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January 8, 2007 1:00 PM   Subscribe

My wife and I recently re-watched It Happened One Night, and I got to wondering about the auto-camps in that movie. They must have been prevalent in that time, but I'm wondering if any are left. I'd like to hunt a few down and work them into a road trip. Anyone out there in MeFi-land know of any in the USA?
posted by adamrice to Travel & Transportation (22 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I haven't seen the movie, and the IMDB page doesn't say what an auto camp is. Could you please explain?
posted by Sheppagus at 1:14 PM on January 8, 2007

From here

"Surviving cabin camps and cottage courts are common along Route 66 and include some of the most distinctive examples of commercial architecture. Some are log cabins, such as a few of John's Modern Cabins. Some reflect rich architectural traditions, particularly the slab-rock construction (Ozark giraffe) common in Missouri. Prime examples of giraffe design in Missouri are the Rancho Court in Springfield, the Wagon Wheel Motel in Cuba, and the Shamrock Motel in Sullivan. Other notable cottage courts are the Wigwam Motels in Holbrook, Arizona, and Rialto, California. Constructed of cement and painted white with Indian-style designs, these courts are examples of the widely heterogeneous character of architecture along Route 66. Probably the court that has attracted the most attention is the Coral Court in St. Louis, Missouri. This national register property, a prime example of art deco modern, is in danger of disappearing. It is vacant and might require a substantial investment to become economically viable."
posted by A189Nut at 1:20 PM on January 8, 2007

The Motel Americana site has a brief history of how tourist camps evolved into motels. They have a pull-down menu that discusses some classic motels that are still around in some states. I think it would be fun to stay in one of these tee-pees, if they've reopened yet.

I tend to think of the cabin style motels being close to the auto camps, although smaller than what they show "It happened one night". RV camps and ralllies are probably closer in size and character to the old camps.
posted by saffry at 1:26 PM on January 8, 2007

Coral Court (in St. Louis, well, a suburb actually, Crestwood, maybe) should have been restored and mainted. Unfortunately, it was destroyed and I think there is an ugly subdivision there now.

It was great with these glass bricks and each room had a little garage attached. Here is a link with more info.

Coral Court was right on Route 66, there are a couple of other motels on that stretch too, none as inspired as CC was, though.
posted by sulaine at 1:29 PM on January 8, 2007

I usually loathe when people who don't know what they're talking about answer a question, but that's not stopping me...

I think these still exist to a small degree, but you'll probably have to do some digging. I certainly remember them from when I was a kid in the mid-70s. They weren't widespread, but they existed.

Based on a few minutes googling, it's my impression that auto camps mostly morphed into motels. Some became RV parks. Others remained, well, auto camps, though they may now take different names. I also suspect that state park facilities in many states (including Oregon) now provide the equivalent of auto camps. My wife and I have stayed in yurts, for example, in a fashion similar to Gable and Colbert. There are also cabins, etc. available in Oregon.

I found a Dorothea Lange photo of an auto camp that basically makes it look like a cheap motel. The entry on 'motel' provides lots of good information, such as:
It was only the dawn of the motel age, but Interstate was seeing far into the future. At the time, roads for automobiles were still primitive, and so were most lodgings for travelers by car. The first such places were simply campgrounds with parking spaces nearby, though they were often furnished with tents or cabins. Reflecting their character, they took names like auto camp (1922), tourist camp (1923), motor camp (1925), rest cabins (1934), and tourist park (1936). To suggest a more comfortable kind of accommodation, proprietors sometimes used the word court, as in motor court (1936), cottage court (1936), tourist court (1937), and auto court (1940).
I found one fantastic article on auto camps, which delineates the differences between them and other forms of accommodation.

Again, none of this really answers your question, though it gives some background to the phenomenon. I strongly suspect there are at least a few left in and around Oregon. I dimly recall seeing something of this nature on my drive up the coast (returning from San Francisco) last fall. I'd check Highway 101 if I were really looking for something like this.
posted by jdroth at 1:31 PM on January 8, 2007

I think the auto camp went on to inspire parts of the movie "Cars".
posted by GuyZero at 1:34 PM on January 8, 2007

I don't see how these are different from the many state park campgrounds I've stayed in--parking spots for your car next to closely-spaced tent sites, usually with water and electricity, and a short walk to a central bathroom (and shower) facility. What's the difference, besides art-deco architecture?
posted by MrMoonPie at 1:45 PM on January 8, 2007

I think the modern equivalent might be a Kamping Kabin. They generally have a campfire area, small porch, bathroom within walking distance and most of the locations have small stores where you can buy supplies.

If a chain isn't what you have in mind, the Minnesota state parks also have excellent cabin and tent sites with bathroom facilities.
posted by Sheppagus at 1:51 PM on January 8, 2007

There are still quite a few of these in New England, particularly on Cape Cod and along Route 1 in Maine. Many of them are quite nice! You might do well to use the search term "Tourist Cabins", which is how many of them are biled.
posted by Miko at 2:14 PM on January 8, 2007

Probably the court that has attracted the most attention is the Coral Court in St. Louis, Missouri. This national register property, a prime example of art deco modern, is in danger of disappearing. It is vacant and might require a substantial investment to become economically viable."

This may also be due to the fact that the Coral Court was, for a long time, a popular destination for prostitutes and their clients. Once it acquired that reputation, I don't think they were ever able to shake it.
posted by Afroblanco at 2:15 PM on January 8, 2007

I don't see how these are different from the many state park campgrounds

They are different. Basically, a tourist cabin is one of a group of identical small structures. They tend to be scattered over an acre or two of land in a rustic, camp-y looking fashion, often in a grove of trees. They function as entirely self-contained motel rooms, each containing beds and a full bathroom (and usually a TV and A/C and the other things we've come to expect). Each has its own driveway and sometimes a grill and picnic table. They feel like real, miniature houses or cottages - they are fairly substantial structures (windows rather than just screens, etc). (Nice old pic).

