A motel, also known as a motor hotel, motor inn, or motor lodge, is a hotel designed for motorists, usually having each room entered directly from the parking area for motor vehicles rather than through a central lobby.
The first campgrounds for automobile tourists were constructed in the late 1910s. Before that, tourists who couldn’t afford to stay in a hotel either slept in their cars or pitched their tents in fields alongside the road. These were called auto camps.
The modern campgrounds of the 1920s and 1930s provided running water, picnic grounds, and restroom facilities. Expansion of highway networks largely continued unabated through the depression as governments attempted to create employment.
Still, the roadside cabin camps were primitive, basically just auto camps with small cabins instead of tents. In 1935 the City Directory for San Diego listed the first “motel” type places as tourist camps.
The term “motel” originated with the Motel Inn of San Luis Obispo, originally called the Milestone Mo-Tel, which was constructed in 1925 by Arthur Heineman.
Combining the individual cabins of the tourist court under a single roof yielded the motor court or motor hotel. A handful of motor courts were beginning to call themselves motels, a term coined in 1926. Many of these early motels are still popular and are in operation, as in the case of 3V Tourist Court in St. Francisville, Louisiana, built-in 1938.
The post-war 1950s ushered in a building boom on a massive scale. By 1947, approximately 22,000 motor courts were in operation in the U.S. alone; a typical 50-room motel in that era cost $3000 per room in initial construction costs, compared to $12,000 per room for metropolitan city hotel construction.
By 1950 there were 50,000 motels serving half of the 22 million U.S. vacationers; a year later motels surpassed hotels in consumer demand. The industry peaked in 1964 with 61,000 properties and fell to 16,000 properties by 2012.
Hotel chains like Holiday Inn and Best Westerns swept in to dominate the competition, pushing out small motels that were run by individuals. These companies built up several stories, allowing them to house more guests, and bought up prime real estate in big cities, where most main highways passed through.
…what we’re trying to do here is finish the job that Henry Ford began. Ford put up a set of assembly-line wheels under the average American. It’s up to us to supply the assembly-line lodging.Holiday Inn executive in 1963
Franchising operations, in which an individual is allowed to go into business for himself under the widely advertised name of a chain of motels, thus realizing the benefits of chain operations with a relatively modest investment, has achieved remarkable growth for several chains.
While motel rooms were plain and functional, the facades took advantage of regional styles (and, occasionally, stereotypes). Owners employed stucco, adobe, stone, brick – whatever was handy – to attract guests.