A historic local landmark, once visited by Marilyn Monroe, Bob Hope, Lucille Ball and Clint Eastwood, that’s been dormant for decades, will soon be bustling with activity again.
All that remains of the Motel Inn is a crumbling façade and an office building. The property on the north end of Monterey Street in San Luis Obispo has sat shuttered and dilapidated since the 1990s.
In 1925, the Milestone Mo-Tel, as it was originally called, became the first motel in the world.
Now, a team of local developers is working to restore the motel to it’s former glory.
An old Motel Inn matchbook reads, “Hoteldom in Bungalows. Free Garages.” The original architect, Arthur S. Heineman of Pasadena, envisioned a place where drivers, weary from the road, could pull in and book a room without leaving their car.
Once inside, guests could fill up on a good meal at the Motel Inn Restaurant, famous for its “delicious Bar-B-Q,” and get a good night’s sleep before continuing their travels.
You’ve likely seen the Motel Inn out of the corner of your eye when driving up the Cuesta Grade.
Joseph O’Keefe works next door to the motel property at the Apple Farm.
“I was always fascinated by the motel next door, not knowing much about it,” O’Keefe told KSBY.
The Apple Farm landscape manager has become a self-taught curator in his mission to keep the spirit of the Motel Inn alive.
“I just kind of got hooked on it and knew that this was an amazing place that needed to be recognized as not only the world’s first motel but just something that we have in our own backyard that needs to be preserved,” he said.
O’Keefe’s Motel Inn memorabilia includes an impressive postcard collection. His favorite is panoramic of the hotel that dates back to the 1930s.
“Where the cars parked, that used to be the 101 freeway,” O’Keefe explains as he unfolds the delicate postcard. “Monterey Street turned into Cuesta Grade and went over the hill up to Santa Margarita so the highway went right in front, literally, feet in front of the door.”
When the Great Depression hit, the Motel Inn suffered and eventually shut down in 1932.
In the 1950s, new owners drummed up new business and excitement at the motel.
It became a destination for movie stars traveling between Los Angeles and San Francisco due to its perfectly equidistant location.
The motel changed hands a few more times, but it could never recapture the success of its mid-century heyday.
New developers say it will happen.
Damien Mavis of CoVelop says he and his partners have plans to build 55 hotel rooms on the site.
“A real strong design aspect of the original property was a series of bungalows and so about two-thirds of our rooms will be in these little Spanish bungalows,” Mavis told KSBY.
There are also plans to convert Airstream trailers into hotel rooms.
John King of King Ventures has agreed to rebuild and operate the restaurant.
“The existing parts of the Motel Inn which are these two facades, they are going to sort of bookend the restaurant,” said Mavis.
The motel’s redevelopment is a joint venture by CoVelop, Rob Rossi and Silver Lining Hospitality, which will operate the hotel.
The group hopes to start construction late this summer and open for business in late 2018.
Designers will weave old photos and artifacts into the motel’s interior.
“I’d like to see them recapture what made that place so special,” said O’Keefe.
Mavis says their goal is to reimagine the Motel Inn as a contemporary hotel, while honoring its historic nature.
“This property being the first motel in America has so much, I think, intrinsic marketing value and it’s not just another freeway serving hotel,” said Mavis.
It is unclear what the price tag of the project will be. Developers are only saying it will be in the millions.
Mavis expected the new Motel Inn will generate local jobs, however it is too soon to say how many.