Inn & Out

Decadence and desperation rendezvous at St. Louis' no-tell motels

"I had all my rooms filled -- I made some money over there," Riggins reminisces, pointing out the window toward the Grand.

When it came time to sell, the buyer, an Indian immigrant from Chicago, paid the club owner in cash.

The transfer of lodging enterprises to Indian entrepreneurs is hardly unique to St. Louis. According to the Asian American Hotel Owners Association, people of Indian origin own approximately half the motels in the United States. Most of them are named Patel -- a surname as common in India as Smith or Brown in the United States. In St. Louis, one Patel or another owns the Grand, the Flamingo, the Ebony Motel on Page and North Grand, the Guest Host Motel on Grand and Market, and the Gil Hess on Newstead between St. Louis Avenue and Natural Bridge Road.

Back when Club 54 proprietor Bob Riggins owned the Grand Motel, it was called Lisa's, after his daughter
Bob Reuter
Back when Club 54 proprietor Bob Riggins owned the Grand Motel, it was called Lisa's, after his daughter
"People had fun there": The Coral Court Motel
Shellee Graham
"People had fun there": The Coral Court Motel

In a previous lifetime, the phone that now serves Peter's room at the Grand held down a bed table at a Doubletree Inn somewhere in the 612 area code. Its task-specific buttons convey the impression that the Grand is the sort of place that delivers freshly brewed coffee and hot, jam-slathered scones to guests' doors every morning, along with a complimentary copy of USA Today.

Fact is, the Grand's staff is more apt to drag a tenant out by his left ear if he does not leave promptly at the end of his allotted three hours -- a fact Peter learns firsthand at about 1 a.m. on Sunday.

Rather than retire to his grandparents' suburban home, Peter steers his action to the Flamingo. Like the Grand, the Flamingo's next-door neighbor is a liquor store. And like the Grand, the Flamingo is surrounded by a wall featuring barred windows, rendering the vast majority of its rooms invisible to passersby. Mounted on a plywood extension of the motel's gray cement walls, a misspelled sign reads "No Prstitution."

Late at night, one gains access to the Flamingo when an electronic motion sensor mounted atop the motel's office triggers an electric fence to slide open. Again, as with the Grand, "office" is a bit of a misnomer -- the natural inclination would be to order a double bacon cheeseburger or fill out a deposit slip when approaching a window like the one through which Peter rents a room for five hours. Price: $22.

Three hours later he reports that he has engaged in a threesome with a pair of hookers, producing as evidence the prepaid cell phone one of them left behind. His room here is three times the size of the one he had at the Grand; the added space makes it look all the more stark. No artwork hangs on the walls. Besides a TV set and a lone dresser that gapes like a hollow skull, drawerless, the room's sole piece of furniture is the queen-size bed. Utilitarian, if nothing else.

But it's time to move on. Outside in the car, a woman approaches. "You want some of this?" she asks, pulling up her shirt and loosening her belt.

"No, thanks," says Peter, avoiding eye contact.

She bangs on his window, pleading for commerce, but Peter has had enough of the Flamingo.

He's not quite ready to call it a night, though.

Typically, when Spirtas Wrecking Company prepares to obliterate a building, the signage boasts little flair. But for a property such as the Coral Court Motel, a dash of panache seemed appropriate.

"No more one night stands," read Spirtas' declaration of the death, back in 1995, of the yellow-tiled motel on Watson Road, a stretch of the legendary Route 66.

"At first I was really pissed off," recounts Shellee Graham, a photographer and author of Tales from the Coral Court: Photos & Stories from a Lost Route 66 Landmark. "But then I felt like Spirtas was really paying homage."

T-minus 24 hours from a monster road trip to a gathering of fellow Route 66 enthusiasts in Tucumcari, New Mexico, the diminutive Graham is clad in white Route 66 tank top and dangling silver Route 66 highway-sign earrings, munching on a veggie wrap at Cicero's in the University City Loop. She flips through photo albums and shuffles through postcards and trinkets related to the highway, till she stumbles across a commemorative plastic key chain bearing the Coral Court's insignia and room number 69.

What's the significance of the room number?

"What do you think?" Graham replies with a chortle.

Opened in 1942 and featuring Streamline Moderne bungalows -- referred to by motel enthusiasts as "Mae West" units owing to their curvy corners -- the Coral Court personified the changing face of the motel industry in St. Louis, if not nationwide. Once billed as "ultra-modern" lodgings that drew travelers from far and wide, the Coral Court was many things to many people over its lifetime. Most notoriously, though, it was an oasis for lovers whose assignations necessitated a measure of stealth.

The motel did its part to "court" such affairs. For one thing, Graham says, the rooms could be procured for four or eight hours at a time -- though not, as is often maintained, by the hour. Additionally, every room had its own garage, which meant no one could see who'd checked in.

« Previous Page
Next Page »