Mid-Century Architecture Day with Motor Court Panel

Vintage motel sign As many of you know, May 20th is Mid-Century Architecture day in the state of Nevada. In celebration, Nevada Preservation Foundation has joined forces once again with Neon Museum to bring you a panel discussion on the history and future of the motor court hotels located on Las Vegas Blvd north of the Stratosphere and Fremont Street. The event will focus on the history of motor court hotels (motels) within Las Vegas and how preservation of these architectural gems can contribute to the future of downtown Las Vegas.

The panel will feature an introductory presentation from Peter Moruzzi, an avid historian on the modernist roadside landscapes of the past, as well a display of select memorabilia from Peter’s collection on mid-century establishments across the nation. A panel discussion on the motor court hotels lining Las Vegas Blvd and Fremont Street will follow, discussing what kind of future they might have in the revitalization of downtown Las Vegas. Panel members will include Peter Moruzzi and fellow architectural historian Jerry Stefani as well as local architect Craig Palacios from Bunnyfish Studio. Final details for the event are in the works, so save the weekend following May 20th in your calendars and check back soon for information on how to register and the specifics on when and where.

In gearing up for this event, I decided to do a little research on my own on the history of motor court hotels and their importance to mid-century architecture.

The Influence of the Auto

As we know, the invention of the automobile significantly changed the urban landscapes of the early mid-century, especially in the western United States where cities and town were still primarily rural and open land was plentiful. In the early 1900’s, only a few thousand automobiles existed within the U.S. but by 1930 there were already around 23 million cars nationwide. As General Motors (GM) and Ford Motor Company (Ford) began producing affordable, reliable products, the lifestyle of American families began to significantly change, embracing the automobile as the product of the future.

With the onset of car consumerism and the aftermath of the Great Depression, the American government began investing in roadway and highway construction as a means of providing jobs and promoting travel to boost the economy. Afternoon drives, weekend long roadtrips and summer traveling suddenly became affordable for the average middle-class family. It didn’t take long for entrepreneurs and businessmen to recognize this developing market and roadways were soon dotted with establishments aimed at attracting the automobile travelers.

Vintage motor court postcardThe American Roadside

One such establishment was the motor court hotel. As Americans embraced car travel, the need for overnight, affordable accommodations grew. More commonly known as a motel, motor court hotels became a recognized place of refuge from the long days of roadside travel. These motels were specifically designed for motorists, often as u-shaped buildings situated around a parking area for vehicles. Motels were almost exclusively located along the highways and thoroughfares of the American highway system, and were usually accompanied by a diner and possible common gathering place for the travelers to share. As technology changed, many features such as “air cooled by refrigeration,” coin-operated radios, and color T.V. became the norm.

Mid-Century Motor Courts

Motels peaked in popularity in the late 1950’s and 1960’s as Americans began to recover from World War II and the economy boomed. As a result, many of the remaining motels embody the modernist architectural style of the time. Post-war motels sought more visual distinction from the earlier models, and embraced neon as a design feature. Themed motels became quite common as a way of distinguishing themselves from their neighbor, and often eye-catching colorful signs of Western imagery, atomic-era iconography and Polynesian/island influences dominated the roadside.

This was especially true in Las Vegas, a city that was built for the motorist tourist and known for it’s flamboyant neon lights and themed hotels. Many of the motor courts located along Las Vegas Blvd and Fremont Street embody these architectural elements of mid-century motels. Perhaps more revered for the neon signs that live in the Neon Graveyard or abandoned on the street side, many of these motels are also architectural gems of the mid-century era.

Join us in learning more about these fabulous buildings and their history in Las Vegas! We look forward to sharing in this wonderful past with you!

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