SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. —The Wigwam Motel on Foothill Boulevard in San Bernardino isn't just a road icon, it's a part of my childhood. I was born at the tail end of the Eisenhower era, and a lot of things have gone by the wayside over the years — drive-in theaters and drive-up carhop spots, to name two. Others aren't what they used to be — Tomorrowland at Disneyland is more fantasy than future today.
That's why I love the story of the Wigwam Motel. It should be dead and gone. It sits in the middle of what would politely be called an "economically challenged" strip of historic Route 66, the road that brought millions to Southern California. But it's not only still there, it's better than at any time in the past 20-plus years.
The change is because of the Patel family, which bought the rundown place a few years back. At the time it was a sleazy dive on the border between Rialto and San Bernardino. I was born in San Bernardino and lived in Rialto until I was 5. After we moved to Long Beach in the early 1960s, we would sometimes stay at the Wigwam when we visited my grandfather in Rialto, before he moved to Las Vegas in the 1970s.
By the late 20th century (that phrase still sounds strange, 10 years into the 21st), the Wigwam was in sad shape. The "Sleep in a Wigwam" sign had been replaced by one that beckoned, "Do It in a Tee-Pee." Charming. But over the past few years, the Patels have restored it to its status as roadside attraction.
"During the recession, we have found the slowdown with our overseas and out-of-state travelers," said Kumar Patel. "But we have not stopped updating the property."
Patel said the family is renovating the rooms again, with new beds, TVs and upgraded air conditioning. The parking lot is repaved and the pool restored.
The San Bernardino Wigwam Motel is one of three remaining from what was once a national tepee-themed motel chain. One is in Holbrook, Ariz. —also a part of Route 66. The other is in Cave City, Ky.
Wigwam Village motels were the dream of Frank Redford. In the years after World War I, Redford was inspired by a Long Beach roadside stand shaped like a tepee. He decided the design would be a great draw for motorists along the expanding network of highways criss-crossing the United States. Wigwam Village No. 1 opened in Horse Cave, Ky., in 1935. Redford patented his concept in 1936.
Wigwam Village No. 2 was completed in 1937 in Cave City. Five more were built, in Birmingham, Ala.; Orlando, Fla.; New Orleans; Holbrook; and San Bernardino.
I've visited all three of the remaining ones, and the best combination of amenities and locations is in Cave City, near Mammoth Cave. It's outside of the main commercial strip and features broad, sloping lawns and a playground for kids.
The centerpiece of the motel is a 52-foot tepee called "the Big Wigwam," a structure of 38 tons of concrete and 13 tons of steel — quite a bit more than the animal hides-over-wood poles design that inspired it.
Each of the 15 units has a small bedroom and private bath. A "misting deck" with spray nozzles, not unlike the kind you find in restaurants in Palm Springs or Las Vegas, keeps guests cool with a spritz of water while sitting outside in the sticky Kentucky summers.
The Holbrook motel was built by Chester Lewis, who had seen one of Redford's motels in the East. Redford struck a deal with Lewis to essentially franchise the idea. Lewis got the blueprints to the Kentucky motel complex in exchange for giving Redford a piece of the revenue for his coin-operated radios in the rooms.
The Holbrook location, Wigwam Village No. 6, opened in the summer of 1950, during the heyday of Route 66 — often called "the Mother Road." It was a popular stop for vacationers and also the hordes of Easterners moving West in the post-World War II era.
But the same boom also led to a bust. When the U.S. government built Interstate 40, the Wigwam and many other local businesses were bypassed. The motel deteriorated and closed in 1974. Lewis' family revived the hotel in 1989, just in time for the wave of nostalgia over Route 66.
The motel has been restored to its 1950s look, with the 15 units painted with a red zigzag line and red trim around the windows.
The Cave City and Holbrook locations have been put on the National Register of Historic Places, which helps the owners maintain their unique properties and draws attention to their pop-culture stories.
San Bernardino's Wigwam Motel opened with 11 tepees in 1949 and was so popular with tourists, eight more were added, along with a swimming pool. It was built by Frank Redford, the owner of the original Wigwam Motel in Kentucky.
As the fruit orchards and small shops along Foothill Boulevard were replaced by auto repair yards and liquor stores, the area went into decline. The Wigwam went with it. Until the Patels came along
Despite the dreary neighborhood, the Wigwam has become the star of this often-overlooked stretch of Route 66. It's a popular spot for motorcycle and vintage car rallies along the Mother Road. The Patels have been honored by preservationists for the work in making the Wigwam's comeback possible.
"My family and myself work 24 hours, 365 days a year keeping this property the way it is," Kumar Patel said. "It would be a great honor for us to be part of the National Register of Historic Places, an even a higher honor to be a National Landmark, being that this is the original Wigwam Motel on Historic Route 66."
While German and French tourists can often be found there, Patel says it is locals and American vacationers who keep it a going business.
"Of course, weekends always seem to keep busy with families visiting or if some big event is coming into town," Patel said. "We have a loyal following with new ones always coming. Overall, it has been a good summer for us in Southern California."
IF YOU GO:
Wigwam Motel, 2728 Foothill Blvd., San Bernardino (on the border with Rialto). 909-875-3005 or www.wigwammotel.com
Wigwam Village No. 2, 601 N. Dixie Highway, Cave City, KY 270-773-3381 or www.wigwamvillage.com
Wigwam Motel, 811 W. Hopi Drive, Holbrook, AZ, 928-524-3048 or www.galerie-kokopelli.com/wigwam