weather icon Clear

Book explores the rise and fall of Las Vegas’ motels — PHOTOS

Updated September 9, 2019 - 11:17 am

Their names came from the mythology of the Old West: The El Rancho, the Chief, the Purple Sage, the Desert Moon, the Arrow Head and the straight-shootin’ Old West.

Their names came from the entertainment that lured guests here in the first place: The Par-A-Dice, The Lucky, The Roulette and the Jack Pot.

And while some of their names were straightforward, even mundane (The Travelers, The Vegas), one — the Blue Angel — boldly evoked the ethereal.

All were classic Las Vegas motels and motor courts that in their heyday offered tourists a respite from the road. Most are gone now, their signs flashing perpetual “vacancy,” if they light up at all. But a generation or two ago, they helped create the mythology of the American open road and contributed to Las Vegas’ architectural landscape.

Photographer and art historian Fred Sigman chronicles the rise and fall of some of Las Vegas’ classic motels in his new book, “Motel Vegas” (Small Works Press, $29.99), which features photos that capture the architecture, design, themes and signage of many of the city’s most distinctive motels.

The book also includes essays and archival photos — of postcards and in-room directories and those plastic key fobs that travelers treated as free souvenirs — that recall a time when free TV and air-conditioned comfort were asphalt nirvana to travelers passing through town.

In one essay, Las Vegas historian and historic preservation activist Robert Stoldal notes that at “the height of the golden era of motels — starting after post World War II and ending in the mid-1960s — there were nearly 40 motels on the Strip and more than 180 scattered throughout the Las Vegas Valley.”

Today, he adds, “you can count the number of operating motels on two hands and a couple of toes.”

Sigman, an adjunct professor of art history at the College of Southern Nevada who teaches online from his home in Cambodia and on the road, got his first look at Las Vegas’ motels in August 1968. Sigman was 14 then and had moved here with his attorney father. He recalls that he was more taken then by the ornate signs; his appreciation of motel architecture and design would come many years later.

Sigman graduated from Bishop Gorman High School in 1972 and earned a degree in art history and philosophy from UNLV. He spent about two years as an archivist and photographer for the Las Vegas News Bureau, and his subsequent photographic pursuits have taken him all over the world.

In 1995, Sigman was commissioned to photograph Las Vegas motel signs. Those images were exhibited in New York City in 1997 and in Las Vegas the following year.

Sigman began taking the photos that make up “Motel Vegas” in late 1995. During the yearlong project, all but one of the motels featured in the book were open for, as he writes, “tourists, transients and local residents.”

Motels weren’t unique to Las Vegas, of course, but the city embraced them and their Modern style enthusiastically. As architect and historian Alan Hess writes in the book’s foreword, “the motels in this book have been rode hard and put up wet, but they still tell us how Las Vegas celebrated the Modern spirit more freely, more vividly, more extravagantly than any other city.”

Merely photographing the motels presented unexpected challenges. Sigman writes of his first visit to the Blue Angel Motel — formerly on Fremont Street — with two friends after midnight. After about a half hour of shooting, they were approached by a man who “just seemed to suddenly appear.”

“He asked the usual questions about what we were doing, what kind of camera is that, and who did we work for? … As he kept glancing over his shoulder toward the shadows around the rooms and sidewalks, he suggested that it might not be a good time to be there.

“What we did not realize was that our presence was disrupting business. Customers, sellers and agents retreated into the darkness when we pulled in and set up the camera. The three of us looked at one another and decided to heed his advice … ”

Sigman’s book may evoke a certain nostalgia in readers who hold fond childhood memories of pumping quarters into Magic Fingers bed massagers.

But the motels’ story also involves eventual decline. In the book, Sigman notes that by the time he began the project, motels here housed “people living by a thread” or who were desperately looking for a way to leave Las Vegas and return home.

“I actually stayed in some of these motels. I checked in and got a room and spent the night,” he says. “I used to joke that it was like that Don Knotts movie, ‘The Ghost and Mr. Chicken,’ where he was forced to sleep in a haunted house, and sometimes it actually felt that way.”

“I don’t subscribe to the idea motels give us a nostalgic ride down Memory Lane for the family vacation,” Sigman says. “I can’t deny how individuals see that … but I don’t find them nostalgic at all.”

