From Palm Springs to the Florida Keys, a new generation of design-savvy entrepreneurs are reinventing an American icon—the roadside motel.

Catherine Ledner The Orbit In Oasis, in Palm Springs, California
| Credit: 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.

Though Burns was not in the first tier of Modernist architects who practiced in Palm Springs, his work holds its own against buildings by such well-known talents as Albert Frey, John Lautner, Raymond Loewy, Richard Neutra, and R. M. Schindler. Known as the first designer-builder to introduce Palm Springs to the "ultramodern motor court inn," Burns’s Orbit In features large studio-style rooms arranged around a central U-shaped courtyard, at the heart of which is a rectangular saltwater pool.

Out on West Arenas, Orbit In keeps a low public profile. The prevailing palette is dusty green with a dusty orange accent on the edges of the eaves. (In the rooms, however, there are vivid turquoises and reds, rich blues and leopard prints.) The grounds are planted with grasses and cacti, with towering palms and dense walls of banana trees and bird-of-paradise.

The motel was purchased in 1999 by Christy Eugenis and Stan Amy, whose home base is Portland, Oregon, where the couple owns and operates New Seasons Market & Grocery, a chain of natural-foods stores. Eugenis, a former stylist and a vintage-clothing maven, among other things, happened to be on holiday in Palm Springs, and one afternoon while out rollerblading with a friend she came across a hand-painted for sale sign in front of the motel. To Eugenis’s eye, the decidedly down-at-the-heels period piece was a time capsule ready to be opened—the property had been pretty much left alone for decades, more the object of benign neglect than the victim of ruinous renovations. "Every interior and exterior feature was still intact," Eugenis recalls.

Seattle artist Kevin Spitzer created the massive terrazzo boomerang bar that Eugenis envisioned, which rests on a polished concrete-block base beside the pool. At 5 p.m. each day, guests are invited to convene at the bar, where they are encouraged to try a complimentary "Orbitini" while Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby croons in the background.

After transforming one room into an office, Eugenis set to work outfitting the remaining nine with an exhaustive inventory of high-profile furniture pieces by a now familiar Homeric list of Midcentury Modern masters: Harry Bertoia, Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson, Isamu Noguchi, Pierre Paulin, Warren Platner, Jens Risom, and Eero Saarinen. Even the valances above the curtained windows are covered in Ray Eames-designed textiles. Eugenis’s enthusiasm for Midcentury Modernism is unbridled.

Each room features a private walled-in back patio, and four of them also have original crisp white enameled kitchenettes that have been fitted out with period-perfect Melmac dinnerware. All of the rooms retain the old pink-on-pink tile bathrooms, which have been lovingly restored, right down to the glistening chrome electric heaters embedded in the walls. In a gated alcove off the motel’s entrance, there is a new open-air whirlpool for eight with an adjacent fire pit to help warm the cool desert nights. 562 W. Arenas Rd., Palm Springs, Calif.; 877/996-7248;; doubles from $199.

The Key to Bliss

In the small, airy reception area at Casa Morada, in the Florida Keys, guests are greeted by Charles and Ray Eames’s 1948 biomorphic white molded fiberglass chaise longue, which is precisely the same chaise longue that greets guests in the Philippe Starck-designed lobby of Ian Schrager’s Delano Hotel in South Beach. The presence of the iconic chaise at Casa Morada is no coincidence. After all, Lauren Abrams, Terry Ford, and Heide Praver Werthamer, the three owners of Casa Morada, put in a collective 24 years working for Schrager, learning the tricks of the hospitality trade at such hip, high-profile hotels as Morgans, Royalton, Paramount, Delano, and Mondrian.

In 2002, the trio—all blond, all blue-eyed—decided to strike out on their own, buying a 1.7-acre property on the Gulf shore of Islamorada, on a sleepy side street next door to the late Ted Williams’s waterfront house. You know you have arrived when you see the towering pylons, three massive concrete slabs painted brilliant shades of magenta, peach, and rust that face Madeira Street and instantly recall, at least to architectural cognoscenti, the work of Mexican architect Luis Barragán.

Though just 90 minutes south of Miami, Casa Morada is a world away from the hustle of Ocean Drive. It is also a world away from the take-a-number anonymity of large resort hotels, and from the dubious charms of the faded motels dotting U.S. 1 throughout the Keys. The place is tranquil, as opposed to trendy—think serene, not scene. (Children under the age of 16 are not allowed.)

Casa Morada’s 16 suites are located in a couple of not particularly distinguished white two-story masonry buildings constructed in the early 1950’s and originally named the Sunset Inn. Eleven suites are located in the Garden House, which has been refurbished and renovated, and five are in the redesigned waterfront Sea View House. Some of the bathrooms in the Garden House are small and decidedly vintage, but they, too, are slowly being reworked. Besides, Praver Werthamer notes, "We cater to people who don’t expect marble all over the bathrooms."

