Editor's note: This is the second piece in an occasional series about Van Buren Street. Read the first installment here.
They're mostly scary crap-holes now, but the motels on Van Buren Street were once destination spots for weary travelers. These weirded-out welcome wagons started out as a handful of cabins in the 1920s and grew into a glittering row of neon-lit theme parks that beckoned drowsy tourists arriving from points far beyond our desert town. Back then, Van Buren Street was an extension of State Route 60, so pretty much anyone rolling in on that stretch of road in the early half of the last century was in need of a place to stay.
Originally known as "auto courts" and aimed at motorists, a new kind of traveler in the 1920s, these tourist camps were typically a series of stand-alone cabins clustered around a small diner. Camp Joy (2229 East Van Buren) was among the more popular of these cottage courtyards and charged a dollar a day for the joys of steam heat and, according to a weathered pamphlet in my collection, "freshly starched linens." Across the street, Camp Phoenix (2220 East Van Buren) went one better, offering the luxury of swamp-cooling from a colossal on-site water tower.
Van Buren Street
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After World War II, as the construction of freeways was amped up and Phoenix became a more popular vacation spot, the Van Buren auto courts gave way to motor hotels or "motels," usually L-shaped buildings wrapped around a common area and fronted by a parking lot. Eventually, there were so many of these joints that their proprietors began competing for our road-weary attention, which at first meant lowering rates and offering freebies (Free Coffee! Complimentary Breakfast! Kids Sleep Free!). Comfort-related attractions became de rigueur and, sometime in the '50s, when the competition among motor lodges really began to heat up, motels began teasing sweaty motorists with signs ("Air Cooled!") promising real live air-conditioning "in every room!"
Unable to also cool Phoenix's furnace-like out-of-doors, Van Buren motels began digging up their cactus-y grounds; eventually, no motel on the block could book a visitor unless it offered a swimming pool and cabana. Some had two — one for the kids — and the better ones even grafted on a playground or at least a swing set.
Then things started getting weird. Not to be outdone by the larger ma-and-pa motels' plans to install television sets in their "better rooms," the Theatre Motel offered a full-scale drive-in, around which tiny cabins were situated. When the Ramada Inn (3801 East Van Buren) installed a streetcar trolley to deliver guests to their rooms, the HiWay House (3148 East Van Buren), which advertised itself as the "King-Sized Playground of the Southwest," invested in a full-size train (oddly named the Arizona Pacific Railroad) that dragged its younger visitors on a super-slow locomotive tour of the grounds.
And what grounds. HiWay House was an extreme example of the frenzied competition among Van Buren Street motels. This Del Webb project was Van Buren's largest hotel complex; besides its private choo-choo, HiWay had its own business complex and convention center. (In the mid-'90s, the HiWay House became the Big House, when the state of Arizona purchased the property and turned it into a women's prison, which operated until just a few years ago.)
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Having run out of amenities to offer, Van Buren motels began in the '50s to morph into ethnic-themed motor parks. The super-Southwestern places like the Stagecoach and the Frontier made some kind of touristy sense, and even the Mexican-themed motels (the El Rancho; the Sombrero) didn't seem entirely out of place this close to the border. (Perhaps the most infamous of these was Camp Montezuma at 1850 East Van Buren. Instead of dysentery or revenge, the self-proclaimed "finest cottage auto camp in Arizona" offered motorists a choice: One could either sleep in a brick cottage or rough it at the fully electric "camping site" alongside Van Buren proper. This old-time auto court was meant to entice vacationers to play cowboy, but was short-lived when the Montezuma quickly became what was then referred to as a "hobo camp.")
Not to be outdone, Van Buren motel owners began thinking beyond the desert, and soon your visiting Aunt Sal could stay at an Arabian-themed motor court like the Baghdad or the Caravan, or enjoy the Early American Settler routine offered at places like the Log Cabin and Old Faithful Motel. America's '60s-era love of all things Polynesian soon trumped these pre-Epcot travel lodges, and Van Buren became home to the Cocanut Grove, the Tahiti Inn, the Aloha Hotel, the Tropics, and most notably the Kon Tiki (2364 East Van Buren, the former site of the H&R Auto Court), a Valley icon and the last of the great local motels. The heck with horseback riding and Native American motifs; weekend desert dwellers could now spend the night in faux tropical splendor in a garishly rattan room in a complex fronted by a volcanic-rock fire fountain and a mammoth pair of tiki torches.
The Kon Tiki's 1962 grand-opening brochure promised that one could "Come to the Kon Tiki and take away a lifelong memory!" — and memories are about all that's left of Van Buren's glory days. There are still motels there, but they're mostly chains or so disreputable that no one on their way in from Sky Harbor would consider stopping. Several of the original buildings are still standing, although most are used today as low-income housing at $100 a month or — despite Sheriff Joe's expensive crackdown on Van Buren hookers — for low-budget quickies. Of the 200-odd motels that existed on the block, only the Arizona Motel (2625 East Van Buren) and the Log Cabin Motel (2515 East Van Buren) have kept their names and reside in their original buildings.
Where the Log Cabin once promised rustic charm and freshly made beds, its only endorsement today can be found in a single review at TripAdvisor.com: "If you like dives, this is your place," the disgruntled reviewer writes. "Old, moldy, cigarette-scented rooms with windows that don't lock, porn on the TV, and stains on floor (and elsewhere). Also, the place is across from the state mental hospital and teems with cheap, ugly prostitutes. Don't take the wife or family!"