Rick Poynor | Essays

Lost America: The Flamingo Motor Hotel

Flamingo Motor Hotel, Flagstaff, Arizona, 1978. Photograph: Rick Poynor

I found this old photo in a box at the back of my attic. It shows a motel in Flagstaff, Arizona where I stayed for a couple of nights in May 1978. I was 20, it was my first visit to the US, and for three weeks, with my friend Martin, I had been touring around on Greyhound buses. By the time we pulled into Flagstaff we had covered about 4,000 miles and we were now on our way to the Grand Canyon. We loved the overstatement in the name. Not just the Flamingo Motor Hotel — there are other Flamingo motels — but Andy Womack's Flamingo Motor Hotel. "Low Low" prices, promised by the sign, were exactly what we needed. And how could a traveller, weary and saddle-sore from a few too many nights in a bus seat, resist the lure of the excitable sales pitch: "Hot Water Heat"?

I knew nothing about typography, lettering or graphic design in those days and had no plans to write about the subject, but I recognized a great sign when I saw one. Although we had passed plenty of roadside attractions like this on our coast-to-coast tour, we tended to stay in cheap city hotels or YMCAs when we weren't on the bus and, here in Flagstaff on the mythical Route 66, this was the first genuine motel complete with an outlandishly flamboyant sign — an icon of Americana! — we had checked into. It was perfect. We were on the road because of Kerouac's On the Road, a book any self-respecting bohemian treated as gospel back then. As devoted film buffs, we'd spent hours wishing we could cut loose and leave it all behind like they did in Easy Rider, Vanishing Point, the American scenes in Wim Wenders' Alice in the Cities, and — for my money still the finest road movie — Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop.

So I took a snapshot of the sign and stashed it away when I got home with all the other photos and memorabilia from the trip. Looking at the picture again after so long, I began to wonder what had happened to Andy Womack's Flamingo Motor Hotel in the years since we stayed there. Even at the time the joint had seen better days, as the flaking paint on the sign clearly reveals. I also began to wonder about the sign itself. With a more experienced eye, I could see that a construction that had bulked so large in my memories of the trip was fairly simple in form compared to some of the more ornate roadside structures designed by vernacular sign-makers and erected in motel forecourts from the 1930s to the 1970s.

On the development of the American sign, there is no better guide than Lisa Mahar's American Signs: Form and Meaning on Route 66 (2002). I will go further and suggest that this is one of the best studies of graphic typology ever published, a landmark work to track down and savor. Picking up where Learning from Las Vegas left off, it's a rare book about a graphic subject that employs graphic devices to deliver its commentary, with diagrammatic analysis and meticulously annotated documentary photographs to identify and itemize the characteristic formal components of different sign types, their evolution, local and cultural references, and meanings. Applying Mahar's classifications, it seems that Andy Womack's sign is an example of the "bowtie" form prevalent from 1957 to 1960 when signs were in transition from the abstract, expressive shapes seen in the early 1950s to regular, often rectangular shapes. It replaced an earlier organic-shaped sign, which connected to the motel roof. The flattened bottom of the main part of the new sign and the missing lower points of the bow suggest that it was right on the cusp of this change.

Another feature of roadside signs of the late 1950s is the simplification of structure. Earlier signs were asymmetrically composed and dynamic. In the Flamingo Motor Hotel sign, the symmetrical structure spans two poles and the content separates into distinct horizontal layers. The increasing modularity of signs during these years tells its own story. As Mahar explains, the sign-makers lost creative control as the growing affordability of plastic led to the production of more regular shaped components. Before long detached professional designers were telling the sign-makers what to do with these elements. As the motel industry expanded and clients became more conservative, the role of the sign-maker declined — an all too familiar pattern. Later signs often have a crude, over-regulated, generic look that's less than the sum of their prefabricated plastic parts, but the Flamingo sign, with its big dumb arrow wildly out of scale with the quality of service on offer, still retains a quirky, local, vernacular flavor. If the "Andy Womack" box and the arrow look like add-ons, it's because they are. A photograph from 1964 shows the sign bearing only the motel name.

Photograph: Chris O'Meally, © 1989

I could find very few references to Andy Womack's Flamingo Motor Hotel on the Internet, though one text about a prominent Flagstaff family furnished a link to the picture above. It was taken in 1989 by Chris O'Meally, a San Diego photographer, and as always, hot, bright neon works its magic transformation: the place looks almost glamorous with the mountains looming behind it, though even more paint has fallen off the sign. O'Meally, then a student at the Rochester Institute of Technology, was spending a semester at Northern Arizona University. "I always loved the sign as it was a quintessential Route 66 icon," he told me. "I took the picture while waiting to meet some friends at a bar across the street. I'm glad they kept me waiting that night as, 20 years later, I have a print of the image hanging in my house."

Someone else mentions that in the early 1980s the final "o" burned out and for several years it was the Flaming Motor Hotel. According to O'Meally, the motel fell into disrepair and was demolished; the National Historic Route 66 Federation records the year as 1997. They note that the motel dates from the 1930s and they have a photo showing Andy Womack's glory from the other side.

