Once Upon A Time, Hanging Out At Tucson's No-Tel Motel Must've Been Quite A Trip
By Dave Devine
OCTOBER 13, 1997: A GIANT BILLBOARD towers over traffic on Oracle Road just north of Grant. An advertisement for the University of Arizona proclaims in patriotic red, white and blue: "Find Yourself and Other Amazing Discoveries." Directly underneath it, in hot yellow and red, a much smaller sign signals the entrance to the No-Tel Motel.
As I check in with my date, I wonder what my 80-year-old mother would think.
The woman behind the desk asks if we want a room with a heated wa-wa bed or a typical mattress. The regular room is $30 plus tax. "But we only want it for an hour," I protest. So the charge is $20, cash.
Room No. 8 is tiny and very warm. A double bed with starched white sheets covering a too-soft mattress fills most of the space. The only other furniture is a well-used chair and a four-drawer dresser with a broken handle. There is no closet.
The swamp cooler beats a steady rhythm, trying its best to tame the stuffy air. But on this muggy August afternoon, with no open windows, its failure is guaranteed.
Painted-over windows, freshly laundered towels neatly folded, and a paper mat outside the tiny shower highlight the bathroom. The plumbing fixtures are obviously dated, but appear functional.
Mirrors above the bed and an "Adult Entertainment Enterprise" business license hanging in the office are all that distinguish the No-Tel from many other early motels that still exist in Tucson. That plus one TV channel showing couples sucking, swearing and sweating.
But the heat in the room soon has me dozing off. As my eyelids droop, I dream about the history of auto courts, a topic I've been researching recently.
Oh, did I mention the lady joining me was my wife?
THE ADVENT OF the automobile changed the American hospitality business forever. Train travelers stayed near the depots, in large establishments like downtown's Hotel Congress. But the freedom of movement brought by the auto moved much of this business to the edges of towns and cities, along the highways.
Turn-of-the century pioneering motorists rumbled mostly over dirt paths, but in 1916 the federal government began encouraging the construction of paved highways.
Early auto tourists who quit for the day generally camped out, pitching their tents alongside the road anywhere they wanted to. By the 1920s, however, public and private campgrounds were common.
In 1921, the local Chamber of Commerce considered the opening of the Tucson Auto Camp a significant event. According to a newspaper account of the time: "The Tucson camping ground for touring motorists has already acquired a reputation for being the best appointed place of its kind from El Paso to the coast...It will unquestionably be the means of deciding many tourists to place Tucson on their itinerary while touring Arizona, it is thought."
Not for long, though.
Americans on wheels were quick to demand better accommodations than mere campgrounds could provide. At the same time, the nation's highways were growing crowded--from a paltry 8,000 registered automobiles in 1900, the number of cars exploded to 23 million by 1930. Even through the depths of the Great Depression, it seems, Americans kept on truckin'.
By 1925 some mom-and-pop service-station entrepreneurs were throwing together "tourist cabins" behind their businesses. The first of these "auto courts" in the United States was reputedly the Askins Cottage Camp in Douglas, Arizona.
Douglas was linked to New Mexico and points west by Highway 80. It curved south near Lordsburg and ran through Bisbee, Benson and Tucson before heading north toward Florence and Phoenix and then turning west to Gila Bend and Yuma. In the 1920s and '30s, this was the primary highway across southern Arizona. It was part of the "Broadway of America," the "Old Spanish Trail," the "Bankhead Highway"--countless business associations across the nation, all bent on promoting tourism in their towns and cities by capitalizing on the romance of the open road, came up with these colorful nicknames.
By whatever name, Highway 80 weaved its way through Tucson, entering the city about where Benson Highway now dead ends into Interstate 10. Then it ambled north up Sixth Avenue, jogged over to a two-way Stone Avenue before heading out of town on Oracle Road. The two miles of this road were beefed up in 1937 to handle the increasing tourist traffic, thus becoming the first divided highway in Arizona.
Along Highway 80 through Tucson in the 1930s were dozens of "tourist courts"--the term "motel" wouldn't enter common usage until the next decade. On South Sixth Avenue, in the 15 or so blocks between 25th Street and today's interstate highway, were Camp Dreamland, the Linger Longer, the Close-Inn, the Aut-O-Tel, the Sunset Villa and many others. A mile-and-a-half stretch of Oracle Road from Drachman to Miracle Mile featured the All States Auto Camp, the Coronado Heights Court, the Stumble Inn and the Miracle View.
Many of these courts were family-run businesses. Most of them had a few tiny cabins, each less than 200 square feet. Parking, sometimes covered, was located between the units. Early court rooms in the late 1920s had been spartan, with travelers themselves often supplying the sheets and even curtains, or sometimes renting these little comforts for an extra 25 cents. But by the 1930s many courts were comfortable and--at a buck or two a night--affordable.
Ah, modern life.
SHAKING THE SLEEP from my eyes, I'm recalling the history of the No-Tel, built in 1942 as the Dobson Motel, named after the owners and operators, Elmer and Angeline Dobson. At the time, its neighbors on Oracle Road included La Siesta, the Major Motel, El Sol, the Don Auto Court, Ransom's, and the Welcome Tourist Court. Some of those courts still exist, including the former Oracle, still serving today's discerning traveling public under the name Tiki Motel.
