Famous Madonna Inn Celebrates 50 Years

Day to Day senior producer Steve Proffitt and '50s fanatic Charles Phoenix visited the hotel not far from William Hearst's castle on the California coastline to see how it's holding up after a half century. The hotel is famous for its themed rooms and hot pink dining area.

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ALEX COHEN, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Alex Cohen. Fifty years ago last night, an American institution opened its doors in the California coastal town of San Luis Obispo. There's still no place like it anywhere. Senior producer Steve Proffitt and Americana expert Charles Phoenix recently paid a visit. Here's their report.

Ms. PHYLLIS MADONNA (Architect and Owner, Madonna Inn): (Singing) If you see the future in a fairy tale...

STEVE PROFFITT: Eighty-year-old Phyllis Madonna is singing, sitting in a booth inside the restaurant that's part of the motel she and her husband Alex opened 50 years ago.

Ms. MADONNA: He said, someday I want to build a hotel, and he decided he was going to build 12 rooms, and we did.

PROFFITT: Those 12 rooms grew into a complex of more than 100. But what Alex and Phyllis built was more than just a motel, it was a wonderland - The Madonna Inn.

Mr. CHARLES PHOENIX (Author, "Americana The Beautiful: Mid-Century Culture in Kodachrome"): If fantasyland had a hotel, this would be it. It's kind of the Disneyland of the central coast.

PROFFITT: My guide, Charles Phoenix, is a student and ardent admirer of mid-century America. So, surrounded by ornate hand-carved stairs, a dining room done up in shocking pink and an enormous rock fireplace that looks like it was created by nature itself, Charles is in heaven.

Mr. PHOENIX: This is a giant fireplace with giant boulders, and Fred Flintstone would be very proud.

PROFFITT: The fireplace is really just the tip of the iceberg, to mix a metaphor. The Madonna Inn is a wild amalgam of swiss chalet, 50s modern, and lots and lots of rock. But what makes the place really special are the rooms. Each one has a theme. I stayed in a room called the Cabin Still. It had a huge fake whiskey still in one corner. In the bathroom, water flowed to the faucet through a long coil of copper pipe. Every room is different. There's the Desert Sands, the William Tell, the Mount Vernon and the most popular choice for newlyweds, the all-rock Caveman Room. Here's Phyllis Madonna.

Ms. MADONNA: Caveman is popular I think because of men. I mean, if they're honeymooners, they want to be cavemen, you know. And they want to be, you know, that's the room for them.

PROFFITT: So, how did this all come to be? Phyllis Madonna says it's simple, really. She and Alex, who passed away four years ago, had very eclectic tastes. They couldn't seem to decide on a single design theme for their little venture.

Ms. MADONNA: And Alex finally said, Phyllis, why don't we name each room and do them differently?

PROFFITT: Bingo. Phyllis says the place just took off like fireworks. San Luis Obispo is about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco and near a big tourist attraction, the Hearst castle. Given a choice of staying in a cookie-cutter motel or sleeping in say, the Pick & Shovel room, travelers voted with their pocketbooks. They told their friends and soon, the Madonna Inn was a sensation.

Ms. MADONNA: Everywhere we went, people remembered it. Didn't matter whether we were in London or wherever you'd go, be in an elevator, and people would start talking, and we'd tell them where we were - oh, Madonna Inn? You know, and it just amazed us because we were hometown people, and it was amazing to us that we had become so well-known and widely known. I mean, we had 12 rooms.

PROFFITT: Literally, building on their success, they added a coffee shop with a copper-covered bar. Alex built the spectacular hot pink dining room.

Ms. MADONNA: He always liked me in pink.

PROFFITT: A wine cellar and all those crazy theme rooms. Its charm now, says Charles Phoenix, is in the amazing detail, all hand made - the balustrades, the iron work, the carved filigree accents almost everywhere. The ornate lobby feels like an ancient cathedral - something from an era gone by.

Mr. PHOENIX: You could not duplicate this today. It would just be - nobody would want to pay the bill. Nobody could pay the bill.

Ms. MADONNA: We were just very fortunate. We put our very heart and soul into this building, and we did the very best we knew how.

PROFFITT: And isn't it nice to know that in this era, so marked by greed, Wall Street shenanigans, and Ponzi schemes, that luck, love, and hard work had resulted in a business that is still thriving a half century after it began.

(Soundbite of music)

PROFFITT: Today, Phyllis Madonna is mostly retired. Her son-in-law is the property manager. Clint Pierce says the Inn employs about 200 union workers. They all get health insurance and a 401(k) plan. And somehow, even in the face of a recession...

Mr. CLINT PIERCE (Property Manager, The Madonna Inn): Our October occupancy was up over last year.

PROFFITT: Maybe that's because the room rates are quite reasonable. Where else are you going to be able to bathe in a shower made completely of rock? Or maybe it's that one absolutely unique feature of the Madonna Inn, an attraction that, sorry ladies, requires a Y chromosome to experience.

(Soundbite of echoing chamber)

OK, we're here in the world famous men's room in the lobby of the Madonna Inn, and it's world famous because it has a giant stone urinal. It's the size of a big fireplace and as we approach it...

(Soundbite of dripping water)

PROFFITT: Water begins dripping down from the ceiling across the stones and onto the tile floor. It works really, really good.

Mr. PHOENIX: Why is it that the men's urinal turned out to be the absolute world famous piece of this incredible attraction? I have no idea.

PROFFITT: There's just nothing like it anywhere else in the world.

Mr. PHOENIX: Well, nothing like the men's urinal at the Madonna Inn, and nothing like the Madonna Inn.

(Soundbite of dripping water)

PROFFITT: I'm Steve Proffitt.

Mr. PHOENIX: And I'm Charles Phoenix.

PROFFITT: At the Madonna Inn.

Mr. PHOENIX: In San Luis Obispo, California.

Ms. MADONNA: (Singing)

I have a dream A song to sing To help me cope With anything

(Soundbite of song "I Have A Dream")

ABBA: (Singing)

If you see the wonder of a fairy tale You can take...

COHEN: You can see pictures of the Madonna Inn at our blog. It's npr.org/daydream

(Soundbite of song "I Have A Dream")

ABBA: (Singing)

I believe in angels Something good in everything I see I believe in angels When I know the time is right for me I'll cross the stream I have a dream I have a dream, a fantasy To help me through reality...

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