A Modern Motel Ghost Town

Report From a Motel ‘Ghost Town’
May 6, 2010
By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer

Hawkins' Court, Lordsburg, New Mexico

LORDSBURG — Spring weeds have shot up through cracks in the pavement and a swimming pool sits filled in with concrete, a surrealist’s vision of summer fun.

The wind persuades some hanging metal to break into a tuneless song while faded paint advertises a menu lost to the passage of time, as well as the grammarian’s pen: “Truckers Special $5 Super Breakfast Anytime.”

Life along Motel Drive in Lordsburg can be pretty lifeless.

Oh, there are things happening along the three or four miles of the drive, which stretches from the easternmost offramp of Interstate 10 to its westernmost on-ramp.

Chile is being ladled out to a lunchtime crowd at Ramona’s Cafe. Downtown,they’re just putting this week’s issue of the Hidalgo County Herald to bed. And the TVs are on in a few of the rooms of the handful of motels still open for business.

Motel Drive has not been entirely forgotten, but it sure can feel that way.

In the 1930s, when cross-country car travel was young, Lordsburg — jammed into the bottom-left corner of our map — was sitting pretty on U.S. 80. The “Broadway of America” linked the East Coast and San Diego and was more traveled than Route 66.

By 1964, Lordsburg had 31 service stations, 21 motels and 20 cafes, mostly clustered along U.S. 80, and it was the biggest travel stop between Texas and Arizona.

What happened?

Two things: An interstate highway replaced Highway 80, spelling a familiar doom.

And, maybe because it’s harder to find rhymes for U.S. 80 than it is for Route 66, nobody wrote a famous song about the road that passed through Lordsburg, depriving its ghostly remnants of nostalgic cachet.

This is not ancient history. The interstate was completed in the 1970s, so thedecay of Motel Drive is only about 30 years old.

Still, it qualified recently for the Society for Commercial Archeology’s list ofthe 10 most endangered roadside places in the U.S.

John Murphey, a board member with the Society for Commercial Archeology and architectural historian with the National Park Service in Santa Fe, nominated the drive for the designation after taking a lonesome trip down the road.

“I was struck — for lack of better words — by this modern ghost town of motels,”Murphey tells me. “And I’ve watched them dissipate over the last 10 years.”

That dissipation has included some examples of important architectural styles, especially “cabin courts,” falling down or being torn down.

A few motels are open for business, catering mostly to long-term rentals, and a few still stand vacant. But most live on only in photos.

Lordsburg has been tied to transportation since its beginning. It was founded in 1880 on the route of the Southern Pacific Railroad and named for a train engineer, Delbert Lord.

When U.S. 80 was being replaced by Interstate 10, Lordsburg did not just roll over. Its townspeople knew that traffic flying by at high speeds did not mean good things for the town. One property owner built herself a shack on one of the proposed ramps, moved in and held up the project for three months. Her sit-in ended when she was arrested and thrown in jail.

The town won some concessions: The highway was elevated slightly so travelers could look down over Lordsburg, see its amenities and be encouraged to stop there. And three exits — one at each edge of town and one in the center — were
supposed to draw people through town.

They didn’t. They stopped them at the edges, where chain motels and truck stops now sit. People who study transportation patterns call these “interstate villages” — places where travelers jump out of their cars for a bathroom break,a fuel-up and some fast food.

Debbie Greene bought the old Vendome Hotel building in downtown Lordsburg on Motel Drive and is running her bookkeeping business out of it. She would like to renovate and open to interstate travelers, but she suspects that would be futile unless something changes in tourist patterns.

“You get off (I-10) and go to the bathroom and get your stuff and go. And you don’t see Lordsburg,” she says.

What you miss when you stay in that interstate bubble, according to Murphey, is a good collection of vernacular architecture of the 1920s and ’30s and 1950s and ’60s. The one remaining little cabin court with its Mission Revival parapet is a gem, and the big “spreaders” with their pools and neon come-ons conjure up images of family trips taken at a more leisurely pace.

“It’s a fairly good representation of the full spectrum of roadside accommodation in New Mexico.” Murphey says. “If these were along Route 66, they would have been nominated to the National (Historic) Register years ago. But that hasn’t happened here.”

When you roll along Motel Drive, it’s not that hard to envision the properties rehabbed to their historical glory and tourists making a destination of the old road in their classic cars. Route 66 through Tucumcari easily comes to mind.

Will it happen here? Is it too late?

The Society for Commercial Archeology distinction comes with nothing but attention. It’s going to take local action to make anything happen.

Edmund Saucedo, a Lordsburg native who returned home after a 35-year hiatus in San Francisco and was saddened to see the downfall of downtown and the rest of Motel Drive, has tried to ignite interest in preservation and revitalization. He
has, frankly, been frustrated by the response.

In City Hall, there’s a new mayor — Frank Rodriguez — who says he loves nostalgia, but knows there is little money available for rehabbing an entire street.

He hopes some moneybag is out there with an eye for neon and cabin courts, someone who can see all those potential customers zipping by on I-10.

“If somebody came in with the right ideas and some financial backing, that would be great. That would be great for our city,” Rodriguez says.

###

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Reach Leslie at 823-3914 or llinthicum@abqjournal.com.

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Filed under Broadway of America, Road Trip, Route 66, Uncategorized, US Highay 80

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