Downtowners, Rowntowners and five stories of breeze block in Danville, Virginia! Started in Memphis in 1958, the Downtowner Motor Inn chain built Modernist motor hotels in downtown locations particularly in the South, Midwest and West.
With the chain peaking in the 1960s (suburban motels under the Rowntowner name were added in 1967), Downtowners like the one in Danville were a symphony of midcentury design tropes like Cubist Mondrian murals, mosaic tile walls, butterfly canopies and of course breeze block. Fascinated with the structural transition between inside and outside, Modernists loved breeze block, especially in sunny, warm weather climates, even better if there were coastal breezes. Made of coal ash and Portland cement, breeze block came in an endless variety of styles. With the mallification of America, downtown retail districts suffered and so did the Downtowners. Danville’s Downtowner closed in 1986 and then sat derelict and abandoned for 26 years, about the same length of time it was operating. It was finally demolished in 2012.
This circa 1930 postcard of Husted Cabins on US 40 between Marshall and Clark Center, Illinois, captures a time during the early auto age when farmers lucky enough to be on a major trunk route reaped a windfall of auto-oriented commerce.
Prior to the automobile, few long-distance travelers plodded their way down the market road to Marshall and those speeding by on the paralleling Pennsylvania Railroad certainly didn’t stop. Then in 1912 the road was designated part of the National Old Trails route between Baltimore and Los Angeles (later New York and San Francisco), and in 1926 it became part of transcontinental US 40. Motorists needing gas, food and lodging started whizzing by, and all it took to provide that service was carving off a small piece of cornfield fronting the highway. Many farmers supplemented their incomes with roadside businesses this way, many more sold roadside lots for others to provide the service.
“Motel Postcard Pool Pose” in Wildwood, New Jersey
The free motel postcard was once a vacation standard. Proprietors expected guests would send a pile of postcards to their friends and family telling them what a wonderful vacation they were having and the motel would reap the free advertising.
Wildwood motel postcards made in the 1960s and 1970s were nearly always pool-centered, showing that latest must-have amenity that allowed a motel to compete for summer tourists. The motel pool was depicted as a hive of activity showing the fun you too would have if you stayed at this motel. The photos are invariably staged by a photographer directing a cast of motel family, friends and guests to act fun, look at the camera or the faux action and freeze for the shot. Viewing old motel postcards from this perspective makes them way more interesting, sometimes hilarious, than the mundane freebie they were intended to be.
The Beach Ball Toss; a favorite Postcard Pool Pose. Nothing says, “we’re having fun at the motel pool” like the Beach Ball Toss. On this day, a two-girl toss captured the attention of just about everyone including the entire crew in the back, not one of which was distracted from seeing how this riveting action would play out. I’m sure the photo was reshot many times to get the mid-air ball just right so that it was not blocking anyone’s face. You can still recreate this Suit Case Motel scene at New Jersey & 15th avenues in North Wildwood where only the paint trim has changed from salmon to blue.
Back in the 1970s, Wildwood Crest’s Carousel Motel at Ocean & Lavender avenues was opulent and only a block from the beach. The eight-member Patrick family rolling into Wildwood like the Joads could only dream of staying in such a place. We peered at the grand Crest motels from the un-air conditioned way-back of our Pontiac Tempest wagon and watched it disappear as we drove much farther back from the beach. It had all the 1960s design standards; a massive breeze-block façade, sundeck, Mondrian bedspreads, and of course, a gi-normus, built-in swimming pool with plenty of festively colored lounges. Beautiful people (in that 1970s way) posed on the sundeck clearly depicting how close the motel was to the ocean. At the pool, three sets of two-people poses statically engage each other, even on the diving board where such a bathing cap tango would never take place. No roughhousing. The party ended in 2004 when the Carousel Motel was demolished for condominiums.
A bucket truck had to be brought in to get this high-angle shot of Wildwood Crest’s Biscayne Motel so it’s pretty clear what’s causing most of the patrons to simultaneously cast a glance towards the same point above the intersection of Atlantic & Louisville avenues; sundeck people, family group, railing watchers, barbeque couple, even the guy about to make a shot on the classically-70s, outdoor pool table looks up at the camera. The Biscayne Motel fairly drips the Miami-for-the-masses vibe Wildwood motels projected at the time; in its name, its ultra-Modern glass visual front, and of course the plastic palm trees perfectly suited to New Jersey’s climate. The Biscayne still thrives at the same location looking not much different than this.
Double Beach Ball Toss at Wildwood Crest’s Rambler Motel…sorta; the front toss looks more like a sibling scramble for the only ball. The back toss has undoubtedly been interrupted by a camera call-out. Some have camera focus and others have beach ball focus, like the girl freezing her progress on the slide, and chick hogging the diving board. Wave at the grand kids, grandma. Although Wildwood suffered the loss of many Doo Wop motels during the condo-craze of the early New Millennium, the motels that survived are typically pristine, like the Rambler at Pacific Avenue and Rambler Road.
Another Double Beach Ball Toss; this one at the Blue Diamond -now the Bird of Paradise- on the corner of Ocean & 26th avenues. Both these high-angle shots required a bucket truck ensuring that the guests were willing participants in the pose, like the kids who decided to have a Beach Ball Toss in the parking lot! Everyone who has ever been to Wildwood in the summer knows that the pavement if one degree hotter would be molten. And dude behind the Ford Country Squire? Put your hands down, you’re not even in the game.