The Dobsons sold their little piece of the American dream in 1947. In 1951 it was renamed the DeAnza, and sold again in 1957, when it became the Tucson Holiday Motel.
The Holiday was just one of many motels along the street in those days--the Oasis, Highland Tower Motel, Marilyn Motel and El Corral. Today, some are still there as motels, while others are serving as low-income housing or apartments.
In 1961, Eldridge and Claire Rigg bought an interest in the Holiday Motel. Eldridge Rigg says Tucson was a much smaller place then, and that Oracle Road was still a major route through town. Much of the motel's clientele, he recalls, were traveling businessmen.
By the mid-1960s, however, much of Highway 80's tourist traffic had migrated to I-10. When the freeway through Tucson was first proposed in 1948, "promises were made there would be no business development along the thoroughfare," according to press accounts quoting established motel owners at the time. These same owners aggressively battled rezonings for motels along the new interstate. Despite the promises, they lost.
In 1963 the dwindling tourist business on Oracle Road, which had been renamed Miracle Mile Strip the year before, was so bad that a number of motel owners asked for substantial property tax relief. The Arizona Daily Star, pointing out that the new motels along I-10 were on access roads, not the interstate itself, called the request "ludicrous."
With the loss of business, many of the early motels on South Sixth Avenue soon decayed and were eventually torn down.
By 1974, the Holiday Motel had been sold three more times. James L. Blair bought it that year, renamed it the No-Tel in 1975 and promoted it as offering "adult movies on closed-circuit TV...water beds, pool." Pretty racy stuff for the era. In 1978 the No-Tel was sold again, to Hyun Keun Kim, who still owns it.
Despite its local notoriety as a den of illicit sex, business at the 16-unit No-Tel appears to be dying. Few cars are present in its parking lot at any time of the day or night--little wonder in today's world, where sex fiends can watch porno in the comfort of their living rooms while they partake of phone-in fantasies and Internet pornography.
Perhaps the most ironic indication that business at the No-Tel has fallen off is the reputation it has with its neighbors: Ed Davenport, president of the nearby neighborhood association, reports his group has no problems with the establishment. A spokesman for the Tucson Police Department says they don't either.
AS WE LEAVE the steamy room, I'm thinking about the 1930s, when a study conducted by Southern Methodist University found that "far more than half of the business done in the local (Dallas) camps was what is politely known as 'couple trade'--the rental of a cabin for an hour or two by a man and woman, obviously for 'immoral purposes.' "
In a 1940 magazine article entitled "Camps of Crime," FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover vigorously attacked early motels for poor surveillance of their customers and bad record-keeping. He labeled some auto courts "a new home of crime in America, a new home of disease, bribery, corruption, crookedness, rape, white slavery, thievery, and murder." Pretty tough talk from a guy who liked to wear dresses.
The auto courts' seedy reputation in that era was at least partially deserved. Some were poorly built, poorly maintained, equipped with primitive sanitation systems, and managed by people who didn't care much. Most courts, however, were cozy cabins operated by concerned mom-and-pop owners.
Despite the restrictive laws and bad publicity, however, the number of auto courts nationwide had grown to 300,000 units, with 500 more complexes being added to the total each year. The reason was fairly simple. According to The Architectural Record in 1933, the construction of auto courts "has been the single growing and highly active division of the building industry." In other words, mom and pop had come to depend on their little business as a way to survive the Depression.
The influx of military personnel during World War II helped Tucson motor courts maintain their business--despite nationwide rationing of tires and gasoline, which drastically reduced travel.
Even after 1945, Tucson saw more auto courts going up, some out on Benson Highway to the east of town, while others were built along Miracle Mile.
But by the late 1940s, however, the era of the auto court, like an old Model T with bad tires, was slowing to a halt. Motel chains, with their mass-produced, standardized, sanitized, "no surprise" approach to the overnight trade, soon overwhelmed the mom-and-poppers.
IN THE PAST few years, the city changed the name of Miracle Mile Strip back to North Oracle Road. City officials were hoping the name change would help curb the prostitution which festered in the area during the 1970s. That--and heavy police patrols--seemed to work. Today, a new Walgreen's, along with other recent business activity in the area, hint that the No-Tel and other early motels along Oracle may soon be history, replaced by something new and shiny and clean.
But for now, at least faint traces of Tucson's colorful auto court era linger there. If you look hard enough, you'll catch glimpses of it in a subtle architectural detail, or a few tiny bedroom units with the trademark covered parking between rooms. These quickly fading charms whisper of a time, 60 years ago, when an American road trip was quite a trip indeed, with or without the naughty thoughts.
A 28-page monograph by the author, entitled "Dreaming of Autopia...Southern Arizona Auto Courts of the 1920s and '30s," is available by sending a check for $6 to Tucson Corral of the Westerners, 1937 East Blacklidge Drive, Tucson, AZ 85719.
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