When we checked in to recharge our batteries at the Flamingo, it was already running down. Since then, a whole industry has sprung up around documenting the motor courts, trading posts, truck stops, gas stations and greasy spoons that offered comfort and service to the traveller all the way along Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles. There are countless websites devoted to the nostalgic celebration of the "mother road" as well as photographers — the recording angels of Lost America — who specialize in preserving the image of any and every roadside relic and ruin. These amazing signs are as popular as ever. Could the American dream ever have looked more irresistibly inviting than it did in the shape of these towering illuminated sign-sculptures, radiating their assurance of rest, recovery and satisfaction to the bleary-eyed driver in the darkness on the long, open road? These ubiquitous roadside markers were ordinary yet full of wonder. They expressed a kind of everyday transcendence available to anyone on wheels.

I consulted volumes one and two of Route 66: Lost & Found by Russell A. Olsen, which compares old postcards and period photos of landmarks with his own present-day pictures of the same locations, hoping he might have something on the Flamingo — but no luck. The motel's erasure is so complete that there is nothing left to show and Mahar's book omits it, too. Today, a straight-from-the-mold Barnes & Noble stands on the site at the intersection of Route 66 and South Milton Road, across the street from the university. Strangely, the number of the payphone next to the sign in my picture is still listed in an online directory and on a whim — I don't know why — I tried calling it to see what would happen. But, of course, it didn't ring.

Posted in: Architecture, Arts + Culture, Photography, Social Good

Comments [14]

Great article, Mr. Poyner. Flagstaff still has a few good Route 66 motel signs. One of my favorites was recently used on an album cover:

Everyone here in Flagstaff is not such a fan of the signs, though. In the building where I work at Northern Arizona University, student projects from a city planning class are regularly exhibited. The students are tasked with photographing examples of good and bad signage from around the city. The latter category is invariably filled with signs from Route 66 motels.
James Bowie

I've always been a fan of signs like these, and I am glad there is an essay here and entire books written on the subject.

Interestingly enough, driving through Quebec between Montréal and into northern New Brunsick (Canada), there is a series of "auberges", hotels and motels with similarly-styled signs. I snapped some drive-by photos en route from Halifax to Toronto back in April 2007.

I wonder what the connection between French Canadian highway culture and the apparent "Lost American" styles.
Tom Froese

I'll give an "aye" to Rick's recommendation of Lisa Mahar's book. It's not only a visual treat, but her process of analysis is fascinating.

If I could afford it, I'd spend a summer traveling northern Wisconsin and Michigan in an effort to document the slowly disappearing vernacular motel signs that I remember seeing as a kid. There are a lot of similarities to the Route 66 signs, but often with "northwoods" iconography thrown in. I can't say I'd want to see a resurgence of these types of signs, because their charm is contained in the period of time in which they were created. But I hate to see them disappear altogether.
Daniel Green

If you are ever in Cincinnati, I implore you to stop by the American Sign Museum. I went a few years ago and was given a tour by the owner. Absolutely amazing.
Steven Baughman

Great article, and thanks for mentioning Two-Lane Blacktop, a gem of a movie in my book too.
Paul Dean

With respect to "HOT WATER HEAT," my guess is that this is only part of the sales pitch. The newer signage, "Family Rates," conceals the kicker, "-ED POOL."
PT Caffey

Both Jack Kerouac and William Carlos Williams, went to the Horace Mann School, which is down the road from the school where I have taught design for the past 19 years. They both influenced Allen Ginsberg, who in 1983, read the HOWL at the Maryland Institute College of Art. I remember, the standing room only crowd roared when he read the words:

who thought they were only mad when Baltimore
gleamed in supernatural ecstasy

After the reading, Allen invited us all (half the College of Art) for a drink under the neon lights of the Mt. Royal Tavern.
I still love the classic design of the HOWL book cover. Thank you for this post!
Carl W. Smith

Thanks, everyone, for the links. The American Sign Museum in Cincinatti looks fantastic.

Agree about the cover of Howl, too.

I don't remember the heated pool, if they still had one, but I think PT is probably right about the sign.
Rick Poynor

Interesting post and a topic that is near and dear.

For a couple of years I was casually taking shots of the old motel signs on both sides of the border at Niagara Falls (home of the "heart-shaped love tub"!). The first casino was built in 1996 and the economic engine rumbled to life with a wad of cash in one hand and a wrecking ball in the other. A large number of the signs that had stood for 50+ years just disappeared seemingly overnight.

I'm guessing that in Flagstaff, where the days are blazing hot and the nights are bone-chilling, advertising "hot water heat" may be a compelling sales pitch.

The "Flaming Motor Hotel" is on Flickr.
Jan Egil Kristiansen

That's a great find, Jan Egil Kristiansen. I see it's from a whole set of Route 66 neon pictures taken from 1992 to 2004. The Flaming Motor Hotel picture is dated 1992. That makes more sense than the early 1980s, the date I suggest in my post, unless the "o" failed more than once.
Rick Poynor

James Lileks' collections of motel postcards and restaurant postcards include several examples of classic neon (and other) signage.

Actually, when the Flamingo was torn down it took them years because it was so toxic with asbestos.. I remember even in the 1980's when I was a teenager it was being tented as they removed parts of it. I believe HAZMAT did it. They also had to remove the dirt it sat on even, it was a big long expensive process. Turns out my now mother in law worked there in the 1950's. I am wondering if anyone who once worked at this hotel got Mesothelioma? I have been researching and up to 70 years or more after exposure people can still come down with this.

Barns and Nobel now sits where The flamingo used to stand next to Dairy Queen at the Y of old Route 66, and Milton Rd.
Colette Bebee Merchant

Thanks for this great essay. I've been documenting NYC's existing neon signs, and have just begun digging into the history. I'm definitely putting Mahar's book next on my reading list.
Kirsten Hively

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