In the spirit of the highly personalized endeavor, the suites have names, not numbers: Iguana, Starfish, Shangri-La. Clean and spare, with shimmering terrazzo floors in the Garden House, new bamboo-wood floors in Sea View House, the rooms are large and luminous, bright and white and breezy, punctuated with area rugs and quivering white orchids in clay pots.

In lieu of generic brown wood or Formica "motel furniture," the suites feature an eclectic mix of Mexican antiques and custom-designed iron and mahogany pieces that are juxtaposed with modern tables and beds. One small but telling amenity is the stack of books in the living room of each suite, which might well include something by best-selling novelist Carl Hiaasen, who lives on Islamorada.

Each suite has its own private garden area or outdoor terrace, which comes complete with chaises or Adirondack-style chairs and helps blur the distinction between inside and out.

Like the polychromatic pylons towering out front, the dense vegetation covering the property comes courtesy of Miami-based landscape architect Raymond Jungles, who first made his name in Key West. "Basically, we brought in a backhoe and completely excavated the property," Abrams says, noting that a paved parking lot—it was a motel after all—was occupying prime real estate at the center of the property, between the two buildings. This has been replaced by a carved native limestone grotto with a small waterfall and a pond. Jutting out from the small island into Florida Bay is a generously sized gazebo on stilts, the perfect perch from which to watch for manatees on the horizon or enjoy a late afternoon glass of wine or champagne.

Architect Robert Werthamer, Praver Werthamer’s husband, is not only Casa Morada’s design director but also the captain of Sol Sister, a 32-foot Chesapeake Bay Skipjack that guests are invited to book either for a half-day snorkeling trip or a highly recommended two-hour sunset sail.

136 Madeira Rd., Islamorada, Fla.; 888/881-3030;; doubles from $229.

Marrakesh or Bust

In 2001, when Bruce Abney bought the Caravan Inn, a 1950’s motel in Desert Hot Springs, California, it was, he says, a bona fide flophouse—its 15 rooms occupied by a dubious lineup of "parolees, ne’er-do-wells, and lost souls." In those sorry, rough-and-tumble days, the going rate for a room was $235 per week, and, one suspects, you got what you paid for. Last year, Abney reopened the motel, and while Midcentury Modernism may be all the rage in the Coachella Valley, he eschewed the 1950’s—"Palm Springs has done it"—in favor of a decidedly more exotic aesthetic: 1940’s French Morocco. On buying trips to Marrakesh and Essaouira, Abney filled container after container with enough furniture, fabric, carpets, lighting, and accessories to outfit the now 12-room El Morocco Inn & Spa, which he manages with his partner, John Aguilar, and brother, Steve Abney.

Fifteen minutes north of Palm Springs, Desert Hot Springs has a population of some 17,000, and is famous for mineral springs and its mom-and-pop "spa-tels," which at the city’s peak in the 1960’s numbered somewhere in the neighborhood of 80. The place fell on hard times in the 1970’s, 1980’s, and most of the 1990’s, when the area was inundated not by movie stars and film moguls on leave from Hollywood but by Girls Gone Wild-style spring breakers, and bronzed men on vacation at frisky "clothing optional" gay guesthouses. By 1997, when Los Angeles architect Michael Rotondi and his partner, graphic designer April Greiman, opened their much-publicized Miracle Manor Retreat in Desert Hot Springs, the down-and-out spa-tels were ripe for renovating.

Like a traditional riad, El Morocco is built around a square courtyard, with a pool at the center and palm trees in oversize planters. The exterior palette is white and bleached terra-cotta, punched up with saturated jewel tones—blues, reds, greens, and golds—"colors from the Spice Route," according to Abney. Everywhere you look, there are horseshoe arches and billowing fabrics.

There is a social component to El Morocco that Abney anticipated by transforming one of the original guest rooms into the Kasbah Lounge & Library, an open-plan, two-room public suite off the central courtyard. Just outside, in the courtyard itself, there is a large U-shaped ebonized-wicker bar where guests gather for drinks. It is also here, each late afternoon before dinner, that Abney instructs guests in the subtle art of the traditional Moroccan hand-washing ceremony, which entails much splashing water and many ornate silver vessels. For an extra $10, you are invited to try flavored tobacco in one of five elaborate glass hookahs, which Abney will set up and oversee.

The typical El Morocco guest is someone who is looking for an "experiential" escape, Abney says. "It’s a hip crowd…graphic designers, architects, artists, movie industry people, stuntmen, and actresses. At the moment, we’re flying under the radar."

