I Slept in a Wigwam

(by Maria Burkett, originally posted March 1, 2012)

Route 66 is a treasure trove of American mid-century vernacular architecture. Many songs and movies have been made about traveling the historic route, which runs from Illinois to California. Built in 1926, the route has long passed its heyday, but it is still a bastion of culture for any fan of mid-century modernism.

I love signs–here’s one marking Route 66.I was so excited to be staying in an icon of the Mother Road.

Several years ago, I was in California doing fieldwork for a cultural resources assignment for Hardlines Design Company, and I found myself driving along Route 66 in San Bernardino, looking for a place to spend a few nights. After a little research, I made an amazing discovery: one of the original Wigwam Motels is located along Route 66 in Rialto, California, just outside of San Bernardino. I immediately booked a room. For any of you who are fans of the Disney movie Cars, the Traffic Cone Motel was modeled after this.

Seven Wigwam Motels were constructed across the country between the 1930s and 1950s to serve as roadside stops for people along the new highway system. The first Wigwam Motel was constructed in Horse Cave, Kentucky, in 1933 and is sadly no longer standing. The one in Rialto was constructed in 1949 and was the last of the motels ever built. Today, only three Wigwam Motels remain, located in Cave City, Kentucky; Holbrook, Arizona; and the one in Rialto where I stayed. The motels are all situated along popular early highways and are (or were) surrounded by other interesting roadside attractions. (For more on this topic, check back for future posts in this series.)

The wigwam motels were all constructed of poured concrete and then painted. They have a round plan and are a single story tall. The design for the wigwam’s was patented in 1935, and all of the wigwams were constructed exactly the same, with the only variety being the front office and the layout of the individual wigwam buildings.

Several of the wigwams at the Rialto motel

Wigwam Motel No. 2 in Cave City, Kentucky. Unfortunately, I did not sleep in these wigwams; I just drove past them on the way to Mammoth Cave about five years ago. While the wigwams have an identical design, the layout and setting is much different than the one in Rialto. All of these wigwams are in a single arched row around a large central wigwam, and the motel is in a more residential setting, surrounded by mature trees.

The Rialto motel is located in a commercial area of the city near fast food restaurants and car lots and is a distinctive landmark for residents. The motel is laid out as a series of teepee-shaped rooms around a central rental office and pool. Each wigwam consists of a single room with a small bathroom. The rooms have the original western-style furniture, including a wigwam-shaped mirror. One thing I was surprised about was the low ceiling; the room is not open all the way to the top.

The complex is in excellent condition and is lucky to have owners that care for the history and the future of the motel. The wigwams were meticulously restored several years ago by the present owners, and the complex was listed in the National Register on January 3, 2012, joining the other two extant wigwam motels.

I enjoyed sleeping in a Wigwam and would like to repeat the experience again in the future! Have any of you ever slept in a wigwam? What did you think of the experience? For more information on the history of the motel, or if you’re in Rialto and want to sleep in a wigwam, click here for the Rialto Wigwam Motel’s website.