Motels and downtowns don’t seem to go together. Downtowns are dense and motels need space for cars and the obligatory pool.
But there was a time when downtown Minneapolis had a motel boom. If you weren’t around to see it, the only evidence you’ll find today are old postcards and an ashtray someone’s uncle swiped.
The history of Minneapolis’ motels begins, perhaps, with a moral panic.
In the early days of the car culture, motels grew on the edge of town, like mushrooms in a shady forest. The earliest motor courts, back in the 1920s and ’30s, were often little more than a collection of under-lit cottages shrouded by trees, places for all sorts of shady behavior.
Tawdry novels and pulp magazines set their lurid tales in motel courts. In fact, J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, wrote a report in 1940 called “Camps of Crime,” accusing the motor courts of encouraging “an implicit immorality and tendency to criminality.”
The burgeoning motel industry fought back against the “no-tell motel” image by forming associations designed to assure travelers of decency and cleanliness. Signs for the United Motor Courts, the American Motor Hotel Association and Quality Motor Courts were intended to prove that these motels were clean and safe and that their owners were upstanding citizens who cared about their properties — and their reputations.
As historian Lori Henderson explained in “America’s Roadside Lodging: The Rise and Fall of the Motel,” everyday Americans embraced the convenience and, often, the lower cost of the motel. Hotels, Henderson explained, were regarded as a European idea. Motels, on the other hand, arose from a country that embraced the open road, and the freedom the automobile promised.
Here in the Gopher State, the motel industry boomed as roads improved, cars became more affordable and more of us wanted to hit the highway in the summer with the kids, and stay someplace secure and wholesome.
A 1954 Minneapolis Tribune article about a convention of Minnesota motel operators included some of the names of motor lodges of the day: the Cliff Keyes Motel in Mankato (named after the big band leader); the J-H in Crookston; the Ripple River in Aitkin.
The story went on to say how motels had become year-round operations. “Even in the dead of winter,” said the story, “when travel used to come to a halt, motels are staying open.”
It also signaled a turning point for motels: No longer a sign of rootlessness, they were becoming a part of the communities that housed them.
Take the Biltmore Motel in Edina, for example. It had a dining room and coffee shop, so the traveler didn’t have to brave the dining options of pre-Perkins Edina on a winter’s night. The city’s residents also were welcome there — to have a quick business meeting in the coffee shop or visit the dining room for an anniversary dinner.
During the 30 years that the Biltmore was open, motels spread across the Twin Cities. In the suburbs, sprawling motels arose along the nascent Interstate 494 south loop, close to Met Stadium, the new indoor mall, Southdale, and the airport.
In the city, smaller-scaled motels popped up in neighborhoods with attractions that drew travelers, like the Fair Oaks Motor Hotel near the Minneapolis Institute of Art, or the Gopher Campus Motel near the University of Minnesota.
While motels made the suburbs accessible to visitors, they remade downtown lodging altogether.
By the 1950s, many of the downtown hotels were tired. In the postwar era, the once-tony brick behemoths like the Dyckman and the Andrews looked like what they were: remnants of the past, not one of the Jet Age motels that had been built downtown, like:
The Concord, which was advertised in far-flung cities (like Des Moines) for having copious parking, soundproofed walls and elegant modern interiors. The ads didn’t mention the adjacent six-story Concord Hotel, which had been built in 1905.
Built on the site of the old Metropole Hotel the 400 Hotel Motor Lodge went bust right out of the gate. The Leamington took over, and renamed it the Leamington Motor Inn, which gained widespread fame when the Beatles stayed there in 1965. It ended up a flophouse, and was razed.
The Kahler Inn-Towne (get it?) opened in 1963, within proximity to the bus station. Ads enticed winter-weary locals to dip in the indoor pool, which was carpeted “right up to the water’s edge,” the ads proclaimed. A 1965 ad offered an entertainment package: room, food and tickets for two to a downtown movie theater, all for $29.75.
The Curtis Hotel became the Curtis Hotel and Motor Lodge in the late ’50s, with the addition of a parking lot and a pool. Decorated in sunny California colors, it was one of the hot spots downtown. The complex was demolished in 1984.
The Guest House was a fairly conventional U-shaped motel, but it had an Embers restaurant. It was demolished in 1985 for the Lincoln Center, now the SPS Tower.
The Normandy is one of the few downtown motels that survive, though it’s part hotel. (It’s twice as tall as the usual motel, but includes the expected motel motif — lots of on-site parking.) Its kitschy half-timbered, faux French facade dates from the 1960s, but the hotel itself goes back to the ’20s.
The motel boom ended as most booms do: in bankruptcy.
By the mid-1960s, downtown motels had lost their cachet, as did downtown itself. Highway rerouting around downtown, competition from motels along the interstates and changing tastes helped hasten their demise.
New hotels siphoned off high-end customers. The motel clientele got rough. The only time a motel made the papers was when the cops pulled a body out of a room.
In retrospect, the cities are better off with hotels — they’re bigger, have more usable public spaces, add interest to the skyline, and they don’t rely on adjacent parking lots.
A motel downtown is like, well, like a multilevel suburban mall downtown.
And no one would try that. Would they?