66810 E. Fourth St., Desert Hot Springs, Calif.; 888/288-9905;; doubles from $199.

Deep in the Art of Texas

"It’s a pilgrimage to get here," says Heidi Poulin, general manager of the Thunderbird Motel in Marfa. The west Texas town is best known as the home of the late artist Donald Judd, who moved here in 1979 and established the not-for-profit Chinati Foundation, a 340-acre museum on the site of a former Army facility that permanently exhibits the work of Judd, John Chamberlain, and Dan Flavin, among others.

According to Poulin, most of the Thunderbird’s guests are "culture tourists," art lovers from New York, California, and Europe who enthusiastically make the trek to visit Chinati, as well as the new galleries currently sprouting in the city.

Built in 1959 as a classic horseshoe-shaped single-story roadside motel with 24 rooms and a swimming pool at the center, the stucco-over-concrete block Thunderbird was owned by a local family who ran it, without fanfare, for decades. The motel has a sister property, the Holiday Capri Inn, situated directly across the street in an adobe building that also houses a bar that serves beer, wine, sake, and tamales. A renovation is currently in progress, scheduled to be completed in September.

If there are those who remember the Thunderbird Motel as the place where, in the mid to late 1990’s, the management provided paper napkins in lieu of terry-cloth towels and the state of the shag carpeting was particularly egregious, that all changed in 2004, when the shuttered motel was bought by a consortium led by Liz Lambert, the attorney turned motelier who was responsible for the first-rate transformation of the San José Motel in Austin. Just as she’d done there, Lambert called in Bob Harris of Lake/Flato Architects, a well-respected San Antonio-based firm, for a complete renovation.

Minimalist sculptor and furniture-designer Judd would surely have approved of the no-frills aesthetic of the born-again motel, with its polished concrete floors and rooms outfitted with simple pecan furniture by Marfa-based artist turned designer Jamey Garza. However lean, the Thunderbird is not mean: the beds have white cotton sheets from India, wool blankets with a band of slate blue or charcoal gray at the top, and, at the foot, a colorful handwoven Peruvian blanket. Though something short of traditional room service, each morning at 7 a.m. a thermos of coffee is delivered to each room, suspended in a cloth bag from the doorknob.

Though everything may be new, the Thunderbird has not, in fact, substantially changed since 1959. It is still a straightforward roadside motel with no illusions of being anything more, though it is distinguished by the care and flair its new owners bring to the enterprise.

601 W. San Antonio, Marfa, Tex.; 432/729-1984;; doubles from $125.

Kiss Me, Kate

If less is more at the Thunderbird Motel in Marfa, too much is never enough at Kate’s Lazy Meadow Motel in Mount Tremper, New York, a tiny hamlet near Woodstock, in Ulster County. Kate is Kate Pierson, of the rock band the B-52’s, and her unbridled panache and hyperkinetic personality shine through. On her motel’s Web site, she promises, "you’ll find mind-blowing Midcentury Modern/space age/rocket-your-socks-off decor."

Monica Coleman, 41, in addition to being Pierson’s partner, is the co-owner and general manager of Kate’s Lazy Meadow Motel, the person responsible for the day-to-day operation of the nine-plus-acre compound. "It’s sort of a hippie hangout," she says, adding that excited guests (and Pierson fans) arrive from as far away as Australia and Japan to revel in Kate’s over-the-top accommodations. Three traditional Catskills cabin-style wooden buildings, complete with knotty-pine interior walls and wainscoting, house the front desk and the nine suites. One low-slung building features horizontal rough-cut wood siding, painted barn red with forest- green trim. The other two have Lincoln Log-like exterior finishes.

The Lazy Meadow Motel was owned in the early 1950’s by a German couple, according to Coleman, and "then the local biology teacher took over and ran it as a campground and apartments." Pierson bought the property in 2002 and after retrofitting the rooms with her somewhat ecstatic vision of the 1950’s, hung out the shingle for Kate’s Lazy Meadow Motel, in the spring of 2004.

The rooms transport you back to a time in the 1950’s when Formica, Tupperware, and the Avon Lady were young…a time when lime green and burnt orange were considered viable options. A popular alternative to the nine suites are five vintage aluminum Airstream trailers, which began turning up on the property in 2005. Parked on the bank of the Esopus Creek, in the high spirit of the endeavor, the restored Airstreams come complete with catchy names like Kate’s Hairstream, Bubbles, North to Alaska, Tinkerbell, and Tiki, as well as such amenities as barbecues and outdoor lounge chairs, hammocks, and tiki torches.

Though there is a front desk manager and a caretaker, you are pretty much on your own at Kate’s. They do not, for example, provide daily maid service. But with all of the "groovy" furnishings and accoutrements, all the hip hype and boisterous banter, Pierson has managed to create a delectable, authentically personal place. 5191 Rt. 28, Mount Tremper, N.Y.; 845/688-7200;; doubles from $150.


