02 Jun

First motel chain in the U.S. had roots in Central Texas

(Texas Collection photo)

WACO, Texas (KWTX) The first motel chain in the United States grew out of a roadside stop in East Waco called Alamo Plaza Tourist Courts, which in 1929 became the first motel chain in the United States.

In 1929 Edgar Lee Torrance, along with then-54th District Court Judge Drummond W. Bartlett, collaborated to build a small apartment complex in the 900 block of Elm Avenue, in East Waco, near where the East Waco Branch Library is today.

But Torrance, who’d been a car dealer since 1918, saw the potential for a business that provided clean, consistent and convenient lodging along major U.S. highways that were becoming increasingly busy.

He modified the apartment building plan into a U-shaped structure with rooms facing the center courtyard and the front façade was white stucco, built in the shape of the iconic Alamo, in San Antonio.

By 1955 Torrance, Bartlett and a group of about half-a-dozen more investors loosely operated more than 20 Alamo Plaza Hotel Courts using common branding and architecture in Texas and other southwestern states, the first true motel chain in the United States.

The marketing slogan was obvious: "Remember the Alamo Plaza".

Elm Avenue might seem an unlikely place for a motor inn, but back then Elm was U.S. Highways 81, the main road from Dallas to San Antonio, and U.S. 77, which ran between Waco and Houston so pretty much anybody going to Dallas was coming through Waco, crossing the Brazos River, driving up Elm Avenue and on toward Dallas, or splitting off on U.S. 77-south and toward Houston.

Wilburn Willis, a retired Bellmead businessman, was patrolling Waco streets as a police officer back in 1962 and he said that part of town was bustling.

"It was a hot time down there. There was traffic all the time, some of it local folks but a lot off the highways," Willis said.

"There was no interstate, there was no traffic circle, so all the highway traffic between Dallas and San Antonio and between Dallas and Houston came down Elm Avenue and went south until (U.S.) 77 split off."

There were existing travel inns and tourist courts already, so besides employing his Pop Spanish Revival southwestern design, Torrance, in an effort to separate his brand from the others, began introducing amenities in each room like telephones in 1936, and then he introduced Simmons Beauty Rest mattresses on every bed, then swimming pools and later free televisions in every room, an article from the original American Hotel Magazine, said.

"There was Alamo Plaza and right across the street was the Alma Plaza Hotel, there were four or five in just two or three blocks of Elm Street," Willis said.

The roadside use of distinctive and non-traditional architecture to catch a motorist’s eye rapidly proved profitable and quickly other groups, such as Wigwam Motels, out west along Route 66, began building stucco wigwams and Howard Johnson’s introduced its bright orange roofs.

Travelodge first opened in 1935, Best Western Motels group in 1947 and Holiday Inn, 1952.

The chain continued to expand, even through the years of the Great Depression and World War II, when there was a huge and immediate need for temporary housing near U.S. military bases.

Alamo Plaza Hotel Courts enjoyed its heyday in the 1950s, then in the mid-1960s the group abandoned its distinctive Pop Spanish Revival Alamo-style façade.

The last branded hotel opened in 1965 and Torrance died June 8, 1971.

Besides his motel interests, Torrance, who was born on Sept. 13, 1883 in Elk, owned and operated Lee Torrance Stables, in Waco, where he raised prize-winning Tennessee walking horses and routinely was asked to serve as a horse-show judge.

Torrance and his wife Ruth McGrady Torrance, had one daughter.

Torrance attended Douglas Select School and later Toby’s Business College, both in Waco, where he trained as a bookkeeper.

While working as a clerk at American Amicable Insurance Company Torrance began looking for other business interests.

The automobile still was very much in its infancy in 1913 when Torrance began buying and selling used cars, a side business he turned to full time in 1918 and continued until 1933.

While considering what new doors automobiles might open for business, he developed the idea of consistently clean, well-maintained, well-organized, comfortable, and respectable motel units with strictly enforced, stringent rules of propriety.

He was, industry historians say, the first person in Texas to put those concepts into practical application on a widespread basis.

Items from the motel’s history are kept at the Smithsonian, the museum’s webpage says.

Alamo Plaza Tourist Apartments is catalogued there because of the significant impact Torrance, his idea and his hotels had on the U.S. economy.

When Alamo Plaza Tourist Courts opened in 1955 there were likely about 100 motel rooms in Waco, but that’s radically changed, according to data provided by the Waco Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, which showed the Waco Metropolitan Statistical Area, which amounts to McLennan County, has 50 hotels that service 3,722 rooms as of March 2018.

Other data provided by WCVB Director of Marketing Carla Pendergraft shows Waco enjoyed over 2.5 million visitors in 2017 and that year the motel rooms in which lots of those visitors stayed generated $86,544,429 in revenues.

All that’s just in Waco.

The latest numbers published by the American Hotel and Lodging Association show the pace of hotel development remained robust in 2016, the latest data available.

Total number of properties in the U.S. grew from 52,000 to 53,432 and the reported number of rooms grew from some 4.8 million to 4,978,705 rooms, in just one year, the latest report shows.

The lodging industry contributed $141.5 billion in business travel tax revenue, up $6.5 billion from the previous year, AHLA statistics showed.

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