16 May 2022

Archives exhibition uncovers the magic of motels, kidney-shaped pools and Continental breakfasts

| Genevieve Jacobs
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1950s family at swimming pool. Photo:National Archives

Fancy a dip? Postwar motels epitomised fun and freedom. Photo: National Archives.

Do you remember the scratchy feature brick walls? The glasses wrapped in paper and the strip across the toilet? What about the brocade polyester bedspreads or the hutch through which a “Continental” breakfast magically appeared, more or less when you’d ordered it?

In the optimistic postwar period when everything shiny and bright came from California, motels with names like the El Dorado or the Beachcomber popped up across regional Australia, promising a world of kidney-shaped pools, orange upholstery and individual cornflake packets.

Bedrooms were upstairs, you could park the car in front and there was likely a restaurant attached where you could order Chicken Kiev or Steak Dianne.

1950s motel

Names like El Dorado hinted at the motel’s American origins. Photo: National Archives.

“They just seemed so fancy. They seemed a world away”, says radio broadcaster, comedian and mid-century architecture fan Tim Ross.

“Up until then, you’d stay in a pub and share a bathroom, or a pretty crappy guest house. The motel signified a bit of luxury, a real adventure on your family holiday.”

He’s been digging through the National Archives for an exhibition called Reception This Way, documenting the history of motels. There’s an accompanying book, full of images like the Oakleigh Motel in Victoria (built for the 1956 Olympics but not actually opened until 1957), and the Gold Coast, where mushrooming motels transformed the resort strip.

Ross says there was something of a frontier spirit at play architecturally speaking.

“People were going overseas, taking photos of motels in Florida, LA, coming back, developing the film, showing it to their builders and saying can you build this? There weren’t any architects or actual plans involved, so a lot of the early ones are a bit out of whack. The dimensions are all wrong.”

motel exterior

While the Black Dolphin motel at Merimbula attempted Australian design excellence, it may have lacked some of the fun element of its counterparts. Photo: National Archives.

Robin Boyd, the great Melbourne architect, tried his hand at a distinctively Australian version when he designed the Black Dolphin at Merimbula (still standing although much altered). But Ross says, while his intentions were noble, Boyd missed the point that motels were meant to be a bit of fun and fantasy, a slice of Hollywood in suburban and regional Australia.

Along with the revival of interest in mid-century modern architecture, there’s been renewed interest in both motel buildings and the social history they represent.

“When we erase these kinds of buildings, we erase our memories,” Ross says.

“Motels are coming back. There are people buying them and doing them up and making them groovy again, which has certainly been happening in America for quite some time. And of course, it’s the story of the automobile as well.

“I love those stories where dad wants to get up at three o’clock in the morning and pack the car and put everything in it for the big family holiday two weeks a year or maybe one week.

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“You’ve got four kids and a dog across the backseat and you’re driving from Sydney to Brisbane to see the grandparents and staying at a motel overnight. That’s when our most precious memories are made.”

Ross is an exhibition partner with the Archives and says he loved digging into their records to unearth images like the families on pool lounges or skiing up to the bar at Thredbo in woollen jumpers.

“I can just sit in the Archives for hours,” he says. “The staff are always trying to tell me how to search a little bit better but I’ve got my own ways of doing things because every picture tells an amazing story.

“It’s not someone else’s history. It’s the story of us.”

motel exterior

Motels evolved from our postwar love affair with the car. Photo: National Archives.

To celebrate the exhibition’s opening weekend, Tim Ross and musician Kit Warhurst will reprise their much-loved MOTEL Live Show for Canberra audiences on Friday 27 May.

Billed as sentimental, nostalgic and, of course, hilarious, the show is a must for anyone who has checked in and helped themselves to a twin pack of biscuits in a classic motel. General admission and NAA Member tickets are available here.

Reception This Way runs at the National Archives from 27 May to 4 September, 2022.

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Capital Retro8:00 am 15 May 22

Is the cost $85 or is it free? The info given is very confusing.

Really CR – you could not follow the link before posting this? Just for your benefit – $85 non-member, $75 member…. That was a tough one to solve……

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