Silver State motels see time, travelers pass by
Every couple of years on their wedding anniversary, a man and a woman book a $40-a-night, swamp-cooled room at the Sandman Motel on the increasingly seedy East Fourth Street in Reno.
“They stayed here during their honeymoon back in 1962, and they want the same room every time they are here,” owner John Mathews said. “It gives you a good feeling when they are here. They are like family.”
Winnemucca’s Louise Scott Griggs often greets the children and grandchildren of people who stopped generations ago at the Scott Shady Court Motel while heading for vacations in California.
Her grandfather, Joe, built the motel after noticing the increasing number of travelers showing up at his dairy to buy fresh vegetables, milk and eggs. Opened in 1928, the Scott Shady Court and its row of bungalows might be the longest continuously operating motel in Nevada.
But business is off these days. Innkeepers like Mathews and Griggs struggle to make a living in an era that has bypassed the motel in favor of hotel-casinos and mega-resorts.
“The chains have taken over,” Griggs said.
Travel expectations have changed radically since the 1920s, when cities throughout the West opened free “auto camps” for motorists to pitch their tents.
Until the construction of Interstate 80 in the early 1970s, U.S. Highway 40 brought east-west bound tourists directly down Fourth Street into Reno.
Now, East Fourth Street is where Reno’s hookers and drug dealers congregate after dark. It’s the preferred location for topless clubs and thrift stores.
“We keep the troublemakers away,” Mathews said. “We won’t rent to them. The neighborhood is bad, but we keep our customers safe. We keep a clean business.”
Reno isn’t alone in having a problem with riffraff.
Las Vegas’ motel districts also face problems keeping out prostitutes and drug dealers.
Arvind Patel, owner of the 70-year-old Gateway Motel south of the Las Vegas Strip, said he does not rent rooms to Las Vegas residents unless they pay by credit card and show two picture IDs.
“We run a clean business,” Patel said of the 46-room motel on Las Vegas Boulevard South. “No prostitutes, no drugs. Before we came, there were problems.”
Patel said he has spent $125,000 renovating the business he purchased five years ago. He charges $26 a night for a single but has had trouble in recent months filling rooms. Business over the summer was the worst he has seen since buying the motel.
Nonetheless, he believes there is a future for low-price motel owners. The affluent will gravitate to the Strip resorts, but middle- and low-income customers will remain, Patel said.
Motels flourished along East Fremont Street and Las Vegas Boulevard South in the days after World War II, said Frank Wright, former curator of the Nevada State Museum. The motels were among the first Las Vegas buildings to feature neon in their signs.
“There were a lot of neat motels within the city limits before the Strip was developed,” Wright said. “Most of the good ones are gone.”
Some of the remaining motels on Las Vegas Boulevard offer rooms by the hour or X-rated movies, he said.
The Paher family opened the Gateway as an auto court in 1932 to attract tourists interested in seeing Boulder Dam.
Nevada historian Stan Paher remembers how his father would charge $1.50 a day for a room. Guests saved 50 cents if they provided their own sheets. One of the early guests was a young woman on her way to a mining camp in Johnnie. She later would become his mother.
“I stopped there, and that’s where we met,” said Dorothy Paher, still a Las Vegas resident. “Some of the rooms didn’t have bathrooms. The Gateway still looks nice. I loved it there.”
Stan Paher grew up at the motel and worked at the front desk until 1965. He remembers as a child chasing balls into the streets and not being too concerned about the traffic.
In pre-Strip days, U.S. Highway 91 brought visitors to Las Vegas. Except for a few scattered buildings, everything south of Charleston Boulevard was desert.
When the Pahers opened the eight-unit Gateway, the auto court truly was the gateway to Las Vegas, which had a population of about 7,000. Paher said they had few competitors.
Today, he doubts there is much of a future for motels on the fringe of downtown Las Vegas.
“My wife and I stayed at the Gateway in 1992,” he said. “It was the first time we paid for a room there. The guy next door said there had been a murder there last week. Another guy wanted me to give him a ride. It was low lifes and dopers. That part of town has deteriorated.”
Winnemucca’s Scott Shady Court accepted its first guests even before the first blacktop pavement was laid on Highway 40 across Northern Nevada.
Scott’s also was an auto court. That was the preferred name for motor lodges before a San Luis Obispo, Calif., innkeeper coined the word “motel” in 1925, though its use did not become widespread until the 1950s.
Reno’s Sandman, opened in 1957, features a neon sign of an old car. Photographs of the sign have been printed in several books.
Even today, Mathews said people frequently stop to snap pictures. He considers the sign the salvation of his business. Despite the decline in the neighborhood, the Sandman occupancy rate last year was 94 percent.
Across the street is the Hi-Way 40. Highway 40 no longer exists but the motel survives by offering weekly rates and kitchenettes.
Farther down the street is the Silver State Lodge and its 18 log cabins, each named for trees such as elm, ash and cottonwood.
Residents generally are people who lack the down payments necessary to rent an apartment, assistant manager Matt Mohr said. They rent a cabin at the Silver State for $215 a week and stay until they build a nest egg.
“This was the place the jet set stayed in the 1950s,” he said. “I want to say Marilyn Monroe stayed here, but I am not sure.”