Get your sleep on Route 66: Many motels gone, not forgotten

The Tewa Motor Lodge, 5715 Central Ave. NE in Albuquerque was built in 1946 and is still in business.
(Gary Herron/ Rio Rancho Observer)

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — Today, it’s not hard to make a hotel or motel reservation days or even months in advance.

But 70 and 80 years ago, long before the interstate highways began criss-crossing the nation, motorists were used to slower travel and bumpy highways, and resigned to pulling into an “auto camp” or “motor court” and hoping to find space.

Joe Sabatini, a retired acclaimed librarian who came to New Mexico as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer working in Sandoval County, told a group of about two-dozen folks at Loma Colorado Main Library last Monday about the evolution of motels — a combination of the words motor car and hotel — in Albuquerque. Because the bulk of the crowd was made up of senior citizens, many were familiar with places Sabatini mentioned.

Because Route 66, the proverbial “Mother Road,” shared the route through Albuquerque with US 85 — which ran from Cheyenne, Wyo., to Las Cruces — the earliest auto camps were built on North Fourth Street, between downtown Albuquerque and Alameda Boulevard.

Some, including the Court John (2700 Fourth NW), are still there, Sabatini said.

Arguably the most interesting of the North Fourth spots was the Albuquerque Auto Court, built in 1928. It offered carports and gasoline availability from two tanks in front of the site.

Later, when Route 66 was reconfigured and it came through Tijeras Canyon, straight through downtown Albuquerque and headed west, places to stay were built on both sides of Central Avenue, with some of them still used today as motels or other businesses.

Sabatini told of how the earliest places for travelers passing through the state were basically camping spots, and as the “industry” evolved, they added carports, indoor toilets and beds.

“By the end of the ‘30s, you’ve got 20 or so motels clustered around Old Town,” he said.

One such vintage motel, Spanish Gardens Auto Court (at Fourth and Constitution NW), was typical in that it gave “a little local flavor.”

The Tewa was one of the iconic motels on Route 66, and one of the few still operating as a motel.
(Gary Herron/ Rio Rancho Observer)

Also typical was a U-shaped configuration, with the office located in the center of the U, so owners and/or clerks could easily check folks in and out.

Other “flavorful” motels of the day included the Westward Ho Motel (with a saguaro cactus on its sign), El Campo Tourist Court, Cibola Court, the Monterey (still in business) and El Vado Court. El Vado Court, built in 1937, is “the last authentic” motel of its kind, Sabatini said, and now thriving as a mini-mall of sorts.

Near the El Vado was the Tower Court, with, literally, a tower out front to give it a distinct air.

The Canyon Motel was the first place motorists would encounter as they approached Albuquerque from the east on US 66. The Hill Top Trading Post — now Enchanted Trails RV Park — was the first travelers from the west would see.

Those could be prime locations, pulling road-weary tourists and their brood off the highway. Others used the colorful, eye-catching neon signs, and some attracted guests by naming amenities — pool, TV, air-conditioned rooms — on the signs outside.

Sabatini estimated that in the height of Route 66, there were close to 90 places to stay on Central Avenue, and still about 20 left on Fourth. If travelers favored “class,” they could stay at the Alvarado, built primarily for railroad travelers, or the luxurious Franciscan and Hilton hotels downtown.

He illustrated his talk by showing original postcards. Some included messages from travelers as they ventured out on vacation — whether they liked the area, if it was too hot or cold, dusty or dry, etc.

Later, as motels were acquired by motel/hotel chains, lodging for the remainder of a family trip could be easily arranged by having a clerk call ahead to another member of the chain and make arrangements.

Of course, also leading to the demise of small mom-and-pop motels were the interstate highways.

The roads were better, didn’t go through the heart of a city and, thanks to higher speeds and larger gas tanks, fewer stops and/or nights were needed to traverse the country.

(To enjoy more of what these old motels looked like, visit 66postcards.com and click on the New Mexico US66 button at the bottom.)

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