Photo by Hubble Ray Smith.
The picturesque view of the Hualapai Mountains from the Hill Top Motel pool will take away your breath, even as the motel has slipped into a dilapidated state of disrepair since its heyday as a popular Route 66 rest stop.
Too bad you can’t take a dip. The pool’s closed, and there’s nothing but a puddle of contaminated green water at the bottom.
The motel parking lot is crumbling with pot holes, the rooms are shuttered and a notice on the office door prohibits the previous owners from being on the premises as of March 12.
The last “Magic Fingers” bed massage was removed years ago, and the cactus garden, a unique feature of the Hill Top, appears to be the last standing sign of life.
Mohave State Bank foreclosed on the Hill Top in December, taking it back from Dennis Schroeder and anyone else claiming possession of the property at 1901 Andy Devine Ave.
The motel was sold at public auction on Dec. 12 to the highest bidder, which was Mohave State Bank, for $147,500.
Brian Riley, chief executive officer of Mohave State Bank, said he couldn’t discuss details of the foreclosure, but confirmed that the bank was the lender on Hill Top Motel and acquired it through foreclosure in December. The bank continues to own the property.
As to the future of the 20-room motel built by Los Angeles developer John Meschied in 1954, that’s up in the air.
With pending designation of Route 66 as a National Historic Trail, old motels that once served motorists on the Mother Road will become even more prized, said Jim Hinckley, author, historian and Route 66 ambassador from Kingman.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation included Route 66 motels on a list of “America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places,” according to the Smithsonian Institute magazine.
“Few communities on Route 66 have original motels or auto courts that are salvageable from an economic feasibility standpoint,” Hinckley said. “Fewer still retain original signage like the Hill Top. Kingman retains one of the largest concentration of historic motels and auto courts spanning the period 1929 to the mid-1960s.”
Kingman has a couple of excellent examples of pre-World War II motels intact and one of the scarcest auto courts listed in the Negro Motorist Green Book, which was a guidebook for African-American road trippers, Hinckley noted.
It’s going to take a lot of work to bring the Hill Top back to pristine condition, and you never know what kind of structural problems you may encounter until you dig into the renovation.
There have been a few examples of successful motel renovations along Route 66, including the Globetrotter Lodge in Holbrook; Blue Swallow Motel and Roadrunner Lodge in Tucumcari, New Mexico; and Wagon Wheel Motel in Cuba, Missouri.
“I should note that in each instance, the renovated properties became a destination unto themselves and have contributed to an uptick in tourism,” Hinckley said. “Most have also played a role in the revitalization of neglected business districts.”
Connie Echols, owner of the Wagon Wheel, said the motel was in bad condition when she bought it 10 years ago.
“They were renting rooms for $11 a night and you had to carry a ball bat,” Echols said. “It was that kind of clientele.”
Like the Hill Top, the motel had gone through a long period of deferred maintenance and was pretty run down, she said.
“We gutted everything down to the stonework. It’s amazing stonework,” Echols said. “It had a good foundation and of course the landscaping … it’s on 5 acres and the outdoors area really makes us nice. That’s what saved the property.”
It took a couple of years to shake the Wagon Wheel’s bad reputation and get people to trust the place enough to stop for the night, she said.
“We were pretty hungry for three or four years,” the motel owner said. “We had to get the live-in people out. It took a while for word to get out. People didn’t trust some of these motels along Route 66.”
Echols said she used the same footprint for the motel, but enlarged the bathrooms by moving the vanity into the sleeping area, though people still complain about the 28-inch camp showers.
Being on Route 66 is a major factor in the motel’s comeback, with about 60 percent of guests coming off the highway, Echols noted.
“It’s nostalgia. We kept everything as original as possible, the hardwood floors, and chimneys inside the rooms.”
Most of the motels and diners along Route 66 have faded into oblivion since the highway was decommissioned in 1986, bypassed by four- and six-lane interstate highways.
Do they have potential of piggybacking on the Route 66 renaissance?
“Nobody knows,” Echols said, “but it seems like a lot of people are really enthused, especially from other countries. It’s a big prestige thing to come over here and take Route 66. We’ve had several people come back over the years.”
The Hill Top boasts 350 feet of frontage along Route 66, and Mescheid spent $60,000 – a healthy sum in 1954 – building a block and cement slab topped with a stone slag roof.
The walls were made of acoustic blocks with volcanic ash to deaden sounds coming from adjoining rooms.
Schroeder, who declined to speak to the Daily Miner about the foreclosure, “faithfully and painstakingly” upgraded technology at the motel, including free wi-fi and modern appliances, while still maintaining the charm and integrity, according to the motel’s website.
Former owners Marjorie and Scott Gehrke related a story about the band Crosby, Stills and Nash stopping by with their tour bus in 2004, but no rooms were available. They showered in Room 131.
On a less celebratory note, Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh’s registration records for a four-day stay at the Hill Top in February 1995 were admitted as evidence at his trial.