During the early part of the 20th Century, Henry Ford's work in designing the automobile that would revolutionise the industry - as well as the means of streamlining its production - made the luxury of car ownership affordable and available to the majority of the middle class citizens of the US. Owning a car gave Americans the freedom to travel on a whim, without relying on railroads or waterways and their subsequent schedules. Travelling by car became gradually more popular, increasing the demand for navigable roadways, as well as amenities for motorists. It wasn't until after World War II that automotive travel boomed though, as soldiers returned home to find they had more disposable income and leisure time, and the roadway systems really started coming together.
In the earliest days of road travel, at the end of a long and rough day of riding in a car, tired and dirty motorists would simply pull into the roadside and camp for the night before setting off again the next morning. As this became more common practice, some towns would set aside free campsites for travellers to use. To discourage beggars and other 'undesirables' looking for a free place to stay, usually for weeks at a time or longer, the campsites began charging fees for a night's stay. In exchange for this fee a campsite might offer public showers or toilets for motorists' use. During the 1930s some private owners began building cabins on their campgrounds offering travellers a higher level of comfort and protection from the elements. Toilets and showers were still communal. These cabin campgrounds were often referred to as 'auto courts' or 'motor courts' and it is from these beginnings that the motel was forged.
A contraction of the words 'motor' and 'hotel', a motel was exactly that: a hotel for motorists but cosier and more homey. America was just gaining an interest in motor travel in the days prior to World War II. By the 1920s the roadways were improving to accommodate this new means of travel. Motorways started to appear, linking larger cities together and facilitating travel over longer distances. The most famous of these was Route 66, linking Chicago, Illinois, in the mid-west to Los Angeles, California, on the west coast.
Coral Court - Ultra Modern
In the midst of the motel boom owner John Carr wanted something distinctly different for his own that would set it apart. The unique design was by Adolph Struebig, a local architect who, in 1941, built the first ten cabins and the main office building. Each cabin contained two rooms, each with its own bath and toilet as well as its own garage. The exteriors were a honey-beige ceramic brick with brown accents and wedge-shaped glass brick windows on the rounded front corners. The result was a prime example of the Art Deco style known as 'Streamline Moderne'. The first 20 rooms opened for business in 1942. The sign on the corner of their driveway at 7755 Watson Road (Watson was part of the route that 66 took through St Louis) proclaimed 'Coral Court - Ultra Modern'1.
In 1948 Mr Carr expanded his capacity, this time using Harold Tyrer, another local architect. Mr Tyrer modified Struebig's original design somewhat by changing the shape of the glass brick windows to a triangle and by enlarging the entry bays. The extra space provided by an enlarged bay made room for a sitting area and a 'Murphy' bed, a kind of bed that folds up into the wall to be pulled out only when needed. Twenty-three of these new units were built adding 46 rooms. It was probably about this time that the sign out front was replaced with a new one reading 'Coral Court - Ultra Motel'.
Tyrer built three more buildings at the back of the property in 1953. These last additions were two-storey structures holding eight rooms each and did not follow in the same architectural style as the existing cabins. Also in the early 1950s, the motel's sign was redesigned for the third and final time in the style of the times with chrome and neon. This sign, that most people recognise as a Route 66 icon, advertised 'Coral Court Motel - Moderate Rates'.
Sometime in the early 1960s Mr Carr had a pool installed at the back of the property to make his motel an even more appealing option over the dozens of others along the St Louis stretch of 66. It was the first swimming pool in the area and was open to all local children as well as to paying guests.
In the heyday of Route 66 St Louis was a natural stopping place after a day's drive from Chicago, and the Coral Court was a favourite with tourists. Families enjoyed staying there when on cross-country road trips - many people have fond childhood memories of spending the night in one of the most beautiful and charming motels they'd ever seen. The Coral Court is also fondly remembered by many who spent their last evening before the war there. Service men with their wives or girlfriends spending one last night together before the men would report to Fort Leonard Wood further down 66 to be activated in World War II, some never to return.
The Coral Court in Local Lore
An early episode in the motel's history occurred in 1953 when Bobby Greenlease was kidnapped in Kansas City, Kansas, by Carl Austin Hall and his girlfriend Bonnie Heady. A ransom demand of $600,000 was made but, by the time Bobby's father paid, the couple had already killed the six-year-old boy. After collecting the money Hall and Heady fled Kansas City for St Louis and stayed in a room at the Coral Court.
After two days, the St Louis Police made the arrest at the motel with the help of a couple of rather questionable local residents. Both Hall and Heady were taken into custody, but only half of the ransom money was recovered. In court both kidnappers pleaded guilty, both received the death sentence, and both were sent to the gas chamber less than three months after Bobby's murder. The other half of the ransom money has never has been found. Many people believed the money to be stashed somewhere in the Coral Court.
But for some - for many - the Coral Court will be forever remembered for quite another reason.
Your Place, My Place or the Coral Court?
Tourists visiting the St Louis area could reserve a room for several nights or a week and a family just passing through might take a room for the night - but what if even just a night seemed like a long-term commitment for you?