“When I began looking at the history of motels, sentimentality was never part of the package anyway,” he says. Sigman notes that, even in their heyday, motels “had a very seedy reputation (of) insurance salesmen taking their secretaries to motels. A ‘pillow joint’ is what a lot of them were called in the ’60s, because (guests) can get in and out easily without being noticed.”

Still, Las Vegas’ motels represent a piece of shared history that’s worth remembering. Motels “represent American culture,” Sigman says, and “are surviving elements of that period and everything embedded in that.”

Contact John Przybys at jprzybys@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280. Follow @JJPrzybys on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Local Videos
The Las Vegas Fire Department introduces its new therapy dog - VIDEO
Blaze, a 5-month-old black lab and retriever mix, was introduced as the Las Vegas Fire Department’s new therapy dog on Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2019. Mayor Carolyn Goodman and Gov. Steve Sisolak met Blaze at Fire Station 1. (Katelyn Newberg/ Las Vegas Review-Journal)
First case of vaping-related illness in Clark County
The Southern Nevada Health District is reporting the first confirmed case in Nevada of severe respiratory illness linked to e-cigarette products. (Renee Summerour/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
“Storm Area 51” creator hosts event in Las Vegas instead of Rachel - VIDEO
Matty Roberts, the man behind the “Storm Area 51” movement has been abducted to now host an alien-themed event in downtown Las Vegas.
Dry conditions and winds gusting up to 40 mph bring a red flag warning
Dry conditions and winds gusting up to 40 mph bring a red flag warning for much of Monday by the National Weather Service. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Southern Nevada is in a West Nile virus hot zone - VIDEO
Southern Nevada, along with Central Arizona and Southern California, make up a “hot zone” that is reporting the highest number of mosquito-borne West Nile virus cases in the country. The Southern Nevada Health District recently reported 28 cases of West Nile virus in Clark County. (Le'Andre Fox/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Pinkbox Doughnuts opens third store in Las Vegas area
Las Vegas-based Pinkbox Doughnuts, which opened its third store at 9435 W. Tropicana Ave., specializes in doughnuts such as the new Station Wagon, with Butterfinger; pink-velvet Pretty in Pink; and hybrid Glazed DoughCro Bites. Heidi Knapp Rinella/Review-Journal, with image courtesy of Pinkbox Doughnuts
Some of the best dog parks in Las Vegas - VIDEO
When taking them on walks just isn’t enough, there are plenty of dog parks sprinkled throughout the Las Vegas Valley where dogs can play and owners can get to know the other pet parents in their area. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Gail Hudson surprised with Teacher of the Year honor
Gail Hudson is surprised with recognition as Nevada's Teacher of the Year in the courtyard of Hummel Elementary on Monday, Aug. 26, 2019. (Amelia Pak-Harvey/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Silver State Heath CEO Ryan Linden - VIDEO
Ryan Linden, Silver State Health’s CEO and executive director, talks about the focus of the organization, which is to provide affordable mental health and medical care for low-income and underserved Southern Nevadans. (John Przybys/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegan part of the Harlem Globetrotters
Scooter Christensen, who grew up in Las Vegas, will play with the Harlem Globetrotters at The Orleans in Las Vegas Sunday, Aug. 25. (Mat Luschek / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Person struck and killed by a train near downtown Las Vegas - VIDEO
Police investigate after a person was struck and killed by a train near downtown Las Vegas near West Owens Avenue and Stocker Street on Wednesday. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Paul Browning Released from Ely State Prison - VIDEO
Paul Browning greets his mother, Betty Browning, after being released from Ely State Prison. Browning served 33 years on Nevada’s death row. (Rachel Crosby/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Mother upset over her child's cornea donation being sent overseas - Video
Lindsey LiCari, the mother of Ayden and founder of Ayden's Army of Angels, is upset that her child's corneas were sent overseas and was told that she would be able to see her son's eyes again. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Seven Magic Tires
“Seven Magic Tires,” created by Las Vegas artists Justin Favela and Ramiro Gomez, substitutes piles of tires for hefty boulders to recreate the scale model. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Tortoise Group of Las Vegas helps tortoises find homes
The Las Vegas Tortoise Group wants you to adopt a desert tortoise. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Warehouse fire in North Las Vegas
