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History of Motor Courts

The advent of the Motor Court is a true Americana story.  Prior to the existence of Motor Courts people traveling by car either stayed in a “fancy” hotel or slept at roadside rest areas.  Motor Courts were a by-product of a time prior to today’s interstate highway system. States at that time were responsible for their own roadways and often provided nothing more than roughed-out dirt pathway created for the sole purpose of getting someone from point A to point B. When the paving of these roadways started to occur (around 1915 to 1920) many people saw opportunity. Industrious ‘Mom & Pops’ decided to provide lodging for the newly traveling public.  Some of these go-getters purchased land and built one unit. After saving a bit of money they would pre-fabricated and would arrive in pieces.  If someone owned the land it was possible to qualify for an interest free loan and purchase a few ‘Kits’ at a time.  These new Motor Courts (AKA: motor lodges, motor inns, auto courts, etc.) were a hit with the traveling public and became the lodging of choice for the majority of the travelers. Most provided a small kitchen in addition to some of the other comforts of home. What particularly set motor courts apart from hotels was that you would park your car next to your room.  By 1935 there were about 9,800 Motor Courts across the country.  Even through the Depression, Motor Courts continued to increase their number to about 13,500 in 1939. 

As demand continued and the industry matured, Mom & Pop owners began combining units into larger buildings.  It was during this period that the cabins or kits of many early courts were linked together under single roofs, often with new units built into the former spaces between them. The term "Motel" became popular for those establishments which had larger, multi-unit buildings. By the mid-20th-century, the "Motel" had become firmly established as the modern form for roadside lodging.

Although auto tourism saw a sharp drop off during WWII, the post-war years more than made up for the decline. Those Mom & Pops who held through the slow war years were rewarded with the largest client base yet.  By 1956, there were approximately 60,000 Motels and Motor Courts in the country. At that time the majority of these Motor Courts were still owned locally by Mom & Pop.

The 1950’s and 1960’s saw the decline in popularity of the Mom & Pop Motor Court.  Large corporations took notice of this ever growing market.  They moved into the lodging business and began building newer, larger, multi-storied buildings with standard designs.  With the building of the Interstates, motels on the State highways were bypassed and roadside lodging lost its local touch.  Mom & Pop retired, and many of the Motor Courts have fallen from use or been replaced.