Roadside motels becoming an endangered species, experts say
Clair Boring and Joseph McKain bucked the odds last year when they bought the Colonial Motel off state Route 356 in Butler and opened it as the Almost Home Motel.
“It was in rough, rough shape,” said McKain, 63, of Cabot. “A real challenge.”
They replaced the roof, windows, doors, carpeting, furniture and repaved the driveway and parking lot at the 13-room motel, which was built in 1952 and opened as Shockey's Patio Motel.
“It still has way to go,” said Boring, 60, of Butler.
Their small motel, and thousands like it across America, are part of an endangered species, experts say. The iconic roadside stops don't include fitness rooms, spa services or designer decor. Developers would likely consider tearing many of them down.
But owners such as Diane Kuhn and her husband, Ralph, who own a six-room, 75-year-old motel in Allegheny Township, say they'd be hard-pressed to give them up.
“What would I do without it?” Kuhn, 69, of Leechburg said of the Crossroads Inn and Motel, which the couple has owned for more than two decades. “I love it, I love the people.”
They've adapted to changes. Their clientele these days includes construction workers and Marcellus shale drillers instead of the Babcock & Wilcox workers who once were regulars when the steel mill in North Apollo was working. Efficiency apartments have been added.
“When we bought it, we figured if we rented three rooms a night each month, we'd make our (mortgage) payment,” said Kuhn. “It's always been a good little business.”
Some travelers continue to prefer to stay in small, family-run motels where rates run a fraction of their larger competitors.
“They are just so much fun,” said Kristen Cogswell, of Sheridan, Wyo., owner and founder of momandpopmotels.com. “The front desk people will accommodate your dog, find you a baby-sitter.”
Her website includes 24,000 independent hotels, motels, bed and breakfast inns and vacation rentals in its directory, she said.
“The moms and pops are having a tough time ... through the years, I've watched them just fall,” said Cogswell.
The industry has had quite a ride.
After the birth of the automobile, America's need for overnight lodging along its new network of roads grew, according to Vintage Roadside, a website devoted to roadside attractions such as diners, drive-ins, motels, skating rinks and bowling alleys.
In 1900, there were 8,000 registered automobiles in America; by 1930, that number had increased to 23 million, according to Vintage Roadside.
And the moms and pops who opened motels became the first settlers on “the roadside frontier,” John A. Jakle, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, writes in his book, “The Motel in America.”
The mother lode of family-run motels sprung up in the 1930s along Route 66, the 2,400-mile concrete ribbon that stretched from Chicago to Los Angeles.
But eventually, the luster faded.
In 2007, the National Trust for Historic Preservation included about 3,000 motels along Route 66 on its list of “America's 11 most Endangered Historic Places.”
The slide of mom-and-pop motels was helped by the passage of the Federal-Aid Highway Act in 1956, Vintage Roadside said.
The long-range road building plan called for construction of 40,000 miles of interstate highways, many of them bypassing existing motels or blocking traffic to their locations with limited on and off ramp access.
Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or firstname.lastname@example.org.