I’m fascinated by mid-century American motels – complete with motor court, a fun name, and ideally, an appealing neon sign. These standalone motor courts are cool, but what’s really intriguing are the few examples I’ve seen of mid-century motels built around a historic 19th century house.
Maybe it’s the juxtaposition between the large single family dwelling and the modest motor court that catches my eye – but there’s a story behind these transformations that speaks to the growth of travel, automobile ownership, and changes on Main Street in small town America. And that’s not even scratching the surface of changes to the historic house itself – like the dwelling once known as Sunnyside, and home of the Hollyhill Motel since 1949.
There’s been a house on this site, just outside of Lebanon on West Main Street, since the 1830s. Around 1850, a Presbyterian minister named Thomas H. Clelland purchased the property from Henry Roland and built what is now the front of the house – a two-story, brick, side-passage plan dwelling.
Cleland sounds like an interesting fellow: he was purportedly the first man in Lebanon to burn coal to heat his house; the first fellow to bud trees; to own a coal-oil lamp; and he owned the first sewing machine! No word on whether he operated said machine himself or not, but he kindly lent it to the ladies of his church to “stitch their calicos.”*
Cleland’s innovations aside, the house he had built was not typical for the time. A side-passage plan wasn’t unknown, but in a semi-rural setting, it wasn’t what most people built. A comfortable, socially acceptable central passage house would have been more commonplace.
Lebanon’s position on the Louisville & Nashville railroad made it vulnerable during the Civil War, and during the third battle in Lebanon ion 1863, Thomas Morgan died in the house’s front parlor. He was later buried in the garden until his family could fetch his remains home. His brother, Confederate General John Hunt Morgan, is the better known son of the family.
Cleland sold the house in 1870, but it remained a single family home until 1949. Then, the trees were razed, and the front lawn, described as an “old fashioned flower garden” in the 19th century, became a construction zone.
Travelers along America’s roads swelled after World War I – and the downtown hotels (usually near the railroad) and “free range camping” (stopping the car and camping in an “attractive spot along the roadside at day’s end”**) – couldn’t deal with the deluge. Motor courts began to sprout across the country, and Kentucky was no exception.
Many motor courts built during prior to World War II employed fanciful themes (tepees, windmills, and the like) and separate cabins or cottages. In 1933, the American Automobile Association estimated that 30,000 “tourist cottage and camp establishments” lined the country’s road system.
After the war, however, the appearance and tenor of motor courts shifted. Single buildings, with rooms arranged like beads on a necklace, were cheaper to construct, and after the twin horrors of both the Great Depression and World War II, no one seemed to want theatrical and eye-catching motor courts. Sedate, utilitarian, and traditional became the norm. Enter the Hollyhill Motel.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a stand of holly trees in the front lawn prompted another name for the Rowland-Cleland house: Hollywood. Perhaps in remembrance of that name, the new motor court – 14 units on one side, and 10 units on another, with two grassy ovals in the center – was christened the Hollyhill Motel.
I haven’t been inside either the original house or the motel units, but I admire the tidy row of gable roofs cascading down the hill toward Main Street. The motel units are clad in stone veneer (I believe the building material is concrete block), the doors and windows sheltered from the weather by shed roof porches. Sadly, the bright metal lawn chairs depicted in the postcard are no longer in place.
The U-shaped configuration of the Hollyhill Motel was a common design element in motor courts across the country. Even the inclusion of an existing historic house into this new profit-making venture wasn’t unusual – most motor courts “lavished the most visual attention on the focal point of a cabin ensemble, a building, larger than all the rest, containing and office and the owner’s living quarters.”***
In this case, instead of having the office/living quarters be the largest tepee in the motor court (like Wigwam Village #2 in Cave City, Kentucky), that role was assigned to the mid-19th century dwelling already conveniently on the site.
Like the sign out front, the main house has undergone many cosmetic changes in the years since the birth of the motel around it. The facade has lost the hood molds over the windows, the windows have been replaced, and the cornice stripped of its brackets. To a purist, these changes (not to mention the motor court itself) condemn the Roland-Cleland House irrevocably.
I’m not a purist. I find the combination of mid-19th century dwelling and mid-20th century roadside architecture to be compelling, wonderful, and teeming with significance. The significance doesn’t rest in architectural ornament (though it would be great if the house retained a bit more integrity in that regard), but in how ordinary people adjusted and responded to a changing world.
I’d love to know more about the origins of the Hollyhill Motel – what prompted its construction? Who came up with the design, and how has this roadside motel figured into the tourist trade of Lebanon over the decades? Like many of the subjects I write about, I must be content with only a passing knowledge of the story, and keep driving and photographing, my eyes hunting for the curious, the forlorn, the ignored – even if there is no flashy neon sign to attract my notice.
*The Lebanon Enterprise, March 1972
**Chester Liebs, Main Street to Miracle Mile American Roadside Architecture. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1985), 170.