If you ever see me at a cocktail party, ask me about the Moosic Motor Inn near Scranton, Pa.
In my marriage, “Moosic” has become shorthand for what happens when one’s love of authenticity goes too far: While Shauntelle and I both love classic mid-century modern motels, I’ll seek them out over the big boxers every time, even when they’re further afield and we’re both tired.
And, sometimes, even when they look like a movie murder scene.
Granted, the Moosic happened in 2004 and I’ve gotten much better since then. These days, I look for classic motels that have been refreshed and curated; this explains my love of Palm Springs, which is ground zero for this, and for the 1957 Caribbean Motel in Wildwood, N.J, which was “retrovated” so lovingly it’s on the National Register of Historic Places.
In fact, over the past decade, retrovations have been happening in other places, too, since it’s a scene that’s tailor-made for the under-40 crowd who crave tactile authenticity in a digital world. In January, 2018, GQ magazine profiled 10 – including The Astro Motel in California’s wine region and the Amigo Motor Lodge in Colorado – and in June of that same year on Curbed.com, Patrick Sisson called this “the perfect time for motel revivalism,” stating that the simple formula of “cashing in on inexpensive property, employing adaptive reuse, and playing to the country’s obsession with updated midcentury design” seemed to be paying off for “hipster hoteliers.”
But in Toronto, not a hipster in sight. Thank goodness we’ve got Prince Edward County and the Torontonians who moved there.
To wit: Best friends April Brown and Sarah Sklash, who were aware of the new trend but couldn’t find the right vibe when planning wine-based excursions to PEC with their girlfriends.
“It felt like an untapped market in many ways,” says Ms. Brown, who opened Picton’s The June Motel with Ms. Sklash in 2016. “We loved that you went to the wineries and the winemaker was actually pouring you the wine, that they weren’t these big, fancy tasting rooms, that they were barns; there was a real rusticness and a kind of grassroots element that really sucked us in.”
After a first season of welcoming the usual “fisherman, hunters and paintballers” – appropriate since the motel they’d purchased had been known as “The Sportsman” – the pair rolled up their sleeves and transformed the dusty old 16-room, 1970s-era throwback into a different kind of throwback: a blush-pink, Palm-Springsian oasis of ferns, macramé, brass, rattan chairs, checkerboard floors, flowery wallpaper and the option of wine, cheese and charcuterie waiting in the rooms.
And while the property cost less than a house in Toronto – “We were early 30s, all of our friends were buying houses,” Ms. Brown says. The real costs are harder to quantify, Ms. Sklash says. “So it was April and I laying the floors, it was friends and family building the bar, so it’s kind of hard to say what the budget was.”
While Jeff Stober’s Drake Hotel mini-empire had more money behind it, when the team decided to expand in Wellington (where the Drake Devonshire had been doing well since 2014) and add a motel to their property portfolio, they looked inward rather than to a professional designer as they’d always done. Earlier this year, Carlo Colacci and Joyce Lo, co-founders of the Drake General Store, transformed the quirky Cribs on the Creek into a retro-fishing-lodge-meets-Modernist-California motel, the Drake Motor Inn.
“Yeah, that’s a good description,” Mr. Colacci agrees. “When we’re working on projects, we tend to bring in competing styles and somehow make them work together … it’s not just Palm Springs, that’s sometimes not enough, or it’s been done and we don’t want to cookie-cutter someone else’s idea.”
And while the pair wasn’t working with an actual old motel – before it was Cribs on the Creek, at least one of the buildings had been a meat processing plant – the roadside Canadiana is strong regardless, with tchotchkes, vintage magazines, waiting-room-style couches and Polaroid cameras. And, because the reinvention of the motel must cater to jaded big city types, other attractions, such as a communal room, outdoor fire pit, skating and yoga are on offer as well.
“It’s no longer just a place to rest for a night,” says Ms. Brown, who ensured The June also had a fire pit, yoga classes and movie Mondays.
It’s a curious cycle that brought us here. When the first motels appeared in the 1920s and well into their 1950s heyday, they were mom-and-pop shops. Some had cowboy themes, some a tiki or beach vibe, while others celebrated the space age. But, just like with fast food, corporatization brought standardization in the 1960s. Those of us who came of age in the 1980s and 90s often didn’t have much choice but to bunk down in that bland beigeness while travelling for work or leisure; likely that’s why the first boutique hotels appeared in the 1980s and proliferated in the 1990s and early 2000s. Which means, logically, that the once-humble motel’s time has come to flower.
And while I’d always hoped to see a faded Greater Toronto Area flower become a hip haven – the old Etobicoke Lake Shore strip or Scarborough’s Kingston Road come to mind – it’s just not financially feasible. “Real estate in the city is just crazy, so it would be impossible,” Mr. Colacci says, “we’d be going up against every type of developer out there, condos, commercial, whatever.”
So, just as New York has the Hamptons, we’ve got the County. And, soon, Sauble Beach, as The June’s dynamic duo are currently putting the finishing touches on the former Knight’s Inn, a 24-room, fieldstone-and-post-and-beam beauty that will ask the question “if June went to the beach, would she be like?” Ms. Brown says.
I have every reason to believe she will be nothing like the foul smells, cinder block walls, tattered carpet and dirty sheets of the Moosic.
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