The Spanish Trail – Tucson ‘Eyesore’ Getting A Facelift?

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History isn’t always pretty, but it occasionally gets a second chance.

This historic structure has long been considered a blemish on the face of this otherwise dusty, hideous wasteland of a city. Over the years, dozens of complaints have been filed for The Spanish Trail motel, a deteriorating mid-century hotel held together by cracked paint and inertia. Conveniently hovering over Interstate 10 along the edge of the city of South Tucson, it gives any newcomers from the east a fairly accurate impression of Tucson. I stumbled across an article today, however, indicating that a couple of investors have purchased the property and intend to breathe some new life into it.

In it’s own time, The Spanish Trail was a well-known destination. In the 1960’s and 70’s, live music & theater – and a Hollywood clientele – drew an eclectic crowd. Professional staff lived on-site in a series of duplexes north of the resort and the property boasted luxurious amenities. Today, of course, the housing has been replaced by a steel yard; the golf course, lagoon, running track, and cactus garden are gone.

This is where movie stars like John Wayne and Michael Landon lived (and visited) while working at Old Tucson Studios. The large area that still survives, a space-aged-looking concrete rotunda, was the Dinner Show Lounge. Time, vacancy, and a structure fire have left little to appreciate.

Despite how unkind the past few decades have been, the new owners have expressed an interest in redeveloping the property into permanent affordable housing, with an emphasis on providing homes for veterans.

There’s no set timeline for the forthcoming renovations, but I’ll be curious to see what happens to the old 70-foot sign. As always, other peoples’ eyesore is, to my twisted eye, a fascinating and beautiful relic.

May 21, 2017 – Drifter

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Silver City, New Mexico is a special little town. It’s the kind of town my family would stay the night on the way from one destination to another during vacation. It’s the kind of town that begs you to get out of the car, stretch your legs, and walk around for a while, with a greasy-spoon diner and some art galleries to explore. It’s the kind of town you tell yourself “gosh, if I could only find t he excuse, I’d love to live in a place like this.”

Sadly, it is also a small town and opportunities are scarce.
Sadly, it’s the kind of town that’s easy to talk yourself out of ever moving to.

So, from time to time, I would find an excuse to spend the weekend here. A drive through the Gila National Forest with frequent stops to take photographs of the landscape and wildlife. Coffee shops and leisurely strolls downtown. I’m not sure if “The Drifter” is still there, but I’m guessing it is. I could look it up, of course, but I’d rather just find out for myself the next time I roll into town.

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May 05, 2017 – Riviera Motor Lodge

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The Riviera Motor Lodge opening at 515 W Miracle Mile Road (then called Casa Grande Road) in Tucson, Arizona back in 1953. In 2016, a fabricator was hired to refurbish the vintage sign. During a month-long process the sign’s paint scheme was redone and a red & white neon lighting pattern was added. This image was taken several years before the restoration; it was made with the palladium printing-out process to generate the golden hues and authentic vintage look.

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May 04, 2017 – The Spanish Trial

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The Spanish Trail was a famous hotel during the 1960’s and 1970’s in Tucson, Arizona. Live comedy and music shows drew an eclectic crowd. The professional staff lived on-sight in duplexes north of the main hotel and resort (an area that is currently a steel yard). In fact, most of the northern end of the resort is completely gone. There used to be a golf course, lagoon, running track, and cactus garden.

This was quite the place to see – in its day. I certainly never got to see it with my own eyes.

The Spanish trail is where movie stars often lived – and some visited – while working at Old Tucson Studios. John Wayne and Michael Landon were regulars. The large area that still survives, a space-aged-looking concrete rotunda, was the dinner show lounge. Little else of the complex remains.

In fact, the word ‘Trail’ depicted in today’s photograph is gone, too. The whole tower is just a giant frame now. It isn’t likely many people are going to ever know, or remember, the kind of glamour and grandeur that once existed on this site.

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May 02, 2017 – The Western

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Along the Benson Highway are several old-world motor lodges, with neon signs that date back to the 1960s and 1970s (and perhaps some even earlier than that). Not all of the old businesses survive; once the Interstate Highway system was built, the thriving motels, restaurants, and service stations (most off which were privately and family owned) began to disappear.

This here is one of the remnants. It’s a photograph I made several years ago now and I was thinking about driving back to see what kind of shape it’s in, but I’m kind of afraid that it won’t even be there anymore.

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February 17 – Hotel Monte Vista

02-17 Monte Vista postAutomobile culture reached Arizona in the early 1900s and brought major roadway projects (see yesterday’s post about Miracle Mile Road) and an increase in tourism, which delivered new money to Flagstaff in the 1920s. Fundraising began in 1926 by local community leaders to establish first-class accommodation to replace some of the outmoded and run-down hotels.

