The motor lodge is cool again: How old motels are getting chic new lives

Jan 21, 2022

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Growing up, I was lucky. I spent my childhood years crisscrossing the country in the back of a handful of pickup trucks — a white Ford F-150, a two-door Dodge and a massive blue/green Chevy dually that felt more like a tank — on work road trips with my parents.

Over the years, I saw a lot of the country as they took their furniture and clothing business to rodeos, Junior League holiday markets and other big events in Sacramento, California; Charlotte; Las Vegas; Rock Springs, Wyoming; and everywhere in between.

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I also saw a lot — and I mean a lot — of hotels. While the hotels often weren’t the nicest, they got the job done.

More often than not, the hotels we stayed in were motor lodges or motels set off the highway in a desolate part of the country. They typically had somewhat questionable swimming pools that I never actually questioned before jumping in. The rooms were simple, offering a table with two chairs by the window looking out to the pool or parking lot, a TV ​​on a chipped dresser, a Bible in the nightstand and a scratchy green comforter with some abstract floral design.

Related: The TPG 20: The best new hotels of 2021

The properties usually weren’t much, but I loved them. In a weird way, I still do. Or, at least, I love the evolved version of the motor lodge, the one you see on your Instagram feed and in the glossy pages of travel magazines.

Like me, motels have grown up — OK, maybe only some. A new generation of hoteliers, hospitality companies and regular people with forward-thinking visions are breathing new life into classic roadside motels and motor lodges from coast to coast.

Hotel room with painting of horse and lamp
(Photo by Read McKendree)

“I believe that there is a lot of nostalgia and Americana in a motor lodge,” said Marcus Severin, the general manager of the Brentwood Hotel in Saratoga Springs, New York, adding that the rise of the automobile and interstate system gave Americans a new opportunity to explore the vast country like never before and created a new era of conveniently located motels to aid in that journey.

“A traveler could find a motor lodge in any small town coast to coast and pull off for a bit of rest,” Severin said. “I really believe that the motor lodge is as iconic to that era as Route 66 and U.S. Highway 1.”

In the heyday of the motor lodge, one man and his design changed everything, explained Larry Spelts, president of lodging and lifestyle adventures at The Indigo Road Hospitality Group, which opened the Skyline Lodge in Highlands, North Carolina. “The traditional motor lodge layout was designed and made popular by Kemmons Wilson, who founded Holiday Inn in Memphis in the 1950s. A traditional motor lodge is based on the original Holiday Inn model with exterior-entry rooms. Usually, the rooms would be in a U-shape around a pool, which is how Skyline Lodge was laid out until Indigo Road’s renovations.”

Last year, Holiday Inn opened its 3,000th hotel, but in the years in between, the traditional motel format of the brand changed and many motor lodges around the country fell into disrepair, especially as aviation became more accessible to people and getting between destinations required quick trips on a plane without overnight stops on the road.

If you’ve ever stayed in a motel like I did as a kid, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Thanks to folks like Spelts and Severin, a new motel renaissance is happening around the country.

In Saratoga Springs, a quaint town in upstate New York, the Brentwood Hotel offers 12 rooms near the town’s popular racetrack. Although the property initially appears unassuming (albeit adorable), upon entering one of its 12 guest room doors, guests will find a highly curated, design-forward room that feels classic and new at the same time.

Instead of scratchy bed sheets or a dated tub where the water spits and sputters, these rooms feature rain showers with brass fixtures, Tivoli Bluetooth radios that look retro but have 21st-century details, branded tote bags to take to the farmers market, curated art, custom-built pine beds and plush down pillows.

dark hotel bathroom with white sink and black walls looking into hotel room
(Photo by Read McKendree)

“For many people, the first words associated with motel would be ‘sketchy’ or ‘run-down,’” Severin said. “Many of our guests get a kick out of telling their friends that they’re staying at a motel, only to later reveal that they enjoyed a spotless room with exceptionally comfortable bedding and a level of design and style not often found in a [motel].”

Modern-day motels like the Brentwood are not around by accident. This new generation of motels is a labor of love designed to preserve a historical building, give it back to the community and restore it to an updated version of its old self. For Severin, that means more than just creating a beautiful hotel. It also means giving the property the technological advances guests in its old life could have never imagined possible, such as contactless check-in, an amenity that is perfect for the pandemic era we’re all living in.

hotel room with black bunkbeds and queen sized bed
(Photo by Read McKendree)

“I like to think of what we’re doing at The Brentwood akin to converting a classic car into an electric vehicle. We have this great shell of a building that has been beautifully refurbished …  but we’re making tweaks under the hood of the business so that we can provide an even higher level of convenience and service to our guests through the technology of today,” Severin explained.

At the root of it, the Brentwood Hotel still tries to serve the same easy experience as the motor lodges that came before, one where travelers could easily get into their room and rest or spend a few hours relaxing in the public spaces before setting out on the road again. However, it aims to add a level of service and design more fitting of the Instagram era than the Cold War.

