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Sunday, April 25, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The World's First Motel Rests Upon Its Memories

SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. - The Motel Inn looks pretty sad these days. A jumble of old furniture is piled in its dusty lobby. The dry, Southern California wind whistles around the motel's crumbling white plaster. Travelers zip past on Highway 101, just 50 feet away, oblivious to the Spanish-style building.

Yet the Motel Inn, now closed for a much-needed renovation, has a big claim to fame in the travelers' world: it's the world's first motel - the place where the word "motel" was coined.

Back in 1925, California architect Arthur Heineman decided to get into the lodging business. He chose a site on the outskirts of San Luis Obispo, a ranch town about 200 miles north of Los Angeles (a long day's drive in those days)

Heineman designed his place so guests could drive right up to the door of their rooms (or an adjacent garage). He decided to call it a "motor hotel" and then shortened it to "motel."

"There were a few `auto courts' around where travelers stayed, but you couldn't necessarily park right in front of your room. And this was the first place in the world to be called a motel," says Mark Hall-Patton, director of the County Historical Museum in San Luis Obispo.

For Marcella Faust, the Motel Inn is a big part of her personal history. She's 85 now, lives alone in a mobile home in the San Francisco Bay area, and uses a walker to get around. But as a bright-eyed teenager, back in 1926, she was one of the first waitresses to work at the motel's restaurant. Her voice sparkles with the memories.

"My sister and I and a girlfriend all worked there. My mother, she wanted me to finish school. But I wanted to work. She had eight kids and I told her there were enough legs under her kitchen table.

"And oh, it was wonderful to work at the Motel Inn. They trained us to fold the white linen napkins, to polish the silverware. In those days, there really was service."

The waitresses dressed up, too: "They gave us Spanish-style outfits, with a big hat with a red rose on it. And a shiny white blouse and a satin vest."

Back then, Marcella's pay was a dollar a day. And she and the other waitresses did everything from washing windows to handing out motel brochures to drivers on the highway.

"We'd stand out there on the road in our big hats. My girlfriend would work the cars going north, I'd work the ones going south. They were Model A's and Model T's back then, so they'd have to go pretty slow up the steep hill there. We'd just stand there and wave and hand them the booklets as they went past."

Over the years, the Motel Inn was host to everyone from traveling salesmen to Hollywood types. They stayed in the one-story bungalows (40 rooms in all) grouped around a courtyard and ate in the restaurant - steak, steak and more steak in this ranching town.

Marcella brims with the memories - of how she met her husband-to-be at the Motel Inn, as well as the Hollywood executives who later got her work as a movie extra. She left to work in hotels around California and serve in the Women's Army Corps in World War II.

But over the years, she kept going back home to her family and back home to work at the Motel Inn.

The Motel Inn was the first in what architect Heineman envisaged as a chain of 18 motels along the West Coast, stretching from San Diego to Seattle.

But the Depression soured those plans and the Motel Inn (which briefly was called the Milestone Motel when it opened) was the first - and last - one he built.

The Motel Inn was unusually luxurious for the 1920s. It cost $80,000 to build in its ornate Spanish-mission style, with a three-tiered bell tower, white pillars, and a tree-fringed courtyard. In those days most American car travelers still were staying in campgrounds or tiny wood cabins (some about the size and style of chicken coops) that were clustered by a gas station or general store.

By the 1930s, though, as Americans' love affair with the car deepened, mom-and-pop cottages cropped around the country - places with pseduo-Tudor architecture and names such as "Bide-a-Wee" or "Kozy Kottages."

As highways and car travel mushroomed in the 1940s and 1950s, the era of the classic American motel dawned - a long, low building with all the rooms under one roof (a more economical way to build bigger places) and plenty of shiny molded-plywood and plastic furniture. The Holiday Inn, one of the first of the modern chains, opened its first motel in 1952.

Meanwhile, the Motel Inn has been outgunned by more modern, comfortable motels on a nearby strip.

It sits forlorn, its restaurant and guest rooms closed for the past 1 1/2 years. The road where Motel Inn waitress Marcella Faust once stood in her big, red-rose hat and handed out motel brochures is now a four-lane elevated highway.

But there's life in the old motel yet: Bob Davis, the new owner (and owner of the modern Apple Farm Inn next door) plans to restore and reopen the main Motel Inn building next year as a restaurant and banquet facility. He also plans to create a small museum on the history of the Motel Inn and other early American motels.

But there won't be any more overnight stays at this monument to Americans' mobility; the Motel Inn rooms are too small for modern tastes and not economic to restore, Davis says.

Marcella Faust hopes to be there when the Motel Inn restaurant reopens: "I'm so glad someone will preserve it. Somehow I always go home to the Motel Inn." ------------------------- MORE INFORMATION -------------------------

-- The Motel Inn is at 2223 Monterey Street in San Luis Obispo, just off Highway 101.

-- For information on visiting San Luis Obispo, contact the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce, 1039 Chorro St., San Luis Obispo, CA 93401. Phone 1-805-781-2777. For general information on California, phone the state tourism office, 1-800-TO-CALIF.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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