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Totally tiki! Radically rattan! Bombastically bamboo!
Gloriously garish, even!
But no matter how you looked at it (and over the years, millions of motorists, many coming to and from Sky Harbor International Airport, did), the landmark motel at the intersection of 24th Street and Van Buren was perfectly Polynesian. How many other motels in town boasted tropical decor featuring gigantic tiki masks, twin torches that scorched the sky and a volcanic-rock fire fountain, not to mention a steeply thatched roof that looked like it was about to blast off into orbit at any moment?
But the luau's over for the Kon Tiki Hotel. Closed since October, this fabled hunk of hula heaven was recently sold to Verde Realty Advisers and is scheduled to be razed before the end of the year. Although there are no immediate plans for the property, a source at the company confides, "We're crossing our fingers and toes that someone leases it." Some "Aloha!"
@body:Like Diamond Head shrouded in sea mist, the Kon Tiki Hotel's early years are fogged in a haze of secondhand information, fuzzy memories and quasi-truths, none of which can be readily substantiated today. Many of the principal characters involved with the motel during its heyday have died or disappeared. Of those whose whereabouts have been determined, very few seem to see any future in reminiscing over the past glories of what was once the Valley's best-known motel and what will soon be a vacant lot.
One exception is Mark Alexander, son of one of the original owners. Now a custom homebuilder in the Valley, Alexander explains that the motel was built by his father, Charles Alexander, in partnership with an uncle and the late Wayne L. Romney, a Valley-based motel magnate whose holdings also included Sundancer and Egyptian motels.
"When it first opened, the Kon Tiki was probably the nicest hotel in town," says Alexander. "Actually, it operated like a resort like you'd see out in Scottsdale. We'd get a lot of honeymooners. And in the winter, we always had a number of people from the Midwest who'd come and spend the entire season. And they were not a weekly rate, either; they were paying the regular daily rental.
"The restaurant was also very successful. On Mother's Day and holidays like that, we were doing the kind of business that you see now at the resorts."
On the threshold of teendom when the four-story, 111-room motel opened for business, Alexander recalls working as a busboy in the Kon Tiki's restaurant every summer during his youth. But just exactly what year the motel opened, no one seems to remember; estimates from former employees and others connected to the motel span the range from 1960 to 1964.
"I think I was about 11, so it had to have opened sometime during the early Sixties," claims Alexander, who vaguely pinpoints the motel's opening date as either 1962 or 1963. In any event, the first year the Kon Tiki appeared in the Phoenix telephone book or city directory was 1962.
"My father and his partners wanted to build something that would be a little bit different," says Mark Alexander. "They wanted something that would really catch the eye." Inspired by motels they'd seen in both the islands and San Diego, a city whose tropical-themed hostelries included a motel whose cocktail lounge featured an underwater mermaid revue behind the bar, the partners quickly realized that Polynesia was the stylistic wave of the future. They gave their architect the green light, wikkiwikki.
@body:Some 30 years later, the Valley's most spectacular, if doomed, example of Polynesian pizzazz continues to fascinate architecture buffs.
"This wasn't the interpretive stuff of someone like Frank Lloyd Wright or some of the others who were interested in the abstract simplicity of Asian architecture," says Reed Kroloff, assistant director of Arizona State University's college of architecture. "This was outright stylistic grabbing. The guys who were doing places like the Kon Tiki were doing the Googie's of Asian architecture." (Googie's" refers to the look-at-me school of space-age coffee shop/bowling alley design popular in the mid-Fifties.)
"You've got the big, sweeping, skirtlike corners, similar to the kind of thing you might see in Asia or throughout the Pacific," Kroloff explains. "But in the Pacific, you won't see it stacked on top of what is essentially an American box motel. All they've really done at the Kon Tiki is taken a rectangular building and plopped a fantastic roof on it. This is schlock--but great schlock."
Another observer is equally enthusiastic, albeit more reserved, in her admiration for the motel. "The Kon Tiki is so representative of its time, 'where building is sign' and you've got the experience of creating an exotic place in the middle of a city," says Deborah Abele of the Phoenix Historic Preservation Office. "Of course, it was built in a time when economics weren't the driving force they are today, when one was allowed the luxury of spending a little extra to create character places. In fact, some of my commission members remember as kids how neat the Kon Tiki was and how they wanted to go there. There's definitely a sentiment there. This is a piece of Phoenix history."