San Luis Obispo has buildings by Julia Morgan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Richard Neutra, but the
Madonna Inn is our most famous piece of architecture. It’s arguably better known than San Luis
Obispo itself, and it may be the world’s most famous work of theme architecture apart from
Disneyland—which opened just three years earlier, four hours away.
The Madonna Inn is loved by some, mocked by others, gawked at by everybody, understood by
few. It’s a product not only of a unique place and time, California in the mid-twentieth century,
but of a unique and visionary couple, Alex and Phyllis Madonna.
Alex, the grandson of four Swiss Italian immigrants, grew up on a Chorro Valley ranch—until the
death of his father, when Alex was nine, forced the family to move to an apartment in San Luis
Obispo. He skipped college, went into highway construction, and became an aficionado of
Phyllis was the granddaughter of spendthrift Anglo-Irish gentry whose debts forced them to
emigrate to America, also of a carpenter who helped build Bell, which became a suburb of Los
Angeles. She grew up the daughter of a Union Oil engineer, in La Habra and Long Beach, and
she represented Santa Maria in the Miss California contest at the cusp of the post-war era.
In their different ways—one rural nostalgist and the other big city optimist, one hardscrabble
and the other with a touch of Hollywood—Alex and Phyllis were both quintessentially
The Madonna Inn is the Watts Tower of motels, the Nitt Witt Ridge of commercialism, the
Hearst Castle of the aspirational middle class. It’s the apotheosis of Motelism—the
simultaneous streamlining and valorization of transient experience. It’s an amalgam of three
modern yet backward-looking architectural styles: Swiss Heimatstil, American Ranch House,
and National Park Service Rustic. It’s the embodiment of German Gemütlichkeit and Russian
poshlost’, particularly the modern twist Vladimir Nabokov gave to that variety of aesthetic
anomie in his study of Gogol: poshlust—the glamour aspiration of magazine ads. It’s no
coincidence that Nabokov was obsessed with American motels and placed the questing-
escaping road trip of Lolita in them.
The Madonna Inn, which Alex Madonna resisted reproducing as a motel chain, is
unreproducible: a folk masterpiece that both absorbs and rejects mass-manufactured pop.
That the Madonna Inn was a piecemeal assemblage from modest beginnings is a myth. When
the San Luis Obispo County Telegram-Tribune, on 7 September 1957, announced construction
of the first twelve-unit section in Alex Madonna’s “long-planned super motel,” it printed an
aerial conception by Beverly Hills architect Louis Gould of a complex comprising more than a
dozen buildings, including restaurant, convention center, and 160 rooms on twenty acres.
Although the Gould plan differs from the final execution, it has most of the elements that
would go on to define the inn’s architecture, including circular pavilions with splayed needle
spires; monumental stonework; overhanging floors and gables, the latter of which are wide and
low-pitched; Dutch gables (a small gable above a hipped roof); dormers; and long, low-pitched
roofs with eaves that extend into porches.
There is no doubt the vision came from Alex Madonna. Referred to by the 1957 Tribune as
modern rustic, the 1975 New York Times as “an odd mixture of nineteenth-century Carpenter
Gothic and Swiss Chalet style,” and the 1970 Union 76 magazine as “Madonna Modern,” the
complex actually combines three specific styles. The first is Heimatstil (Homeland Style) as it’s
known inside Switzerland, or Swiss vernacular revival. The second is Ranch House, an Anglo
derivation of the Southwest Indian and Spanish adaptation to a sun-baked Western
environment. The third is National Park Service Rustic, a descendant of Adirondack camp style.
The Swiss style is embodied by the wide gables, exterior decorative trusses, half-timbering, and
overhangs of chalets and the splayed needle spires of Switzerland’s Gothic country churches.
The long, low, shake-shingled buildings with porches that become covered passageways are a
concept from the Western ranch that translates practically to the Western motel. Finally, the
huge, autochthonous, unhewn boulders incorporated into the buildings—and the buildings’
incorporation into the hillside landscape—are characteristics of NPS Rustic, particularly in such
California structures as Gilbert Stanley Underwood’s Ahwahnee Hotel (1927) in Yosemite and
Julia Morgan’s Asilomar camp (1913–29) at Pacific Grove.
The interior decoration—the uniqueness of each room and suite, the Baroque and Rococo
touches, the Madonna Pink (which began inside but eventually migrated outside)—are largely
attributable to Phyllis Madonna, the pinkness and sense of spectacle possibly influenced by her
friend Marge Calkins, who in 1954 had, with her husband Allen, taken over San Luis Obispo’s
Mission-themed Motel Inn, which, when built in 1925, was the world’s first building referred to
as a motel.
The Madonna Inn’s restaurant, registration, and meeting room complex was completed in
1962, with additional guest rooms added between 1959 and 1969 to bring the total to 109.
“Let’s eat and be forever happy” was carved over the horseshoe Coffee Bar in the Copper Café,
an echo of Disneyland’s “Happiest Place on Earth,” another exercise in European, Old West, and
Old Time nostalgia.
In 1973 Alex Madonna finished acquiring the 1,300-foot-high Cerro San Luis—which looms over
the inn and San Luis Obispo—with the purchase of the Bianchi, Olgiati, and Alberti ranches. Two
years later he proposed a mountaintop resort on this iconic hill, which the city’s planners
rejected, and later still an Alpine village of shops, rooms, and a convention center on its slopes,
Lolita, Nabokov’s comedy of manners of European sophistication versus American adolescence,
burst on the scene, like Disneyland, three years before the Madonna Inn was built yet seemed to anticipate it in its central and iconic hotel, “the pale palace of The Enchanted Hunters,” with
its arclights, “row of parked cars, like pigs at a trough,” “enlarged replicas of chestnut leaves”
that “plunged and played on white pillars,” “maudlin murals depicting enchanted hunters in
various postures and states of enchantment,” and the “overstuffed blood-red armchair.”
“‘Wow! Looks swank,’ remarked my vulgar darling squinting at the stucco as she crept out into
the audible drizzle … .” Nabokov, born an aristocrat in Tsarist Russia, had to punish poshlost’
and doomed Lolita’s Chekhovian comedy to end in tragedy, but the Madonna Inn rolls on with
sunny optimism, an adolescent virtually unchanged for the last half century and a magnet for a
new generation of Russian rastaquouères.
Alex Madonna died in 2004, borne in a horse-drawn hearse, with San Luis Obispo’s shops and
people dressed in pink to mourn him. Phyllis lives on and presides over their unique monument
to mid-century nostalgia. And even Richard Neutra, according to the New York Times in 1982,
visited it often.
To visit the Madonna Inn directly, you can visit their official website here.
—James Papp, Secret SLO