Just off Highway 101 in San Luis Obispo sits a tall sign reading “Motel Inn Restaurant & Lounge First Motel in the World” but pull over and you’ll be welcomed not by a jolly proprietor, but instead by a chain link fence and only one building and a lilting facade just beyond it. This is all that remains of the first ever motel, a place that was once bustling with excited motorists and even celebrities.
In the 1920s cars took a little longer to get to their destinations than they do today, and if you were a motorist in need of a place to stay you had few options that were at the extremes of the spectrum; a high end hotel with no room for your car on property, a campground, or just sleep in your car. Pasadena architect Arthur Heineman set out to change all that. A car enthusiast himself (he was said to be one of the first citizens of Pasadena to own a car) Heineman selected San Luis Obispo as the first of what he hoped would be a chain of 18 “motor hotels” which he abbreviated to “mo-tel.” Why San Luis Obispo? The drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco was a two-day drive at the time, and San Luis Obispo was the halfway point.
Heineman built a sprawling Spanish Revival style bungalow complex complete with garages, restaurant, and cocktail lounge. Dubbed the Milestone Mo-Tel, and later renamed the Motel Inn, it opened December 12, 1925. The bungalows were accessed via a picturesque courtyard with palm and citrus trees, as well as birds of paradise, although the lush landscape later gave way to a pool, and eventually a mini golf corse and stable were added. The bungalows featured modern convinces such as showers, telephones, heat, kitchenettes, and carpet.
Sadly, Heineman’s grand plans for 18 motels, all within a day’s drive of each other, never came to fruition. The arrival of the Great Depression put a damper on things, and the Motel Inn even shuttered for a brief time, reopening in 1938. A string of different owners plagued the motel as it moved into the mid-twentieth century, and people could drive further distances in a single day, resulting in the restaurant became more of a draw than the motel itself. Iconic actress Marilyn Monroe and her new husband Joe DiMaggio stopped here for lunch en route to Paso Robles for their honeymoon in 1954 and it’s said that the likes of Lucille Ball, Clint Eastwood, and the cast of Rawhide also visited.
The Motel Inn shuttered in 1991, but hopes of renovation, and added events space and museum, were noted in newspapers as early as 1993. In 2000 was bought by developers John King and Rob Rossi, who bulldozed nearly all of the property except for the main office building with its mission style bell tower, and facade of the original restaurant. In May of 2017 there were plans to resurrect the Motel Inn, building a 55 room hotel, along with original style bungalows, an RV park with vintage Airstreams also available to stay in, and a swimming pool. The original intention was to open by mid-2019, but 2019 came and went and by February 2020 they said they still fully intended to move forward with the plan, and were simply caught up in the red tape of permits and financial backing. Over two years later little has changed it looks like, but one can hope to see the the world’s first motel brought back to life. The one remaining building, with its bull topped bell tower, serves as office space for the next door Apple Farm, and the facade of the once popular restaurant is propped up to prevent it from falling over.