Hotel Valley Ho
A two-story motor lodge turned hip urban resort, with glass-walled rooms, private patios, and two restaurants. 6850 E. Main St., Scottsdale; 866/882-4484;; doubles from $289.


Avalon Hotel
Kelly Wearstler has revamped the old Beverly Carlton motel with Midcentury Modernist flair. 9400 W. Olympic Blvd., Beverly Hills; 800/535-4715;; doubles from $259.

Ballantines Original Hotel
1950’s kitsch, with 14 themed rooms—Marilyn Monroe stayed in the Pretty in Pink Suite, where Andy Warhol’s silk-screen print now hangs on the wall. 1420 N. Indian Canyon Dr., Palm Springs; 800/485-2808;; doubles from $99.

Farmer’s Daughter Hotel
This former flophouse is full of country-meets-city quirks: the rooms have rooster wallpaper; the No Tell room has a full wet bar. 115 S. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles; 800/334-1658;; doubles from $159.

Miracle Manor Retreat
A run-of-the-mill motel in 1948, today the Albert Frey-inspired "spa-tel" features a poolside spa with a Plexiglass-and-steel enclosure. 12589 Reposo Way, Desert Hot Springs; 877/329-6641;; doubles from $175.

New York

Roxbury Motel
Two NYC showbiz vets transformed a dilapidated motor lodge into a funky mountain retreat; this summer they’ll unveil a new wing with "theatrical" rooms. 2258 Hwy. 41, Roxbury; 607/326-7200;; doubles from $95.


Jupiter Hotel
Once a seedy roadway inn over a dank speakeasy, now a "cultural" boutique hotel with a bamboo-floored Dream Suite. 800 E. Burnside, Portland; 877/800-0004;; doubles from $84.


Hotel San Jose
Liz Lambert turned an old motel into a stucco-walled, garden-laden, bungalow-style establishment. 1316 S. Congress, Austin; 800/574-8897;; doubles from $150.

—Christine Ajudua

El Morocco Inn & Spa

Designed in a 1940’s French-Moroccan style, this romantic inn sits on a natural mineral-water aquifer about 12 miles north of Palm Springs. Facing a central courtyard with a palm-fringed pool, the 10 guest rooms are all individually designed with exotic furnishings, many imported from Marrakesh—think sheer white bed canopies, oversize tassels, copper sink basins, and hand-painted vases filled with peacock feathers. The spa has a hot mineral-water pool, as well as a menu of Africa-inspired treatments like the Moroccan clay body mask. In addition to a complimentary breakfast, the inn also hosts an evening happy hour with sake-based Morocco-tinis.

Casa Morada

Roxbury Motel

The converted motor lodge added two spas and nine rooms with interiors inspired by 1960’s TV classics like I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched.

Miracle Manor Retreat

Test the waters in the spa at Miracle Manor Retreat, set atop geothermal springs. It's a worthy splurge after a day spent hiking the otherworldly landscape of nearby Joshua Tree National Park.

Farmer’s Daughter Hotel

Straddling the line between Hollywood and West Hollywood/Beverly Hills, the Farmer’s Daughter Hotel offers travelers a bit of Southern hospitality in the City of Angels. This boutique hotel combines chic style with down home comfort in its 66 rooms. The style, referred to as “farm décor,” features denim, plaid, and hardwood floors. The hotel’s convenient location puts guests just minutes from the Grove, Museum Row and CBS Studio. Guests can dine at the on-site Tart restaurant, swim in the outdoor pool and enjoy wireless Internet access, available throughout the property.

Ballantines Original Hotel

Avalon Beverly Hills

Hidden down a tree-lined street, this hotel’s three separate buildings are all decorated in quirky, Nixon-era style: Lucite tables in the curvilinear lobby, rosewood and bamboo accents in all 84 rooms, and enough Eames-style chairs and modern light fixtures that you won’t need to visit L.A.’s Architecture and Design Museum. The aesthetic, with its palette of sea green, khaki, and slate, is charming enough—but since designer Kelly Wearstler’s team was recently spotted walking around the property, an impending facelift seems likely.

Orbit In's Hideaway

Located downtown, the Hideaway was designed by Herbert Burns as the city’s first traditional motor inn. Although it retains much of its original 1947 style, the single-level motel underwent a full renovation in 2002. The nine studio rooms are now individually designed, each with furnishings by famous designers like Eames and Arne Jacobsen. A secluded saltwater pool and a lava-rock fire pit sit in the center of the property, with views of the surrounding San Jacinto Mountains. In addition, the motel also has a lounge area with a flagstone fireplace, a library, and a collection of board games.