Allegedly introduced as a courtesy to over-the-road truck drivers, the Coral Court would happily give you lodgings for as little as four hours. This, of course, made it the place to go for a discreet rendezvous, a fact that was not lost on the neighbours. This would also turn out to be the motel's livelihood in the off-season and in later years when Route 66 was bypassed by Interstate 44.
The casual couple out for an afternoon romp needed only to pull into the driveway and an electronic eye would activate a buzzer in the office alerting staff to the arrival. An employee would go out to meet the car, direct it to a unit and open the garage door for them. The garages, originally intended as a means of protecting a guest's new car for the night, were ideally suited to hiding cars from the suspicious eyes of spouses and friends. While garages in motels weren't unusual, doors directly from the garage to the room were. This afforded travelling guests the ability to unload their car and enter the room without getting doused in the rain and also afforded the more discreet guest the ability to enter a room without being seen. The recollection of a former guest goes as such:
You entered the unit through the garage and inside you found the maid who had checked the room for clean linens and towels and who handed you a small white printed registration card on which you registered. Very informal and it is doubtful that among the Smiths and Jones there was ever a legitimate name. The maid's watch was checked and you were left a card telling you when your time was up. Four hours later as I recall it and if you were still there, you could count on the phone ringing and the desk clerk suggesting that you either re-register or depart.
Hourly guests were given rooms in a different part of the court from overnight guests so that the frequent noises of garage doors opening and closing wouldn't disturb sleeping guests. The Coral Court staff and management were renowned for their discretion. The privacy of their customers was a priority, to the degree that they would not reveal a guest registry even to police. One guest was once asked to pull the curtains in his room because the light shining through the window was making licence plates on cars parked outside visible. The Coral Court was the epitome of the 'no-tell motel'.
The name Coral Court became one that wasn't mentioned in polite company. At the same time it was a rite of passage for the local teenagers to spend an evening there. Its seedy reputation began to outshine its beauty and historical value. Kids going out on dates were reminded by their parents not to end up at the Coral Court. A popular St Louis souvenir was a replica Coral Court keychain stamped for room 692 and a common bumper sticker read 'Your Place, My Place or the Coral Court?'. Towels and sheets marked with the Coral Court name became hot items, along with matchbooks, ashtrays, pencils, postcards, and even the keys themselves. The management later started requiring a deposit for room keys.
The Beginning of The End
In 1975, Watson Road and the last of Route 66 in St Louis were completely bypassed by Interstate 44. As more branded hotels were built along the major thoroughfares the motels on the backroads suffered, many of them disappearing over the following decade. The Coral Court survived, whether by its good reputation or in spite of its bad one. Original owner John Carr passed away in 1984 leaving the motel to his widow Jessie and their long-time housekeeper and friend Martha Shutt.
Jesse eventually married employee Robert Williams and the two continued to operate the motel. In the later 1980s the property started falling into disrepair, the beginning of its descent into the abyss. When the Williams were approached in 1987 with an offer to sell, a group of concerned citizens organised the Coral Court Preservation Society in an effort to prevent their favourite landmark from becoming yet another strip mall. The sale was later abandoned and the motel was granted a stay of execution.
The Preservation Society was successful in having the motel listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989, which afforded it protection from federally-funded demolition. In the early 1990s the property was in a sorry state, but that didn't stop the devoted from claiming their nights (or afternoons) of notoriety with a sojourn at the Coral Court. By the autumn of 1993 the motel was closed for structural deficiencies. It would never reopen.
The Bitter End
The Coral Court property was in desperate need of repair and renovation. Estimated costs of returning the motel to operating status were excessive. The Williams had neither the desire nor the money to complete restoration so the property was listed for sale. After a year and-a-half no serious buyers had come forth with a credible offer. During that time, memento seekers repeatedly broke into the abandoned cabins, taking anything they could reasonably get away with. In 1995 it finally sold to a developer for a figure nearly one-third shy of the original asking price. By that time, the remains of what was once one of St Louis's most beautiful treasures was in a shambles. The purchasing developer scheduled demolition to make way for a new subdivision of family homes3.
The demolition company erected a sign at the entrance to the site while demolition was taking place. The sign read 'It's Checkout Time at the Coral Court - No More One Night Stands'.
All That Remains...
Whether remembered as a classy place or a sleazy one, the Coral Court will be remembered. Though the Preservation Society was unsuccessful in saving the motel, the Museum of Transportation in St Louis managed to acquire one complete two-room bungalow before the rest were razed. When it was realised that the cost of dismantling and moving the entire unit would be more than the funds available, dozens of people volunteered their time alongside museum employees to preserve this piece of Mother Road history. While it is the museum's intention to completely rebuild the cabin on its property as part of an early 1950s roadside community display (along with a vintage service station), they do not yet have the revenue to undertake the project.
A small corner of the cabin has been built in the building that houses the automobile exhibit. The current display also contains a cabinet of Coral Court memorabilia and a reproduction of the sign, as well as a early 1940s Cadillac in the garage. The rest of the building remains in storage. The museum continues to accept artefact and monetary donations for this project.