North Las Vegas Fire Department PIO Nino Galloway gives an update on the fire at a warehouse on Friday, Aug. 9, 2019. (Erik Verduzco/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Woman's memoir reflects on her fresh start in Las Vegas
Etta Baykara, 91, who plays accordion in a polka band, wrote a memoir that includes growing up on a farm to her move to California and then Las Vegas where she claims she is the happiest. (Erik Verduzco/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas pinball wizard Spittin' Jerry Kaczmarek
Jerry Kaczmarek, also known as “Spittin’" Jerry, talks about his days as a pinball hustler in Vegas in the 60’s and 70’s. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Behind the scenes at Broadacres Marketplace
Evelyn Sanchez, Broadacres Marketplace marketing and event director, talks about the offerings at the dynamic swap meet in Las Vegas. (Jason Bracelin/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Teen talks about alleged sexual assault at Las Vegas grocery store
A 17-year old says she was groped and then sexually assaulted by a loss-prevention specialist at an Albertsons store in east Las Vegas. The subject's voice has been distorted to protect her identity. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Henderson officials tried to lure Arizona Diamondbacks from Phoenix
Henderson officials tried to lure Arizona Diamondbacks from Phoenix with four potential stadium sites in mind, including one behind the future home of the future Raiders headquarters. Discussions between the team and the city stalled out, but Henderson still wants to attract professional sports to the area.(Heidi Fang/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Grasshoppers swarm Las Vegas Strip
The Las Vegas Strip is swarmed by pallid-winged grashoppers on July 25, 2019. The grasshoppers have infested the Las Vegas valley after an unseasonably wet winter and spring, experts say.(@365inVegas/Twitter)
Aviators splash pad lets fans stay cool
Las Vegas Ballpark’s splash pad area is the perfect place to keep cool while enjoying the game. (Cassie Soto/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Grasshoppers invade Las Vegas
The grasshoppers came out at night in northwest Las Vegas on Thursday. Lights at a local gas station attracted hundreds of the insects. (David Guzman/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
CCSD superintendent says dean positions will not be eliminated
Clark County School District Superintendent Dr. Jesus F. Jara discusses budget adjustments for the district after listening sessions with principals, teachers and support professionals. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Henderson rain
Rain falls in Henderson on Wednesday, July 24, 2019.
Monsoon season begins in the Las Vegas Valley
Rain dropped in Henderson on Wednesday morning as monsoon season begins in the Las Vegas area. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Henderson Fire Department on checking back seats in the heat - Video
The Henderson Fire Department talks about double-checking car seats in the Las Vegas heat to remember children who may be in the car. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Take the Red E Bike tour of Red Rock Canyon
The Red E Bike tour of Red Rock Canyon outside of Las Vegas starts at the visitors center for a three-hour, 17-mile ride. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Steve Meriwether talks about his son, who was killed by a drunk driver
Retired Metro sergeant Steve Meriwether talks about his son, Garrett Meriwether, who was killed by a drunk driver. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Earthquake might have caused Pahrump man's death
Officials in Pahrump believe that the recent Fourth of July earthquake caused the death of resident Troy Ray as he was working on his car. If true, it will be the first earthquake-related death in the state in recorded history, according to research geologist Craig dePolo. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Earthquake-related death reported in Pahrump
The Nye County Sheriff's Office investigated a man's death reported on July 9 that may have been related to a Southern California earthquake that occurred on July 4 and was felt in Southern Nevada. (Nye County Sheriff's Office)
Fire in Arts District in downtown Las Vegas
Fire in Arts District in downtown Las Vegas on July 6, 2019. (Angus Kelly)
10th Anniversary of Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health
The Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health is celebrating its 10th anniversary in the coming week. Director Marwan Sabbagh talks about what the center offers, what they've achieved and what is next in the work of degenerative brain disease. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Nevada Highway Patrol pulls over hearse in HOV lane
A Nevada Highway Patrol trooper pulled over the driver of a hearse, which was carrying a body, in an HOV lane in Las Vegas, July 1, 2019. (Nevada Highway Patrol)