Today, it’s not hard to make a hotel or motel reservation days or even months in advance.
But 70 to 80 years ago, long before the interstate highways began crisscrossing the nation, motorists were used to slower travel and bumpy highways and were 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, recently told a group of about two dozen folks at Loma Colorado Main Library in Rio Rancho 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 U.S. 85 – which ran from Cheyenne, Wyoming, 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 was available from two tanks in front of the site.
Later, when Route 66 was rerouted through Tijeras Canyon and Downtown Albuquerque, places to stay were built on both sides of Central, with some of them still used today as motels or other businesses.
Sabatini said 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.”
Also typical was a U-shaped configuration, with the office in the center of the U, so owners 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 minimall of sorts.
Near 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 U.S. 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, 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 rest 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 see more of what these old motels looked like, visit 66postcards.com and click on the New Mexico US66 button at the bottom.)