AUTO TRANSFORMATION: PART 2

In 1923, capitalizing on the auto camp craze that had swept the nation, Ida Lietzow developed the Montecito Auto Camp on a strip of land that today houses Olive Mill Plaza. A small store fronted the Coast Highway (Coast Village Road) and six wood-floored tents descended toward Spring Street (a bit south of today’s Coast Village Circle). By 1929, Martin Bonato had joined the tourist camp business in Montecito with Marty’s Auto Court, which stood at today’s 1155 Coast Village Road.

By the end of the 1920s, therefore, Santa Barbara and Montecito were poised to join a national trend, the transformation of auto camps into motels. The word “motel,” a combined form of “motor hotel,” was coined by Los Angeles architect Arthur Heineman in 1925 when he designed the “Milestone” (now the Motel Inn), which claimed to be the first motel in the nation. It was located in San Luis Obispo, and motorists stayed in two-room bungalows with kitchens and private garages. All the units faced a central courtyard with a swimming pool and picnic tables. Today, the motel lies in ruin; only the sign and the old office building are still intact despite a beautiful brass plaque placed there by the Native Sons of the Golden West.

The word “motel,” however, didn’t catch on until after World War II. Instead, during the ‘30s, auto camps that previously had provided a level piece of ground or perhaps a wooden platform or tent cottage, started to develop into auto courts. Permanent cottages were erected, usually arranged in a U-shape with a central area. By 1929, T.T. Record and R.S. Lucking had acquired Ida’s Montecito Auto Camp. They purchased the two adjoining lots to the east and set about making improvements. As the years progressed, the former tent sites became garages and storage rooms. Cottages were built, the store was enlarged, a restaurant was attached, and a gas station was added.

Creation of Coast Village

Between 1924 and 1949, just a scant 25 years, auto tourism completely changed the character of Montecito along the Coast Highway between Hot Springs and Olive Mill Roads. When Ida Lietzow established her auto camp, only two gas stations just east of Hot Springs Road and six houses fronted the entire stretch of road. By 1949, the Coast Highway boasted nine motels: La Siesta Motel, Golf Motel, Laurel Motel, Sea Captain’s Motor Hotel, De Anza Motor Inn, La Loma Lodge, Swan Motel, Montecito Motel (the former Montecito Auto Camp) and Rancheria Motor Hotel. Anchoring the corner of Coast Highway and Olive Mill was the Montecito Inn and, farther east, lay the already historic Miramar Hotel and Cottages. Only one business still advertised itself as an auto court, Marty’s, but even it had become an official motel called El Dorado by 1958. The motel stayed in the family, too, for it was owned by Mrs. Nesta A. Bonato.

All told, more than 52 business lined this stretch of Coast Highway in 1949. Among them were 10 gas stations, seven restaurants, three liquor stores, two grocery stores, two beauty shops, El Camino Pharmacy, Brenda L. Moody’s real estate office in the English Cottage, a pet store, a pet hospital and a florist. Ten years later, the freeway crashed through, bypassing the Old Coast Highway and ushering yet another era of changes for Coast Village Road. Of the motels, only the Coast Village Inn (the former De Anza Motor Court) remains today.

What happened to all these motels and businesses? The sites of the Golf and Laurel Motels now house apartments at 1062 Coast Village, and China Pavilion has taken over Casa Linda’s Mexican restaurant, which took over an old gas station. Across Hermosillo Drive, Village Pool Supply was once a gas station, Coastal Properties inhabits Moody sister’s English Cottage, and Bank of America replaced Somerset Restaurant. Across Butterfly Lane, Montecito Bank & Trust and Sotheby’s replaced Sea Captain’s Motel.

On the southeast corner of Butterfly and Coast Village, a Chevron Station still stands, though the businesses to the west were wiped out by the impending freeway in the mid-1950s. One of those to go was much-lamented, Bud’s Blue Onion restaurant. Owned by Bud Bledsoe in 1949, it was wedged between McDougall and Maddalon’s gas station and Montecito Auto Repair and Gas (across from today’s Vons). The restaurant was started in 1941 by M.C. Bledsoe at 834 Coast Highway. In 1950, Bud opened another Blue Onion on Coast Highway and the southwest corner of Depot Road. Called the Blue Onion Drive-In, it didn’t last long and both restaurants were gone by 1953. The Blue Onion was later reincarnated on State Street. Turk Hessellund Nursery now claims the site of the former Blue Onion Drive-In Restaurant.

Mom and Pop’s Demise

Early auto courts and motels were owned by independents who usually lived on the same property as the business. The traveler’s desire for dependable standards, however, led to the establishment of motel chains. One of the earliest chains was established in Waco, Texas in 1929 when E. Lee Torrance and Drummond W. Bartlett created the Alamo Plaza Hotel Courts.

Their plan was to offer high quality lodging available at moderate rates, and they made their motels instantly recognizable through the architecture of the facade, a replica of the Alamo. “Remember the Alamo” became “Remember the Alamo Plaza.”

The motel chain concept, however, did not really take off until after WWII. The Best Western chain was founded as a cooperative referral service between independent operators in 1946. The Holiday Inn chain was founded by D.C. Kemmons Wilson in Memphis, Tennessee in 1952. Kemmons had been disappointed by the quality and consistency of roadside motels during a family road trip to Washington, D.C., and decided to take action. He eventually franchised the chain and it expanded dramatically.

In 1962, Paul A. Greene, a building contractor, and William W. Becker, a painting contractor, developed the first no-frills budget hotel chain in the nation in Santa Barbara. The low price of $6 was made possible by functional decor, no in-room phones, shower-only bathrooms and coin-operated black and white televisions. The first Motel 6 still stands at 443 Corona del Mar near East Beach. Critics said the concept was flawed and predicted bankruptcy for the developers. By 1967, however, Motel 6 listed 30 locations, and in 1968 City Investing acquired the company. The chain continued to prosper through various owners and today boasts more than 800 locations.

From simple auto camps to motel chains in one generation, the automobile has caused, shaped and accelerated the transformation of American cities.

(Sources: Sanborn maps, city directories, Rouse and Tompkins articles, contemporary news articles, Internet sites, especially MotelAmericana.)