Perhaps no invention affected American everyday life in the early to mid-20th century more than the automobile. The growth of the automobile industry caused an unprecedented economic revolution across the United States. As a result, dozens of spin-off industries blossomed. Travelers on the nation’s highways needed shelter on long trips, so motels began to line major long-distance routes. Even American cuisine was transformed by the automobile. The quintessential American foods — hamburgers, French fries, milkshakes, and apple pies — became hallmarks of the new roadside diners. Drivers wanted cheap, relatively fast food so they could be on their way in a hurry. The social effects of the automobile were just as great. Freedom of choice encouraged many family vacations to places previously impossible. With the automobile urban dwellers had the opportunity to rediscover pristine landscapes, just as rural dwellers were able to shop in towns and cities.
The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921, also called the Phipps Act, defined the Federal Aid Road program to develop an immense national highway system. The plan was crafted by the head of the National Highway Commission and was the first coherent plan for the nation's future roads. Road construction created thousands of new jobs, as state and local governments began funding highway design.
In 1948, just over a decade after the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge, an event that radically improved auto and truck travel north of San Francisco Bay, Santa Rosa's City Council voted on where to locate a widened and improved Highway 101.
Some community leaders wanted to see Highway 101 bypass downtown and follow a route well to the west. But a group of influential Santa Rosa businessmen, fearful that a bypass would move potential customers too far to the west, insisted that the highway should pass near the downtown district. Wisely, the city council sided with the businessmen.
California’s Highway 101 opened in 1926, and up until that time, Santa Rosa Avenue was the primary southern roadway entry point to the city of Santa Rosa. It was there on Santa Rosa Avenue, less than a quarter mile to the east of Highway 101, the city of Santa Rosa began to see the construction of what has come to be known as the classic American motor lodge. These motor lodges filled the rapidly increasing need for inexpensive, easily accessible overnight accommodation located close to the main highway routes.
The 1950s and 1960s marked the pinnacle of the motel industry in the United States. As these mom-and-pop motor lodges began adding newer amenities such as swimming pools or color TV (a luxury in the 1960s).
In Santa Rosa, long before the arrival of the present-day Santa Rosa Marketplace, El Rancho Tropicana Motel was considered the jewel of south Santa Rosa Avenue. It was a tidy, low-slung horseshoe of a motor lodge that grew from 25 rooms to 275 with a restaurant, bar and multiple pools. When the Oakland Raiders weren’t staying there during summer their annual training camp, El Rancho Tropicana hosted garden shows, boxing matches and musical acts ranging from Van Morrison to the Blue Oyster Cult.
Present day, with most travelers using the Highway 101 through Santa Rosa, few people go out of their way to find cool retro roadside motels. However, a growing number of intrepid cultural explorers have begun to rediscover the gems found just off Santa Rosa Avenue exits, and are once again exploring the interesting remnants of Highway 101 – searching for that one singular experience just around the bend.
While the lower price tags of motor lodges still thrill, modern travelers visiting Santa Rosa are seeking more: a sense of authenticity and place and, of course, Insta-worthy visuals. Today, the motor lodges along Santa Rosa Avenue are making a comeback. Hoteliers big and small are grabbing up these properties and bringing them back to life with midcentury-modern design elements, local artisan touches, boutique hotel-level comfort and picture-perfect pops of color.
For 21st-century road warriors who are visiting Santa Rosa and looking for a unique retro-cool cultural experience, Visit Santa Rosa recommends the following motor lodges found along Santa Rosa Avenue. For more more information click on the bolded text below:
323 Santa Rosa Avenue
1500 Santa Rosa Avenue
1800 Santa Rosa Avenue
1815 Santa Rosa Avenue
2363 Santa Rosa Avenue