Basically, they are a hybrid of everything that's nice about a campsite and everything that's nice about a budget road motel. There's a nice sense of privacy in that you are neither sharing a wall, as in a motel, nor out in the open for all to see, as in a campground.

In addition, the architecture and signage are often the best of 20th century pop style.
posted by Miko at 2:30 PM on January 8, 2007

Here's some tourist cabins in Hitchcock, TX that I drove by on my way home from Houston this morning. Hitchcock is on State Highway 6 just west of I-45, close to the Gulf and tourist attractions here in Galveston.
posted by Robert Angelo at 2:39 PM on January 8, 2007

Gotcha, Miko--I couldn't figure it out from the links provided. There's such a place near Front Royal, VA, though I can't come up with the name, and I certainly can't vouch for its quality.
posted by MrMoonPie at 3:02 PM on January 8, 2007

I'm confused about what is meant by auto camp, as people in this thread seem to take two different meanings:
1 - enclosed, isolated cabin with full accommodations, electricity, etc.
2 - place to set up tent next to the car.

Both of these definitely still exist all over the country, and I've stayed in both. I've never heard the word "auto camp" used for either. If I understood what the original poster was looking for, I'd take some time to dig up the appropriate links.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 4:14 PM on January 8, 2007

I've seen autocamps not far from here (Eau Claire WI). I wish I could be more helpful right now but I didn't really know it was something somebody would be after. Anyway, they're located on a small wooded patch of land, each room is a separate cabin. I'll try to see if I can figure out where I've seen them and scout them out.
posted by substrate at 5:09 PM on January 8, 2007

Response by poster: Auto-camps as depicted in the movie are small roadside operations with individual cabins and shared bathing facilities. It seems pretty clear that these were supplanted by strip-style roadside motels along US highways, and then by larger hotels along interstates. I've stayed at a few places that aren't too far off from this description in remoter areas, though they always have camping and/or RV berths, and have been bigger than what I saw in the movie.

The place that Robert Angelo pointed to looks like a close analogue, though with more mod-cons and with weekly rentals (!) only. It would be fun to find a place that has survived in its original form.
posted by adamrice at 5:26 PM on January 8, 2007

I agree, there's still plenty around the USA,; you'll have the best luck finding them on secondary highways (like the aforementioned Route 66) which have now been bypassed by the interstate freeway system. In Maryland, I'd check along Route 301, just for an example.

But stop seeking with that archaic term "auto camp" -- you'll just confuse people who think you're looking for campsites you can drive to and park at. Instead, try searching for motels with individual cabins or cottages.

And relevant to the era of "It Happened One Night" there was a recent exhibit at the Smithsonian's now closed-for-renovation Museum of American History called America On The Move, part of which simulated one of these places. Seems they were often strictly for people traveling through, and you'd be quizzed in-depth about your intentions before they'd let you in, to prevent Joad Family types from settling in the neighborhood.
posted by Rash at 5:54 PM on January 8, 2007

The place that Robert Angelo pointed to looks like a close analogue, though with more mod-cons and with weekly rentals (!) only.

The mod-cons are probably to be expected these days. I think part of this -- and also the weekly rental -- is due to the location. It's a specialized market. There's a lot of tourist-oriented weekly rentals here on Galveston Island, though not nearly as rural-highway-quaint. In that location, on the mainland, it may be partly tourists but also petrochemical contract workers renting by the week. It's only about 5 or 10 miles from big BP and other plants in Texas City.

Be that as it may, I always smile at the place when I drive by. :-)
posted by Robert Angelo at 6:17 PM on January 8, 2007

The one left on Highway 78 in Birmingham, AL is now a crack/meth "cottage court" - full of unsavory characters.

That is probably what has happened to most of the cottage courts that are surviving around the country. That is -- the ones that have not become RV Campgrounds.

Check out the KOA and Good Sam websites and do some research in order dig up historical information on these organizations for the answers that you seek.

IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT is a great film -- traveling by bus (Greyhound) can be an unsavory experience too. The passengers don't have impromptu sing-a-longs of "Man in the Flying Trapeze" anymore...
posted by cinemafiend at 7:03 PM on January 8, 2007

There's one in Oracle, AZ called "Chalet Village Motel". It appeared to still be in business last I saw it a couple years ago. I don't know if it's a desirable place to stay or not, but the area around there is quite pretty!

When I was googling around to find out it's name (first hit for +"weird motel" +oracle!) I found this site which has some neat pictures of current and former cabin motels.
posted by everybody polka at 8:00 PM on January 8, 2007

If shared bathing facilities are allowable, then the Tree House Camp near Harper's Ferry, VA (be sure to take a side trip through Burkittsville, MD!), and the Low Water Bridge Campground near Front Royal, VA, qualify. I've been to both.
posted by MrMoonPie at 6:54 AM on January 9, 2007

(Hey, I just drove through Burkittsville a couple weeks ago! Was no reason for me to pause in that village, but a mandatory stop if you'r you're into that Blair Witch foolishness.)

If you're after a more rustic, pre-motel experience, be advised that permanent, semi-furnished tents or tent-cabins are available in the California forests at both Big Basin State Park as well as Yosemite (in Curry Village) and perhaps other places as well.
posted by Rash at 7:46 AM on January 9, 2007

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