of vintage motels (signs, keys, etc.), and simultaneously dislike the generic chain motel/hotel properties of today.

What’s your process for curating the motels you feature?

I usually start with a postcard and attempt to locate it on Google Street View. Most of the time, I find a dirt lot or a new Walgreen’s built on its spot. If I’m lucky, I’ll find a motel, or the remnants of a motel, and can compare it to the postcard I have. I also use archives, like the Library of Congress online photo catalog.

Sometimes, I stumble upon a motel while driving around or traveling. These are my favorite finds because, more often than not, they are totally neglected and forgotten about, which makes them the most fun to research. 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 knew. I feel this especially rings true now, as we’ve seen a motel revival happening throughout the country. Business is booming for motels that embrace the vintage look, like the Starlite in Kerhonkson, NY, or the Koolwink Motel in Romney, WV.

What have we lost, in a greater sense, with the loss of these old motels?

We’ve essentially traded unique, sometimes themed, mostly family-run, and affordable stays for commercialized, cookie-cutter lodging. I think the same story can be said for many industries in the US, 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 a core travel moment?

Does it take an emotional toll on you at all to sort through all of these once-lively buildings that are now defunct? How does mining that material make you feel?

Yes and no. I’ve always had a strong emotional connection to certain buildings or places, and I do 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 locations with such a wide audience.

Do you have a favorite old motel that you’ve featured?

It’s hard to pinpoint just one, and my answer definitely changes from day to day. I do love so many of the old Poconos resorts. Back in the ’50s and ’60s, the Poconos were known for being a honeymoon destination, but many don’t realize that they had a huge variation of resorts that were trying to attract so many different types of people. The three most popular— Penn Hills, Pocono Gardens, and Mt. Airy— were couples resorts. Fernwood was for families. Unity House was a union-owned resort. Tamiment started 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.