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Instagram account Dead Motels USA is a curatorial project celebrating the oddness and specificity of roadside attractions

Hotel, Motel, Holiday Inn

Instagram account Dead Motels USA is a curatorial project celebrating the oddness and specificity of roadside attractions

Shirley Apartments in Miami Beach, Florida (Courtesy John Margolies Roadside America Photograph Archive/Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

In October 2018, critic and journalist Kate Wagner published an article in The Baffler about online communities of hobbyist preservationists. They were collecting imagery of decaying and decommissioned buildings and posting their investigations on image-based social media sites, gaining huge followings. The phenomenon as described by Wagner constitutes a shadow populist historic preservation movement that rivals “the two most substantial national surveys of written, photographic, and architectural documentation of American vernacular architecture, combined,” meaning the Library of Congress’s Historic American Building Survey (HABS) and Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS).

Instagram has its own brand of hobbyist preservationists. Rather than collective image gathering that defines sites like Flickr and Facebook, Instagram’s profiles and timeline structure require users to curate their desired experience for both sharing and consuming images. As such, Instagram’s sharing experience is more focused, encouraging popular profiles to dedicate themselves to a distinct subject. One such Instagram profile, focused on archiving a specific architectural type is Dead Motels USA, which documents motels—short for “Motor Hotel.” An architectural typology ontologically linked to a bygone era of American post-war optimism, surburbanism, and cross-country car travel, motels had their heyday between 1930 and 1970, peaking in 1964 with around 61,000 nationwide. Since then, though, their decline has been precipitous, thanks to a desire among travelers for the more consistent lodging experience granted by chain hotels. But even if the kitschy, Mom and Pop motels era ended decades ago, images of these neon giants continue to inspire nostalgia, and the hobbyist preservationist community that has coalesced around Instagram account Dead Motels USA.

 

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Dead Motels USA is managed by E. Hussa, a social worker who started the Instagram in 2018 after she noticed many of the motels she stayed in or drove past as a child were disappearing.

“I always felt my interest in roadside motels was too niche for anyone to really care about,” said Hussa in an interview with The Architects Newspaper.  “Turns out, it really wasn’t as obscure as I thought.” The success of her Instagram profile has skyrocketed to 132,000 followers, as well as a website, Etsy shop, and book.

 

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Dead Motels USA posts follow a similar format: an image of the motel in its prime; an image of the motel that shows a liminal condition, usually post-renovation; and an image of the motel mid-decomposition. Captions on these posts often document the history of the motel, describing its opening and what brought about the current state of disrepair. The bygone landmarks may have been purchased by a private equity firm or large chain, but just as often they simply are left abandoned. Their ruination, when photographed, acts like a time capsule, and an Instagram audience fueled by nostalgia is on the scene (virtually) to appreciate this.

Hussa’s curatorial project celebrates the oddness and specificity of these roadside attractions of a particular era, in the face of ever standardizing building stock. “Curating this project has made me appreciate architecture from the 1930s and 1970s so much more,” said Hussa. “I’m hopeful we can incorporate more of these styles into mainstream modern-day design. I don’t know how many more 5-over-1 buildings I can take.”

The eclecticism of Hussa’s posts feels antithetical to the 5-over-1 building, whose design is such a function of pure value engineering, logistics, and standardization. The architectural type is named after its construction logic, five wood-framed floors over a one-story concrete platform. By contrast, there was nothing standard about the motels of the mid-20th century. Posts from Dead Motels USA depict colorful, formally inventive architecture with giant neon signs meant to lure tourists off the interstate that also hold important stories, told by Hussa in the form of image captions. A post about the Utopia Lodge documents a motel high in the Catskills that catered to Black Americans in the 1950s, one of only a handful that welcomed non-white travelers. Another describes Orlando’s Parliament House, which opened as a motel in 1962 and was converted into a LGBTQ+ resort and nightclub in 1975. In 2019, Parliament House was reported to be  the most popular gay bar in the United States. But later that year, the property was purchased for $16.5 million, and subsequently demolished in 2021.

 

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The mission of Dead Motels USA is invariably linked to the preservation of these culturally significant minor landmarks. When asked about her interest in continuing the project, Hussa said, “Many of the motels we have lost are architecturally unique or have historical significance. When they’re gone, they’re gone forever and can never be brought back. Preservation is one of the best ways to transmit our understanding of the past to future generations. I consider the work that I do to be digital preservation.”

Hussa finds her motels of choice primarily through old postcards stocked in antique stores or on eBay, but will occasionally find sources by searching through online archives like the Library of Congress or Flickr.

“Sometimes all I know is what is on the back of the postcard,” she said.

And it doesn’t seem like understanding who the designer of some of these buildings was plays any role in their survival. No architecture—whether it be a Kmart in Nebraska, a motel-turned-nightclub in Orlando, or skyscraper in the heart of Midtown Manhattan—is safe from capitalism’s demand for new, rentable space. Rebelling against this, hobbyist communities like Hussa’s are committed to documenting the life and death of local cultural moments, both the beautiful and the strange. The communal fervor with which these strange architectural spaces are archived and shared suggests that they have an importance that is different, but no less critical, than buildings that find themselves on historic registries. As Wagner wrote, “Loss is the same—whether the architecture be high or common.”

Charles Weak is a writer and an architect at ZGF Architects in New York.

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