The Madonna Inn complex in San Luis Obispo CA, including a fantasyland motel, wedding venue, shops, and restaurants, represents the genius and determination of a rugged male individual – assisted by his wife — conquering all obstacles to build a dream.
Alex Madonna had been planning his project from 1953 if not earlier. The motel opened in the full sense of the word in early 1959, but it was not until a couple of years later that the complex was furnished with eating facilities.
Although all along it has had plenty of overnighters, honeymooners, lunch and dinner patrons, banqueters, and gawkers who love it, the place has also had detractors. Among their assessments: “a fantasy run amok,” “the epitome of lousy taste,” and “a crazy, outrageous Hansel-and-Gretel complex.”
Madonna Inn lore credits its unorthodox design to Alex and Phyllis Madonna’s untutored creativity. Alex, according to legend, speedily dismissed the architects he initially consulted. Yet, up until the end of 1958 Madonna worked with plans developed by Beverly Hills architect Louis Gould, a former Hollywood film set designer. And as late as 1966 an advertisement for an apartment complex Gould designed credited him with other “outstanding landmarks . . . including the famed Madonna Inn.” To the extent that the Inn’s exterior achieved any coherence, it may be due to his early influence.
Yet there was a point where no professionals guided the design, as revealed especially in the striking – to me jarring – use of large stones and boulders. The two most celebrated rooms – a men’s public bathroom with a urinal flushed by a waterfall and the Caveman Room [shown above] – prominently feature these materials.
Throughout the interior, the combination of stones and boulders with bright primary colors, artificial flowers and vines, gilded cupids, figured textiles, and plush carpeting is disturbing. The Inn’s eating places exemplify the common observation that many American restaurants are more about decor than food. This was especially true of the primary dining room, the Gold Rush Room [shown below]. Its jangling decor, superficially suggesting luxury but not allowing the eye to rest, is out of keeping with fine dining where food is the star.
A Los Angeles Times reviewer said he lost his appetite in the Gold Rush Room after viewing the giant tree with “fat, glossy, grinning cherubs, spray-painted gold and swimming in Pepto-Bismol.” Alex Madonna responded with a letter defending the room’s centerpiece. The 25-foot tall tree, he pointed out, had been “hand-crafted” on the spot out of “electrical conduit and copper remnants left over from building projects.” The pink, he wrote, was inspired by a visit to Hawaii where it was used lavishly in hotels and restaurants. At one point, even the Inn’s bread and sugar were pink.
The images of the Madonna Inn shown here are difficult to date, but most are probably from the 1960s and 1970s. Everything was subject to change and frequently overhauled. As a 1973 story in the Los Angeles Times observed, Alex Madonna perpetually thought up new ideas, one being an indoor lake featuring a floating cocktail bar that patrons would reach by canoe. The room would have been furnished with a snowflake machine and a three-story fireplace that burned entire trees. That dream did not materialize, nor did the plan to build another motel complex atop the San Luis Mountain behind the Inn that he bought from the city of San Luis Obispo in1972.
The Inn’s basement Wine Bar below the Gold Rush Room featured boulders incongruously festooned with vines and blooming flowers, a beamed ceiling, and chairs fashioned from barrels. If the wine list was anything like the coffee shop’s, it too would have specialized in Lancers and Paul Masson selections such as Rosé and Sparkling Burgundy, along with Port and Sherry aperitifs.
Lunch and supper specials on a ca. 1960s coffee shop menu were also uninspired. They included low-calorie choices such as Ground Beef Patty with Cottage Cheese, and entrees like Top Sirloin Steak with Cottage Cheese and Peaches. “Chilled” Tomato Juice as an appetizer.
The 1960s and 1970s were not distinguished decades gastronomically, and in that sense the Inn was typical. Patrons might be thrilled with the oversized pastries available in the coffee shop, but otherwise the fare did not receive many comments. A few observed that it was nothing special and overpriced. Recent photos taken by guests are not flattering, though it’s only fair to admit that they may reflect Covid-era staffing issues.
The Inn was hailed in the 1970s by fans of vernacular roadside architecture, such as John Margolies, as well as some influential writers and scholars. Not only did Margolies declare the Inn’s meals “delicious,” he considered the complex “a labor of love” designed to make people happy” and “a place where things that don’t go together go together.”
Hmm. I’d say that in the Gold Rush Room’s Christmas scene, among others, things could never go together.
© Jan Whitaker, 2022