Motel | Tim Ross
In an online world of seemingly endless accommodation options, many people are being drawn to the nostalgic pull of the classic Australian motel.
Words: Tim Ross | Photography Derek Swalwell
Whether it’s a weekend away or an extended pit-stop to break up the trip, the call of a room key, a jug of milk and a superfluous piece of paper printed with “Hygienically sealed for your protection” slung over an old Caroma toilet can prove too strong to avoid.
What is the nostalgic lure of watching TV in bed leaning against a thin pillow popped up against a scratchy, dark brown exposed brick wall and a lap full of country Chinese food? Why do we yearn for an old motel room with an inbuilt clock radio and a piece of frosted glass above the door so that when a fellow guest checks in at three o’clock in the morning, their headlights stream through the glass, bounce off the mirror on the wall and wake us up? The answer lies squarely in the concept of the breakfast tray.
In a land where the car has provided us with the ultimate freedom to hit the road and explore, it is no surprise that Australians wholeheartedly embraced the American concept of the motel. When they began springing up here in the 1950s, they represented a stylish and sophisticated way to travel. In a country where travelers typically stayed in pubs with shared bathrooms, driving right up to the front door for a nightly sojourn in a room where your breakfast magically appeared through a hatch was an absolute revelation.
The initial explosion of motels centered on the holiday frontier of the Gold Coast. The motel industry was full of cowboys and chancers, all racing to bring this new American style of accommodation to Australia. Many were built by using photos from magazines and books as a guide and as a result, Australian motels from this era recall a rather over-the-top pastiche.
This is particularly evident with the Eldorado Motel on the Gold Coast, the first true motel at Surfers Paradise, built in 1954. When you look closely at the photos from the time you can see that the buildings seem out of proportion and the murals and feature walls give the impression that this is a wonky replica of something seen in the United States.
One of these cowboys was developer Bernie Elsey, who owned the Tiki Village and the Surfers Paradise Beachcomber Motel and Motor Inn. In the early 1950s he travelled to Florida and with his trusty camera swinging round his neck, he spent a week taking photos of the most popular places in town. On his return he developed the film, shoved them in front of his builder and the result was the very first kidney-shaped pool in the country.
These new establishments were irresistible, their popularity fuelled by the steady stream of postcards that were landing across the country. While the Gold Coast had the greatest concentration of motels at the time, they soon began popping up in regional centres and capital cities. Melbourne got its first taste of the form with the Oakleigh Motel, designed to mark the half-way point of the marathon for the 1956 Olympics. In true Australian style, however, it didn’t open until 1957. Despite this setback it quickly became a landmark and people would drive past simply to have a look at this piece of modernism in the suburbs. This fascination helped embed the romance of motels deep in the Australian psyche.
Not everyone was a fan of these American-style motels, particularly those on the Gold Coast. Architect and writer Robin Boyd described them as a “fibro cement paradise of plastic paint” and, in 1958, teamed up with progressive developer David Yencken to create The Black Dolphin Motel on the NSW South Coast. Boyd described it as an “architectural tranquilizer” between Melbourne and Sydney, and his one-time partner Roy Grounds declared it as his best work. Rejecting the bright lights bonanza, guests experienced restrained signage, peeled log columns sourced from a local mill and exposed bricks. The rooms, which echoed the interiors of his domestic architecture, shielded the guests from noise by placing the bathroom at the front, facing the car park. A back door to the room opened up to the outdoors, a rarity then and still today.
This Australian-style motel bamboozled guests and the owners had to go to great lengths to explain that it was “architecturally” significant. It is still standing today, though dramatically changed. Today the motel has largely been replaced by AirBnB-friendly apartments, particularly in our cities and suburbs, which heightens the thrill of finding an original like those that we stayed in in our youth.
On a recent family trip through country NSW, we stayed a night at the sort of brown brick-veneer colonial motel that was all the rage when I was a kid in the late 1970s and ’80s. When we pulled up at the door our young boys bolted out of the car and crashed through the room jumping on the beds before ransacking the cupboard for the complimentary twin-pack of biscuits and then feeling the mild disappointment of finding nothing but two empty glasses in the pint-sized fridge.
The familiarity brought me great comfort as I ticked the little boxes for our 7.30am room-delivered breakfast and the boys crashed from the excitement of it all, top and tailing in the single bed.
For me, nothing will ever take away the motel magic of cold toast in a paper bag, rubbery poached eggs and pineapple juice in a tumbler covered with cling wrap, placed on a tray and accessed through a little door in the wall.