Roadside Attraction

By Margaret Regan

THE SMART MONEY says the old No-Tel Motel is not long for this world.

The salmon-and-yellow slump block haven for sinners, on Oracle Road just a stone's throw north of Grant, right now is being dwarfed Books by construction of what's got to be the world's biggest Walgreen's. The adulterers' tiny windows looking south have a new view of the drugstore's monolithic north wall, not that any of the transgressors are looking. But the juxtaposition of the two buildings speaks volumes about the rapid disappearance of regional, vernacular, even weirdo architecture. Funny old motels like the No-Tel are making way for the bland beige monoliths of world-wide corporate culture.

The No-Tel makes an appearance in Vacant Eden, a new color photography book that lovingly chronicles Tucson's vanishing roadside attractions. The peeling motels pictured in the book, with un-pc names like Apache's Tears or buoyant titles like Vista del Sol, date from the heyday of car travel back in the '30s, '40s and '50s. These places thrived in the days before the advent of the interstates and the depressing onslaught of cookie cutter Holiday Inns and the like that make everyplace seem like no place. The old motels capitalized on regional pride and kitsch, cheerfully twisting their neon signs into oddball shapes. The Arizonan Motel in the book has a sign, you guessed it, shaped like the Grand Canyon state. Owl Lodge has fine glowing orange owl standing sentinel above the parking lot. The book also addresses their decline, picturing abandoned swimming pools, broken beds, rattletrap coolers.

Abigail Gumbiner, a California photographer who's teamed up with Carol Hayden on many commercial projects, lived in Tucson in the 1940s as a small child when these places were in their prime. In town last month to promote the book, her first, Gumbiner said her father, Rabbi Joseph Gumbiner, once led the Stone Temple congregation downtown. His early embrace of a socially active Judaism won him some opposition among his wealthy congregants, she said, and the family's sojourn in the Old Pueblo was not long. Still, Gumbiner threw herself into the project of photographing motels that are odd reminders not only of her youth, but of America's long-ago innocence.

"I was in Tucson three or four years ago," Gumbiner said, "and early one morning I happened to drive down Sixth Avenue. I saw places like the Paradise Motor Hotel, the Arizona Motel. Their signs were magnificent pieces of sculpture...Benson Highway is a gold mine, full of motel buildings, signs and swimming pools."

Gumbiner threw herself into the project, cajoling Hayden to sign on as well. The book, with 80 color plates, is a memento not only of her own youth but of America's long-ago innocence. It's even become a kind of a historical document. Already, she said, "one-third of the images in the book are now gone." TW

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