The recent post by Thomas Rosell on photographer John Margolies “roadside Americana” images had some wonderfully intriguing photographs. I thought it might be fun to trace a few of them. The Alamo Plaza Hotel Courts has been featured before on Preservation in Mississippi, as recently as this past April. The Margolies photographs made me want to dig into the newspaper archives and see what I could turn up.
The Alamo Plaza Tourist Apartments were established in Waco, Texas in 1929 by Edgar Lee Torrance, and became the largest early motel chain (Jakle, J. A., Sculle, K. A., & Rogers, J. S., 1996, The Motel in America, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press). The business expanded first to Beaumont, Texas when Torrance’s manager at the Waco unit resigned to begin his own hotel operation. Torrance quickly offered a franchise option to brand Farner’s new hotel an Alamo Plaza. After 1940, each new Alamo Plaza was identified as a “hotel court” (Jakle, et al., p. 106).
The Jackson Alamo Plaza was completed in March 1940 at a cost of $100,000, and boasted 45 units of brick and tile construction. Formal opening was April 7, 1940. The Plaza Grill, owned and operated by Ollie Kelly, was opened next door in August 1940, but changed operators a few years later.
One of Torrance’s key marketing strategies was respectability and catering to the traveling businessman and tourists, and the use of married-couple managers on site.
The image of respectability was basic from the start. It was essential for his first partner’s own lodging in the first motel, and Torrance demanded it for all his chain additions, and he eventually sought formal endorsements of his motels’ respectability from civic leaders in each city added. Exemplary was a Jackson, Mississippi, commissioner’s to-whom-it-may-concern letter about the Alamo Plaza there: “It gives me pleasure to recommend this establishment for its honorable type of operation, and especially for the management in selecting with careful screening, not only the personnel of its management, but the type of people they permit to stay in their courts.” (Jakle, et al., 1996)
The signs featured in Margolie’s work are visible in this 1954 image of the Jackson Alamo Plaza, at the far left and far right sides of the picture.
The Alamo Plaza Hotel Court in Gulfport was added to the list of Southern sites in 1950.
In 1957, the Jackson location updated with a “brilliant New Look” of a new facade with lighted canopy and swimming pool.
The Alamo Plaza Hotel Courts briefly attempted to create a national association in 1959, and advertised as operating 22 courts in 12 southern states, including the two in Mississippi, although the association lasted only a few months. Although they retained the name Alamo Plaza, other designs diverged from the Alamo facade, such as the Nashville, Tennessee hotel that was Colonial Revival style. Although starting out with the Alamo mission facade, the Chattanooga, Tennessee hotel renovated in 1961 to a facade of porcelain steel and aluminum to counter the effects of the smoke and soot from the nearby Wheland Foundry.
Mr. and Mrs. Jimmy Carter (the married-couple managers, not the President and First Lady) held an open house of the Jackson location’s Alamo Plaza Gardens in 1968, to showcase the differently landscaped units (Clarion-Ledger, Aug. 25, 1968). Cannas, Jerusalem Plumbs, azaleas, amaryllis, iris, Touch-me-nots, rose bushes, chrysanthemums, hydrangeas, tree ivy, and tiger lilies adorned the grounds. Behind the units were gardens of peppers, cabbage, tomatoes, squash, onions, garlic, carrots, radishes, butterbeans, and black beans. The black beans were obtained from Mexico and were an item of interest to tourists as the beans grew up to 3 feet long.
The burgeoning motel business captured by Holiday Inn after the development of the Interstate highway system finally spelled the end of the Alamo Plaza Hotel Courts, and the last new location opened in 1960. In 1979, the Jackson corporation dissolved ownership, although the motel continued to operate under the name until 1989 when it was ordered demolished after closure in 1988.
Tourist courts. They’re the dog-eared pages in the history book of mobile America. (Raad Cawthon, “Vacancy: Another Roadside Attraction,” Southern Style, Clarion-Ledger, Jackson Daily News, Nov. 8, 1981)