For Severin, that translates to “simplicity, convenience, and individuality.”

“From the moment that you arrive at a property like The Brentwood,” Severin said, “there is a noticeable difference from most hotels that you’ve stayed in previously. From the sound of your car’s tires on the gravel to the smell of the smoke from the fire pit at our bar, there is a feeling of comfort and hospitality that is unavoidable.”

dresser with minibar, hanging jackets, and painting
(Photo by Read McKendree)

Back in North Carolina, Spelts and Steve Palmer, the founder and chief vision officer of The Indigo Road Hospitality Group, took a slightly different approach with the Skyline Lodge, a 40-room property that was originally designed by Arthur J. Kelsey, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, in the 1930s.

“We’re a reimagined motor lodge that houses a high-end steakhouse,” said Palmer. “Through every detail, we’ve tried to create an environment where everyone is welcome. It’s an elegant experience with a laid-back vibe.”

dining room with windows looking out to mountains
(Photo by Tim Lenz)

At the Skyline, guests, locals and those just passing through can stop at Oak Steakhouse for a mouthwatering meal of venison Wellington with mushrooms and pearl onions, grilled asparagus with bearnaise aioli and oysters Rockefeller. And at Butlers, the lodge’s bar, colorful craft cocktails are served in coupe glasses with a side of stunning Blue Ridge mountain views. This isn’t your grandparent’s typical road trip meal.

Beyond incorporating a top-tier steakhouse into the remodel, Spelts and Palmer worked to modernize the hotel while paying homage to its history.

“I think what sets us apart from a prototypical motor lodge is that we’ve tried to counterbalance the exterior entry and size of the rooms and bathrooms with high design,” Spelts said. “So much thought went into every detail.”

hotel room with balcony looking into woods
(Photo by Tim Lenz)

Those details include mosaic marble bathroom tile floors created by Ann Sacks, along with custom furniture, carpets and high-end fixtures. Bathroom products, which have a “woodsy, fresh fragrance” that compliment the surrounding mountains, were specially made by Grown Alchemist.

Another key component of the Skyline project was repurposing the original building’s outdoor spaces to create welcoming communal areas. To do that, those involved turned the former pool area into a communal courtyard with string lights, lounge seating, fire pits and lawn games like cornhole.

For Spelts, those outdoor spaces — including the central courtyard, the stone terrace patio by the steakhouse and the deck on the west side of the property that offers “amazing mountain silhouetted sunsets” by a fire bowl — are his favorite spots at the Skyline. “[They] are great gathering areas and are where we see guests make friends with each other and create new vacation traditions.”

courtyard with strung lights around a u-shaped hotel
(Photo by Tim Lenz)

That’s exactly the point of this new era of motels and motor lodges, right? Building a place where modern travelers can feed their nostalgia-hungry souls with a taste of the past, framed in a new light, while creating traditions like folks had way back when.

You don’t have to be on a road trip to find these fun, fresh motor lodges — they’re popping up everywhere.

In Austin, Texas, you can step back in time on South Congress at the whimsical and retro Austin Motel or indulge in a roadside spa treatment (totally luxe, of course) at the Calistoga Motor Lodge and Spa.

Meanwhile, in Jackson, Wyoming, you can take in the beauty of Yellowstone from the comfort of a chic room inspired by the national park at the Anvil Hotel.

If you’re really looking for something special, hit up my personal favorite: the Dive Motel & Swim Club in Nashville. There, you can flip the room’s “party switch” to activate a disco ball and music and dance the night away. The penthouse suite has an in-room tiled bathtub, shag carpet, a furry yellow blanket and ’60s basement vibes that are totally retro and in stark contrast to the luxury Four Seasons and Edition hotels coming soon to Music City.

(Photo courtesy of The Dive Motel/Facebook)

Spelts at the Skyline Lodge said it best: “Our guest isn’t someone looking for a luxury, plush stay — there are other places in town for that. Our guest has a sense of humor, a sense of adventure and doesn’t take themselves too seriously, much like the lodge itself.”

Luxury hotels from well-known brands will always exist, but the movement to revive storied, old motels is something special. In a complicated world where we’re all looking to “experience” something, why not experience something old and new at the same time?

We’ve all been binging shows like “Schitt’s Creek,” “Mad Men” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” where these ideas play out on our TV screens. Why not enter a world where they all come together, a place where we get a taste of that simpler time and simpler way of life but with all the amenities and luxuries of the modern world? Bonus: There’s not a pesky mayor who will get up in your business.

I’m glad I had a chance to stay in so many motels growing up, but you can bet your bottom dollar that my next motel experience will be a lot more bespoke and a lot more luxe. Perhaps it will even include a juicy steak or a trip to the races.

Featured photo by Tim Lenz

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