Ground broke for the 73 room Community Hotel (named in honor of the prominent citizens who funded its construction) on June 8 of that year. It was finished in six months, opening its doors on New Years Day, 1927.

My first visit was back in 2005 or 2006, when I had the chance to tag along with a friend of mine. We worked together at a local Tucson photo lab and he happened to be a drummer in a band called “The Deludes.” I was able to hop aboard for a show they’d booked at the hotel’s “Cocktail Lounge.” It was a prohibition-era bootlegging operation, but the secret wasn’t kept long – local officers disrupted the illegal business in 1931. Ironically, the speakeasy reopened only two years later when prohibition was lifted.

It is one of the oldest operating hotels in Flagstaff and is a registered historic landmark, and its sign is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Flagstaff.

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February 16 – Sunland Motel

02-16 SunLand Motel postAs car culture began to take root in Arizona, the Old Spanish Trail Highway was established in 1916. This route represents a massive construction project intended to thread from Southern California to Florida. Motels and gas stations sprung up from the route, and some of the old remnants just so happen to survive today.

The Old Spanish Trail merged with other routes on the north side of Tucson, creating a network throughout the city. In the 1920s, the road became US Highway 80, which snaked down through Benson, Bisbee, and onto Douglas. Another vein sprung up, US Highway 89, stretching down through Tubac, Tumacacori, and on toward to the port of entry in Nogales along the Mexican border. Highway 84, known as the Casa Grande Highway, is now called Miracle Mile – it led north to Casa Grande and Phoenix.

Miracle Mile is today a somewhat notorious stretch of road, with low-rent rooms, weekly rates, a strip club, and a bowling alley. But that isn’t news. The area began to decline in the late 1960s, and Miracle Mile became synonymous with drugs, prostitution, and other illicit activity.

Only recently has the area has begun to shed it’s negative reputation, and it may be a while yet before the old stories fade away. Reinvestment has seen renovation, but many of the motels still seem relatively neglected, and the low rates still have the appearance of attracting a particular type of clientele. I guess time will tell what’s in store for old Miracle Mile road.

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January 21 – The Drifter

01-21 The Drifter post

“I will never lose the love for the arriving, but I’m born to leave.”
~Charlotte Eriksson

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I couldn’t leave it with just one. Yesterday’s image led to me pouring through several folders of photographs that I hadn’t looked at in a good long while, most of them from Tucson and other areas scattered throughout the southwest. I could probably put a photograph of a vintage sign out every day for a year without having to entertain another theme.

Old motor lodges are about as classic as Americana can get. We are a car-loving people, and cars have taken us up and down the country, from east coast to west. We’ve carved paths through this territory, and all we have to do is fill the tank and push the pedal down. Because we are a car-loving people, we are also an adventurous people – or at least we used to be. Today, the world is at our fingertips; with technological innovations we couldn’t have imagined a generation ago, there is less of a need or desire to step out into the sun and get lost in a foreign land. Comfort is a hell of a drug, and our culture has become much more homogenized.

Americans abroad look for familiar fast food like McDonald’s because we’ve forgotten how marvelous newness can be. We’d prefer guaranteed mediocrity than uncomfortable novelty. We drive hundred of miles to lock ourselves in a room and watch the same television shows we could watch at home, nibbling on Pizza Hut pizza, emerging occasionally to grab a soda from the vending machine down the hall. This kind of “travel” has been lampooned, it’s a new discussion topic in university classrooms, and it’s written about in novels.

I wouldn’t necessarily frame all of this negatively. It’s just an observation. I’ve done the same thing myself. I’ve driven in a car for six hours, wanting nothing more than delivery pizza and the passive, lazy novelty of cable television after checking into the hotel room. Perpetually worried about utilities, rent, food, and car maintenance, I find myself taking that extra-long hot shower and cranking the air-conditioner to absurd temperatures that I would never indulge in were I at home. I get it. Comfort is a thing we all have a weird and twisted relationship with, and I guess my only point would be that we should at least acknowledge this.

If we can just accept that we’ve kinda turned into wimps, maybe we can change it a little. Maybe we’ll take a walk down that dark alley that’s always sacred us, take a risk, cross that busy street, brave the noise and discomfort. Maybe, if we do, we’ll be a little less timid, a little more self-assured, and maybe we’ll be reminded again how big and beautiful this world really is, despite all of the treachery and violence and uncertainty.

Be a drifter. I dare you.

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