Blue Moon Motel, Niagara Falls, Ontario. Click image to enlarge
Articles and photos by Paul Williams
Cool Canadian Motel Signs
For many people, old motel signs from the mid-twentieth century are nothing more than clutter at the side of the road. Typically falling into disrepair, most see them as garish, kitchy, cartoon-like contraptions that promise far more than their establishments ever delivered. Junk, in other words.
But not me. These cheerful roadside beacons – the few that are left – were quite literally signs of the times. They’re a part of the Canadian historical landscape, recalling an era when a journey in your car was the most modern way to travel; an adventure to be eagerly anticipated and thoroughly savoured.
Short of actually flying in a contemporary De Havilland Comet or Douglas DC-8 jet plane, the superhighway in the late 1950s or 1960s was an expression of the future arrived. By the mid-1960s you could pilot your automobile from coast-to-coast on the grandly-named and fully-paved Trans Canada Highway. Or you could pack the family in a huge Vista Cruiser station wagon for a holiday “Up North,” “Down East,” or “Out West,” depending on your point of origin.
Space Motel, Niagara Falls, Ontario. Click image to enlarge
Cars were a reflection of the period. Grilles defiantly bared their chromium teeth against the elements (and the bugs). Big, spacious, with long, swoopy lines, they featured tail lights that looked like afterburners, satellite-style turn signals, and front bumpers that recalled the nose-cones of rockets to the moon.
It was the Space Age on wheels, or at least, Detroit’s version of it.
And what better place to stop for the night than in a cutting edge building that looked like a spaceport, its lights glittering seductively against the setting sun; a friendly beacon for the weary; a welcome combination of luxury, efficiency and the promise of ice-cold air. All the comforts of Moon Base Alpha, in a motel just outside Medicine Hat.
They didn’t all have space-race themes, these establishments, but the general idea was to communicate that this was a place for the modern traveller: not a hotel, but a motel, for the motor car. Drive up to your door, relax in your room, watch TV, perhaps use the coin-operated radio, or a vibrating bed of the type that astronauts would use if they could fit them in their little spaceships. Genuine Formica tabletops with gaily coloured turquoise or coral chairs likely sat in the corner, supporting a table-top lamp embedded in plastic tropical leaves. It would glow exotically in three levels of intensity.
Melody Motel, Niagara Falls, Ontario. Click image to enlarge
But those happy times are gone now. Who drives long distances anymore? Everyone takes the plane, willingly crammed into Bombardier CRJs like excess baggage. Poked and prodded by security types, your toothpaste confiscated for being the wrong size, your camera disassembled in front of your eyes, pinned in a miniature seat between two sweaty individuals of giant proportions. Such is life, as Ned Kelly philosophically opined at the gallows.
But enough of that – check out these cool Canadian motel signs that I’ve photographed. The original idea was to take many pictures while driving from Charlottetown to Victoria, but Canada’s a huge place, and you can’t spend all your time traipsing up and down back roads looking for old motels, hoping they have a good, period sign. So I only got a few, but you get the idea.
Bel Aire Motel, Medicine Hat, Alberta (top photo); Ranchmen Hotel, Medicine Hat, Alberta. Click image to enlarge
I didn’t actually stay at any of these places, so I can’t authoritatively comment on the decor and ambiance of each one. But I think the signs give you a good idea of what to expect.
The BelAire, Medicine Hat, Alberta
Probably my favourite. Surely a national treasure, here is a sign that looks like a robot: two skinny legs, bow-tie torso, stubby arms, great head. You can’t beat this. The owners said they don’t illuminate it anymore (costs too much), and they don’t maintain it. They were surprised I noticed it. How could you not?
“New rooms, old prices!” Free coffee and donuts. A place to park your Plymouth namesake.
The Ranchmen, also in Medicine Hat, Alberta
Probably a newer sign, but nostalgic, nonetheless. “Cabl E TV, Queen SizeB Eds, In Roomc Offee, Free MiniGolf.” You gotta love it. “Howdy!”
Elegant accommodation at the sign of the crown. A royal experience, with two phones and a convenient LCBO for BYOB.
On the formerly busy Highway 7, a little bit of Greece en route to Ottawa. Dine at the exclusive Edgemar Restaurant (it’s on the edge of Marmora. Get it?). An excellent place for a honeymoon. The owner asked me if I’d like to buy it.
Trelawny Motel, Marmora, Ontario. Click image to enlarge
The Trelawney. On Highway 7, approaching Actinolite
Follow the arrow on the sign, and you can’t miss it. No longer in business, a tree beside it spontaneously fell down just after I took this picture.
It doesn’t have much to recommend it except for this honking great rocket on the front lawn. There used to be a Canadian flag on it, but that’s gone now. A homage to Canada’s space program, perhaps?
You’d expect to see some good signs in Niagara Falls, but mostly it’s just the big hotel chains now. The smaller motels are on the outskirts of town, far from the Falls. This tidy motel boasts colour-coordinated seating and a basket of flowers in front each unit. An employee was seen sweeping the parking lot. That’s encouraging, I think.
Melody Motel, Niagara Falls, Ontario (top photo); Space Motel, Niagara Falls, Ontario (middle photo); The Tropicana Motel, Niagara Falls, Ontario. Click image to enlarge
The Melody Motel, Niagara Falls, Ontario
Such a promising establishment, with its musical theme, and images of pleasant evenings in the piano lounge. Yes, the TV is “color,” And there are “Queenboobs,” should you be so inclined. You can send a request for reservations to their mail depot.
The Space Motel, Niagara Falls, Ontario
A backdrop of bright stars on a deep blue night, the Space Motel conjures up images of weightlessness and space stations, while watching your favourite show on satellite TV. And they take Master Charge!
The Tropicana, Niagara Falls, Ontario
Faced with competition from the swank new motel next door, the Tropicana is sprucing up its signage. Adding the word, “Bar” to the Tropicana’s sign is definitely a shot across the bow of the Deja Vu. And you can’t make breakfast for $1.99!
Ah, yes, nostalgia. A pining for the way things weren’t. Before they are all gone, sent to the scrapyard, crushed under the weight of national chains and diminishing road trips, we should at least preserve these signs in pictures, don’t you think? Rest assured, I will do my bit, photographing them as I can. But if you have a great motel sign in your area, send us a picture, and we’ll add it to our album of Cool Canadian Motel Signs.