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Vacancy: Old Motel Sign Design
I have many fond memories of driving down lonely desert highways, listening to the Doors, and seeing signs in the distance—rusted out roadside motel signs. “I MUST take a photo of that,” I’d think to myself every time I’d see one of these sunbaked beauties. Pulling off the road, and opening the car door, I’d feel the dry desert heat blast my face like a furnace. Squinting through the glare of the setting sun, I’d get out my consumer digital camera, and try to capture a perfectly dramatic angle. Of course I didn’t have the right lens or flash, but hey, I did my best to capture each sign’s kitschy essence.
But these signs weren’t always rusted out, sunbaked scraps of metal. They were once spiffy, glowing, bold, blinking designed messages that represented an era of car travel and freedom. Vacancy. No Vacancy. The signs would glow in the night beckoning weary travelers to stay at the modestly appointed rooms they advertised. Even during the day the signs were still striking with their bold shapes and colors and large type—standing tall and proud.
During their hey day, these signs communicated important information to the highway traveler: whether or not there was a vacancy, whether or not the motel had amenities such as COLOR TV, or air conditioning. If the motel was well appointed it might even have a pool. These signs were advertising. They were billboards.
The themed motels were the best—you gotta love a motel room in the shape of a teepee. Some were worthy of postcards. These days, some of them are on the U.S. Registry of Historic Places—worth of preservation and respect.
I’m not quite sure why I’m so fascinated by these old signs, except that I’m a HUGE fan of Route 66, and anything 1950s and 60s kitsch. They also remind me of signs on the Old Las Vegas strip. If you’ve ever been to the Neon Boneyard, you know what I’m talking about. That place is a virtual treasure trove of the old signage that was indicative of that time: flashing neon, chasing light bulbs, geometric shapes, western themes, and sputniks—iconic motifs of the space age. Today’s backlit chain hotel logo signs just don’t resonate with me the same way. There’s not the same attention paid to design detail and craft.
With the construction of interstates with signing of the Interstate Highway Act in 1956, a lot of the two-lane highways that ran through these towns were bypassed, leaving the motels to slowly disappear. I’m just grateful a few of these iconic motels—symbols of American road trip culture—still survive. I’m glad the signs are still standing for a lot of motels with permanent vacancies.
If you’re lamenting the demise of the old signs, however, never fear. There are plenty of old sign enthusiasts out there. Just search motel signs on Pinterest and you’ll find TONS of examples. Google Route 66 and you’ll find a plethora of information about these signs, and other symbols of the era. There are even Route 66 societies. There are books with grand photos of these old signs, and T-shirts, and coffee mugs, and placemats, and newly minted diners with Route 66 memorabilia…BUT it’s still not the same as standing before these pillars of Americana in situ. It’s just not.
Here are just a few photos I’ve taken over the years. And you can bet I’ll be taking photos of these as long as there are lonesome stretches of road with rusted out, sunbaked signs in the distance.