When Queen Anne and I spent a week in Flagstaff last month, our primary goal was heat relief, but I was confident that I could snap a few shots of historic buildings and signs to add to my Route 66 collection. In this journal, I’ve written several times about my experiences traveling the Mother Road as a kid, so I’ll spare you from repeating them. Instead, I must say that I was disappointed at how hard it was to find kitschy motel and dinner signs along the main street. More profitable strip malls and professional offices are rapidly replacing them. Interstate 40 travelers prefer the newer hotels on Butler Street, where the Little America Hotel is. Nobody drives 66 anymore—too many lights and too much traffic.
John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, the depressing story of dust bowl migrants, searching for survival, didn’t make Route 66 famous. Nor did that fame come from my father’s generation, who—like the Joad family—moved en masse to California after World War II. It came when Angel Delgadillo—the Seligman barber—pitched a historic highway idea to the State of Arizona. When that designation came through, tons of beer-guts had a play-pen to gather and drive their car toys. We’re dying off now, and like the coals in your Webber Grill, that passion is dying with us.
Master photographers Ansel Adam and Minor White influenced how I photograph the world. Still, in 1975, the George Eastman House showed a photo exhibition called The New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape. The show still floats between museums today. It was a collection of ten photographs made by ten photographers that were opposite the landscapes I embraced. It was heresy. The photos are stark images of industrial buildings and houses devoid of people. I didn’t even think some of the artists printed very well. But I did kind of like the ones John Schott did. His pictures were of Route 66 motels. You can see where this led.
I’ve considered compiling a book of my Route 66 photos. I have several, but most are from Arizona, with a couple from California and New Mexico, but nothing east of Texas. If this horse hadn’t been flogged to death, I still could work on my own Mother Road project. Now that I’m retired, I have time. I figure a month on the road should do it. To do it properly, I’d have to drive a classic car—something from the ’50s or ’60s. However, it needs air-conditioning, cruise control, and a good stereo (I won’t put up with AM radio stations dropping out under bridges). My ultimate ride would be a red ’62 Corvette—like the one Buzz and Todd drove—but hold the whitewalls. I could haul my camera equipment behind it in a small aluminum trailer like the autocross guys lug their race tires. October is a perfect month for a road trip, so if anyone out there wants to be my Angel investor, let me know. You’d get all the bills, half of the proceed, and a free book out of the deal.
This week’s featured image is of a prominent Flagstaff landmark. It’s called Motel du Beau, and the subject is the sign. It’s one of three hotel signs towering above the city (can you guess what this month’s project is). With the Lowell Observatory on top of the hill, Flagstaff has adopted a dark-sky policy, so the zoning people would never allow these enormous signs in town. If they weren’t historical landmarks, the city would tear them down.
In the late 1920s, Albert Eugene Du Beau vacationed in northern Arizona and envisioned a new way to make money. Instead of building a multi-story building for railroad and train travelers to stay, why not create a place for people traveling in these new-fangled motor cars? So, he designed and built a single-story motor-hotel (later shortened to motel) to be convenient to unload and load their vehicles in 1929. His design featured a U-shaped layout with steam-heated garages (they burned down in a 1970s fire) and indoor toilets. He built his motor court adjacent to downtown’s main street, which was brilliant because, in time, the busy highway became Route 66. The Motel Du Beau was one of the pioneering businesses to use neon signs and elevate them on towers.
In today’s modern world, the Motel Du Beau still looks like a nice place to stay, with rooms starting at $75—a far cry from the original price of $2.50 per night. Their website shows various room types, and they have a lovely little wine lounge called Nomads. I’d certainly be willing to try it after they reopen the bar.
I hope you enjoy seeing a part of Flagstaff’s history. You can view my Motel Du Beau web version on its page by clicking here. Next week, we’ll look at another historic Flagstaff motel sign, so be sure to join us then.
Till next time