For years the Big Chief stood impassively by the roaring river of Interstate 494, one arm outstretched to the sky. Perhaps he was saluting the bird on the tail of the North Central jets; perhaps he was trying to hail a cab to get to the Lindbergh Terminal. For kids who tumbled out of the station wagon after a long trip, he was a guarantee of a better vacation than they might have expected. This was no old boring motel — the presence of the Chief and the wild decor inside the lobby announced that this was someplace different. And it was. It was the Thunderbird.

You could find places all over the country that had some indigenous motif, but it was usually confined to the name or a neon tepee on the buzzing sign. Thanks to the passions of its creator, Rodney Wallace, the Thunderbird, built in 1962, was devoted to its theme. It was museum of artifacts in an incongruously modern building, assembled and presented without a trace of shame or doubt.

And why should there be either, its creator might have wondered. He loved this stuff. He admired it. This was a testament to another culture, incongruously arrayed in a building as modern as the Gemini space program.

Photos don’t sum up what the interior was like. Bearskin rugs on the wall, peace pipes hung over doorways, sentimental paintings, blanket-pattern tile work in the bathrooms (which, it should be noted, were not named BRAVES and SQUAWS). Anyone can fill a lobby with trinkets and baubles, but this place was committed: The light fixtures were shaped like tepees. Can we have those at home, Dad? Husband to wife, with a wink: Sure, we can. Right?

Down the hall, there was a wolf in a glass box. A real wolf! And up there … a head in a glass box.

Not a real head. You hoped.

The Bow and Arrow Coffee Shop was woody and warm, with a “T” for Thunderbird embedded in the mosaics below the counter. There was “Festive Dining” in the Totem Pole restaurant. Thirsty travelers could have “cocktail fantasies in the intimate atmosphere of the exclusive Pow-Wow Lounge.” And if that doesn’t sum up a traveling saleslady checking out the Don Draper type down the bar, nothing does.

It’s all gone now. The motel was modernized a few years back and turned into another sleek, rote Ramada. The decor said Wi-Fi, not smoke signals. But when we heard news of an auction of old Thunderbird material at a liquidator and saw the magic words “themed decor,” we had to see what still remained.

Answer: not much.

Fading memories

The motel is closed. Workmen were disconnecting things. It was like watching an autopsy performed on someone in a coma. The fountain is gone — you can still recall its mossy-copper aroma, perhaps — but the floating staircase still ascends to the conventional level. The goods for sale were piled in neat rows in the big rooms where everyone sat for rubber chicken and a keynote. They included stacks of towels, chairs, sheets that have no doubt seen too much.

What remained of the old theme could be found on the walls: 12 big phases of the year as described by the Cree calendar. The words HALL OF THE TRIBES over the convention area. The renovation of the lobby had eliminated the Bow and Arrow Coffee Shop, but the neon sign — with a broken E — is hanging downstairs in a room used by the maintenance staff, a relic saved by the faithful.

A large painting of a man sitting on sandy ground, regarding a sole green shoot with an expression of resignation, hangs above a drinking fountain between the bathrooms, and you know decades of patrons wondered why that drinking fountain didn’t help green up the painting’s landscape a bit more.

There’s nothing left, you think. But that’s not quite right. The nomenclature never changed; the names of the suites and special rooms are engraved on glass slabs lit from within, a ’60s touch that never lost its appeal. The wallpaper in the rooms around the indoor pool is still “Indian-themed,” whatever that means, and the Thunderbird logo is nailed to every room door. It’s on the glass in the doors around the pool. It’s on a big grate used to seal off the rooms from the public spaces. It’s engraved in the leather of the chairs from the Pow-Wow Lounge. It’s like seeing religious iconography on a deconsecrated church, and you wonder how many people who just wanted a place to flop after shopping at the MOA were curious about the remnant signs of a storied past.

You could argue that the building was a landmark all on its own. Look at the details, from the tapered conical door handles to the terrazzo slabs and thin poles on the staircases, and you see the architecture of the Kennedy era, with all its moonshot optimism. Worthy of preservation? You’d like to think so, but these places aren’t valued. The Howard Johnson’s at the Hwy. 100 intersection to the west lost its classic HoJo pointy-roofed lobby last decade, and before that the trademark orange was painted a humiliating powder blue. Anyone remember the Holiday Inn on the Strip? No? It was the Thunderbird’s big competitor, its giant sign promising standardized satisfaction. People might march today to save great neon signage like that, but most shrug. It’s old, and besides: progress.

Only the T-Bird guaranteed a different experience. It had a totem pole. It had a statue. The latter is long gone; the former was awaiting a winning bid.

No-so-sweet suites

Walking around the empty motel on a cold April day, you couldn’t help but notice some of the room doors were open. You couldn’t resist a peek. These were the suites, after all, the really, really nice rooms you didn’t get on a family vacation. The place where Lou Rawls would stay. The place where the hockey players might party after a good game. What luxury could still be glimpsed?

Not much. The bathrooms were small and the showers the size of a phone booth. The sofas sagged; the tiny balcony seemed useful only if you smoked and your spouse didn’t. But it had a Murphy bed. Again, imagine you’re a kid, on the road, heading up to Lake Itasca from Iowa, and it’s been a great day. You went to Southdale, which was a big bunch of stores with a roof, like a moon base! You saw a Twins game at Met Stadium, the most colorful structure you’d ever seen. And then you went back to this cool motel that had two pools — boy, wait ’til the gang hears about that — and pulled the bed out of the wall. The future was going to be amazing.

The Thunderbird is slated for demolition this summer or fall, with a future expansion of the Mall of America planned for the site.