Route 66 Motels an Endangered Species

The Associated Press
Monday, May 21, 2007; 1:19 AM

MIAMI, Okla. -- The Riviera Courts motel is crumbling away and nobody seems to care. Once a stop along Route 66, the 2,400-mile neon carnival that connected hundreds of communities from Chicago to Los Angeles, this late-1930s Mission Revival is just a weather-worn building on the side of a country road in far northeast Oklahoma.

Next door, soybean farmers Richard and Rosemary Woolard watch the place deteriorate from their front porch.

"Been a lot of changes in this old county," 77-year-old Richard Woolard says plainly.

The Riviera Courts is among hundreds of mom-and-pop motels that met their demise along the ribbon of Route 66 as America's interstate system siphoned traffic off the Mother Road onto a four-lane, divided highway called progress.

In Oklahoma, with more Route 66 miles than any of the eight states it flows through, many motels are derelict or abandoned, used as junk yards, makeshift car lots and flophouses.

Owners who inherited these historical footnotes have no use for them, and would rather sell the properties to a developer if the price was right.

Today, many structures that made the road what it was _ the diners, family-owned service stations, barbecue joints _ have fallen apart. With efforts to fix up these architectural landmarks scarce, time has become the road's worst enemy.

The nonprofit National Historic Route 66 Federation in Lake Arrowhead, Calif., estimates at least 3,000 motels along the route are in various states of repair or disrepair.

Route 66, immortalized in John Steinbeck's 1939 novel "The Grapes of Wrath" and crooner Nat King Cole's catchy tune, debuted in 1926, instantly becoming a slice of Americana.

The road meant steady work for scores of unemployed men who built it in the 1930s; an avenue for thousands of Okies who migrated west to escape the Dust Bowl and a post-World War II playground for millions of Americans looking to roam in the 1950s and '60s.

With the interstate came the Holiday Inns, chain gas stations and drive-thrus, popping up overnight. Neon and quirky were on the outs. Pre-fab and fast were in.

The business model for the motels became outdated, too. How was a place built in the 1920s to accommodate 11 to 20 patrons to compete with a big-box motel that could cram 10 times more customers in?

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