66 Through St. Louis: Motel Row
When it came to getting sleep along Route 66, motel owners often managed precious little because they were too busy competing to convince travelers that they alone offered the best night’s rest. With each passing year, motorists had more money to spend and more options to choose from on the Mother Road. As a result, motel owners were constantly updating their offerings and advertisements to draw in those dollars. Gone were the days when bed linens and indoor plumbing were enough for most folks. Now people wouldn't dream of sleeping somewhere that didn’t feature a television, air conditioning, or a flashy piece of roadside neon.
For families who’d spent an entire day driving to St. Louis but didn’t feel like staying in a downtown hotel, a stretch of Watson Road through South County was paradise. Starting just east of Laclede Station Road and stretching west to Lindbergh Boulevard, more than a dozen motels peppered Watson’s roadside on what became known as Motel Row. Between them were plenty of other Route 66 attractions, including the 66 Park-In Theatre (1947–1994) and the still-operating Crestwood Bowl (located at 9822 Watson), but the motels were attractions in their own right. Families driven car-crazy by long days of traveling were enticed with irresistible entertainments: playgrounds and swimming pools for the kids, and built-in liquor stores for the adults. If one motel was full, they just headed down the row to the next.
Each stop on Motel Row was a unique sight, but it was a particular building on the row’s far-east end that became a legend.
Few places summed up the mystery, uniqueness, aesthetic, and appeal of Route 66 better than the peculiar Coral Court Motel (7755 Watson). In June 1941 owner John Carr hired architect Adolph Struebig to design a top-of-the-line structure for his new motel. The result? Honey-colored glazed tile and triangular glass-block windows that perfectly reflected the streamlined, built-for-speed look that was coming into fashion. The motel's curving surfaces were also a cut above the rest, inspiring copycats such as the Missouri Motel found just down the road at 8084 Watson. The Coral Court's slick, eccentric architecture certainly made it a famous Route 66 stop, but the motel's later reputation made it an infamous destination too.
The Coral Court became known as a discrete place where secrets remained safe, curtains stayed closed, and rooms were rented by the hour. It was a symbol of illicit love and “sinning in style” . . . a bad joke everyone got. The motel also saw its fair share of real scoundrels, including Carl Austin Hall, the fugitive suspected and later convicted in the infamous 1953 Bobby Greenlease kidnapping and murder.
In 1972, Missouri’s last section of Interstate 44 connected St. Louis and its suburbs. Fewer and fewer travelers visited Motel Row as they zipped past Route 66 at 60 miles per hour. Yet the process of Motel Row’s passing had begun long before the interstate’s arrival.
By the 1950s—an era many would consider the road’s “heyday”—mom-and-pop motels were already struggling to keep up in a changing world. New corporate chain hotels such as Holiday Inn offered fixed rates and guaranteed cleanliness, and with more than 1,000 locations by the mid-1960s, there was never one far away. Travelers were opting more and more for predictability, and the road’s strangeness was giving way to standardization.
Developers coveted the large lots of old motels as they envisioned office parks, fast-food restaurants, and department stores. With their owners eager to sell, the structures of Watson’s Motel Row were picked off one by one until few were left standing. The Coral Court was one of the longest to hold on, but it closed in 1993. A group called the Coral Court Preservation Society beat developers to the punch by getting the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but the move made little difference—in 1995 the Mother Road’s most famous no-tell motel was demolished to make way for a 45-unit suburban housing development.
Only four of Motel Row’s Route 66–era lodgings remain standing today:
Here are some of the motels once found along Motel Row:
—Andrew Wanko, Public Historian