History of the Wigwam Villages
The iconic Wigwam Motels, known by many as the “Wigwam Villages,” are a great example of the unique architectural creativity in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s. This distinctive motel chain is characterized by rooms designed to mimic the form of tipis, even though they are identified as wigwams.
Initially, this motel chain comprised seven different locations, each introducing a unique flavor into the local landscape. These included two sites nestled in the heart of Kentucky, with other locations dispersed across Alabama, Florida, Arizona, Louisiana, and California.
A Piece of History
The Wigwam Motels are more than mere buildings; they are vibrant, tangible pieces of history that have stood the test of time. They are unique historic landmarks that draw in viewers with their distinctive structure and nostalgic charm.
Two of the three surviving motels are located on the historic U.S. Route 66: one perched in the heart of Holbrook, Arizona, and the other straddling the city boundary between Rialto and San Bernardino, California.
All three of the remaining motels are proudly listed on the National Register of Historic Places, underscoring their cultural and historical importance. The Wigwam Motel in Cave City, Kentucky, earned its place on the register in 1988 under the official designation of Wigwam Village #2. Meanwhile, the Arizona Wigwam Motel, known as Wigwam Village #6, was listed in 2002. The California Wigwam Motel, Wigwam Village #7, was added to the register in 2012.
Holbrook, Arizona: Village #6
Arizona motel proprietor Chester E. Lewis, a visionary in his own right, breathed life into his Wigwam Village in 1950. It stands today as a landmark on the iconic Route 66, specifically at 811 West Hopi Drive in the heart of Holbrook, Arizona. This motel does not just offer a unique lodging experience but also situates visitors close to some of the region’s awe-inspiring natural wonders, such as the Petrified Forest National Park, Meteor Crater (also known as Barringer Crater), and the world-renowned Grand Canyon.
The origins of this peculiar motel can be traced back to the original design of Frank A. Redford. Lewis first stumbled upon the distinctive wigwam designs during his travels through Cave City, Kentucky in 1938. Struck by their unique charm, he proceeded to acquire the rights to Redford’s design, as well as the name “Wigwam Village.”
A Unique Business Agreement
However, the agreement to this purchase was as unique as the structures themselves. This agreement stated that coin-operated radios would be installed in each of the rooms of Lewis’s Wigwam Village. For every dime that was inserted for 30 minutes of music or entertainment, that money would be sent to Redford as payment.
One Missing Wigwam
The motel is arranged as a geometric square, with 15 robust concrete and steel wigwams forming a near-perfect arc on three sides. On the fourth side stands the main office, complimented on either side by two smaller wigwams. The complex once included a quaint gas station, adding a touch of mid-century charm to the site.
The units are numbered from 1 to 16, with the number 13 conspicuously absent. Each wigwam, a feat of design and engineering, boasts a base diameter of 14 feet, and stands tall at a height of 32 feet.
Tucked behind the primary room of each wigwam is a compact bathroom fitted with a sink, toilet, and shower. Rooms feature the original restored hickory furniture, two double beds, satellite TV, and a window-mounted air conditioner. In a nod to authenticity and simpler times, there are no telephones or ice machines. Instead, the complex is dotted with vintage restored automobiles from the 1960s and earlier, their presence evoking a nostalgic charm. Scattered throughout the area, small green metal benches etched with the words “Wigwam Village #6” serve as rest spots.
Closure and Reopening
Lewis managed the motel until 1974, when the emergence of Interstate 40 bypassed downtown Holbrook, leading to its closure. Following his death in 1986, his children – sons Clifton and Paul Lewis, and daughter Elinor – lovingly renovated the motel and reopened it to the public in 1988.
The Lewis family continues to run and maintain Wigwam Village #6. Close to the registration desk, a small room serves as a mini-museum, housing an array of Chester Lewis’s memorabilia, including a collection of petrified wood.
In Popular Culture
The unique charm and design of the Wigwam Motels and their counterparts have found themselves frequently spoofed. The 2004 video game, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, features a “Tee Pee Motel,” clearly echoing the structures of the Wigwam Motels.
In Pixar’s 2006 animated film, Cars, one character operates a “newly refurbished” motel that vibrantly glows with neon lights. This motel, dubbed the Cozy Cone Motel, is surely influenced by the architectural design of Wigwam Village #6, with each room cleverly fashioned to resemble a bright orange traffic cone.
In 2012, Wigwam Village #6 found itself in the spotlight once more, this time in the realm of advertising. A digitally altered image of this distinctive motel was used in a promotional campaign for Microtel Inn and Suites.
Wigwam number 1 of the Holbrook, Arizona, Wigwam Village #6 had its moment of fame when it was featured in the second episode of Oprah and Gayle’s Big Adventures, a segment on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
Wigwam Village #6 secured its place in cinematic history when it was featured in the 1991 film The Dark Wind, which was based on the 1982 novel by acclaimed author Tony Hillerman.
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