Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Palmer & Krisel and the Imperial '400' Motels: Spreading Good Design to Mid-Century Travelers

America's post World War II housing shortage was pretty much under control by the late 1950's. This coupled with the rapid growth of the National Parks and the Interstate Highway system, meant that middle-class Americans were now in a collective mood to "See the USA in their Chevrolets" as sung by Dinah Shore and recently revived by the cast of Glee. Thus the housing shortage segued into a motel room shortage virtually overnight. Hotel industry companies such as Howard Johnson's, TraveLodge and Los Angeles-based Imperial '400' Motels saw an opportunity to fill that void and went on a nation-wide building spree.

(Click on all images to enlarge)
 Rendering for the prototype for the Imperial '400' Motel chain, Palmer & Krisel, 1959 (courtesy of the William Krisel Archive, Getty Research Institute)

Imperial '400' took note of the award-winning and extremely popular tract housing designed by Southern California architects Palmer & Krisel and in 1959 commissioned them to design a prototype motel and the rights to build using their design on four other sites. P&K designed the first motel then obtained the building permit and oversaw construction of the $240,000 complex on Sunset Blvd. across the street from Hollywood High School. This prototype was the only motel to remain totally company-owned and was used to train new franchise partners in guest relations and motel management. Others in this inititial group were built on Olympic Blvd. in Los Angeles, San Diego (see below), and Phoenix.

The design concept proved so wildly successful that Imperial immediately launched it's franchise campaign and began building motels with virtually the same design all across the United States. The firm adopted a logo of a thrifty Scotsman in a kilt and the slogan "Aye, royal accommodations at thrifty rates" and the trademark Palmer & Krisel butterfly-sun flap roof over the registration-manager's quarters building which they used on all of their business stationary and ephemera such as the above and below matchbook covers.

The above postcard is a Sacramento franchise located at 1319 30th St. incorporating an Armet & Davis designed Eppie's Coffee Shop into the mix. Can you get any more Googie than this, Palmer & Krisel and Armet & Davis on the same site.

  223 S. Sitgreaves, Flagstaff, AZ

524 Last Chance Gulch, Helena, MT

218 West Hill Ave., Valdosta, GA

305 North Second Ave., Walla Walla, WA

Las Vegas Franchise, 3625 Las Vegas Blvd., S. Las Vegas

Rendering of the Las Vegas Franchise, 3625 Las Vegas Blvd., S. Las Vegas

Las Vegas Franchise, 3625 Las Vegas Blvd., S. Las Vegas

The two images below are from the current exhibition "Las Vegas Studio: Images from the Archives of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown" on view at MOCA-PDC through June 20th. Other views of Krisel's iconic butterfly roof logo used in all of Imperial 400's signage and ephemera are on view in the exhibition. For more on this must see exhibition go to the following link. http://www.moca.org/museum/exhibitiondetail.php?id=427

Postcard of the sign of the Las Vegas Franchise, 3625 Las Vegas Blvd., S. Las Vegas. Photo by Scott Brown and Associates. (from my collection)

Same image as above on the cover of "Learning From Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form" by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steve Izenour, Revised Edition, MIT Press, 1977. (from my collection)

I find it extremely interesting indeed that Krisel's roof logo appears on the cover of Venturi and Scott Brown's seminal, groundbreaking studies of the Las Vegas Strip undertaken by a 1968 research and design studio Venturi taught with Scott Brown at the Yale School of Architecture.The interrelationships of our rich architectural history never cease to amaze me.

The above are just a small selection of the Imperial '400' franchise locations around the US and Canada. Imperial projected to build 179 franchised motels across the U.S. by the end of 1964 according to a November 6, 1960 article in the L.A. Times. I estimate after an hour or two of web browsing that there could very easily have been that many built overall. Many are still existing under a different name and survive  relatively unchanged. Others, such as the original prototype on Sunset Blvd. have been altered beyond recognition. 

Various former Imperial '400' locations around the country are starting to appear on the radar screens of mid-century modern and preservationist group web sites without the benefit of knowing that these great examples of modernist design were truly the work of the "Modernists for the Masses" Palmer & Krisel. It is my hope that this post will raise the awareness of the importance of these motels our families stayed in as they vacationed around the US in the mid-century and that many will receive historic monument designation and be restored and preserved to help keep this period of our architectural heritage alive-and-well. 

More Imperial 400 Motels

Imperial 400 Slide Show

Please feel free to share this post with any web site mentioning an Imperial '400' Motel location.