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Motel Chic

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Photo: Catherine Ledner

In a 1940 American Magazine article entitled "Camps of Crime," FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover waged something of a war against motels, which he labeled "a new home of crime in America, a new home of disease, bribery, corruption, crookedness, rape, white slavery, thievery, and murder." Though Hoover, as we now know, had a penchant for hyperbole, it is nonetheless true that motels—steeped in the utilitarian anonymity of the open road—have had a dubious reputation for decades. The No-Tell Motel. The Bates Motel. The Fleabag Motel. The Rooms-by-the-Hour Motel.

Recently, however, the word motel has begun to shake loose from those pejorative connotations. The credit goes to a growing number of "boutique motels," properties dating back to the 1940’s, 1950’s, and early 1960’s that have been bought and completely reimagined by energetic young moteliers with a clear vision of what makes for not merely comfortable but also memorable accommodations.

Unlike boutique hotels, which offer cutting-edge design and too-cool-for-school attitude, boutique motels are personable, cozy even. There is an egalitarian quality to these places, which offer a host of communal experiences, from Jacuzzis and heated swimming pools to expansive breakfasts and cocktails at 5:00 p.m.

"The best surprise is no surprise," Holiday Inn crowed in the 1970’s, meaning that a room in a Holiday Inn was very much like every room in every Holiday Inn. This was supposed to be a good thing, comforting news to the anxious traveler. Reassuring or not, the current generation of moteliers thumbs its collective nose at the one-size-fits-all concept. They are determined to offer distinctive experiences in one-of-a-kind motels that are not part of any chain, but instead conscientiously sui generis, one-off expressions of the moteliers’ own style and sensibility.

Lucy and Lava Lamps

Feeling nostalgic for that reckless time when an unapologetically tipsy and alarmingly suntanned Dean Martin drank martinis and chain-smoked on prime-time television?Feeling sentimental for those heady days when the Russians launched Sputnik 1 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, and the great space race was officially on?Then set your GPS to 562 West Arenas Road in Palm Springs, California.

Billing itself as the "ultimate Palm Springs modern experience," Orbit In Oasis welcomed its first guests in 1957. Originally named the Village Manor, the nine-room motel is the work of architect Herbert W. Burns and is located in Palm Springs’ historic Tennis Club District, a genteel enclave of manicured single-family houses, condominiums, and small motels and bed-and-breakfasts, just off bustling North Palm Canyon Drive. The Tennis Club District dates back to the 1930’s: Gloria Swanson had a house here, and over the years visitors to the neighborhood at the base of the towering San Jacinto Mountains have included everyone from Joseph Kennedy to Doris Day.

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