Today, many of us take for granted the fact that we can hop in a car, book a room and tour an area for fun. The automobile, the interstate and the growing middle class in postwar America led to an increasing accessibility of travel. This is where motels appeared on the scene. Motivated by a passionate interest in Midcentury Modern architecture of all kinds and “the magical experience of staying in a motel as a kid,” Heather David has spent the last 10 years gathering photos and info carefully compiled in Motel California.

Historic Origins in San Luis Obispo

The “World’s First Motel” is in California. While there were other motor hotels (meaning you could drive and park your car just outside your room) at the time, the Motel Inn in San Luis Obispo was the first to use the term “motel.” Originally, Heather explains, it was shorthand for “motor hotel,” and the sign read “mo-tel.” Eventually the hyphen dropped.

World's First Motel San Luis Obispo
A portion of the mission-inspired motel remains, but it is no longer an operational motel. Instead, visitors searching for accommodations can head over to the Madonna Inn, where each room is uniquely themed.
Madonna Inn San Luis Obispo
To compete, Heather explains, motels began adding “hotel-like amenities.” The Madonna Inn, for instance, includes a coffee shop and dining room in addition to each room’s unique decor.


As major interstates were built, many of the motels along the previous thoroughfares were now out of the way. This, along with stiff competition and the arrival of the motel chains, makes it “like a miracle” if a motel survives at all, and even more so with its Midcentury Modern style and desirability to stay there in tact. However, Heather notes you still have choices across the Golden State. Here are a few you can visit today.

Stardust, South Lake Tahoe

Stardust Lodge South Lake Tahoe
This Stardust Lodge near the California-Nevada state line is one of at least 10 Stardusts that appeared in California after the Stardust Hotel-Casino opened in Las Vegas in 1958.

In many areas, there were soon “more motels than potential customers,” Heather says. To stand out from the crowd and to motorists zipping by, motels like this one have a large and eye-catching sign.

Phoenix Hotel, San Francisco

Phoenix motel San Francisco
In addition to being an example of a motel’s restoration, the Phoenix also illustrates another characteristic of motels, the pool.

The Phoenix Hotel is an example of a midcentury motel’s resurrection. Businessman Chip Conley bought the 1956 Caravan Lodge and restored and renamed it Phoenix.

Safari Inn, Burbank

Safari Inn Burbank
Burbank’s Safari Inn uses a large, eye-catching sign to attract motorists’ attention.

The Safari Inn in Burbank shows another trick to distinguish one motel from another—theme. Metal sculptures shaped like animals you might see on a safari reoccur throughout the building.

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