Whenever grown-ups dropped their voices to a low hush, quiet snickers sputtering from their mouths like the last tired breaths of failing motors, a nosey child like myself instinctively listened. Add that little shush and I would freeze, ears perked, ready to decode exactly What Was Being Said. As a little girl, I'd hover near the adults and brilliantly mask my eavesdropping by pushing random toys in front of me or pretending to fidget with a curtain.
They never suspected a thing. It was a great way to grow up before my time, something all nosey little first-borns know a thing or two about. I fondly remember my first lesson, at age seven, about the Coral Court Motel.
This particular conversation was heavily painted with snickers, so I knew it meant something Really Bad and Naughty.
On this evening I was discretely pressed to my bedroom door, feet hugging either side of the wall to avoid detection under the doorway. My ear tight to the wood, I could very nearly hear about a third of the conversation.
Coral Court Motel... laughter... you got caught... laughter... a cleaning lady... something about handcuffs or being arrested... a hush... more giggles... a feather duster... gulps of laughter that faded into what sounded like tuberculosis.
This was serious. My Uncle Bobby was arrested for trying to clean the Coral Court Motel! Images flooded my mind: three or more 1940s-style policemen with billy clubs and moustaches chasing him around while he valiantly tried to tidy up a motel room. Oh, poor Uncle Bobby. Eventually I fell asleep, but not before spending hours on the case. Somehow Bobby getting arrested for helping the cleaning lady do her job just didn't sit right. Why would they handcuff him and leave him in that room? On TV they always took suspects into jail...
I cracked. A few weeks later we were driving past the Coral Court Motel, the scene of Bobby's harsh arrest. It was killing me not to know the whole story. In the meekest voice I could muster, I asked my mother if this was where Uncle Bobby got arrested for helping the cleaning lady with her dusting. She had to pull the car over because she was laughing so hard. Adults are like that.
I grew up on a rather scenic little corner of Route 66, "the Main Street of America." This particular section of the route from Chicago to Los Angeles is called, "Watson Road." Growing up on Watson Road was an adventure in itself. There were always vagabonds wandering up and down the major thoroughfare, antique car shows every weekend at the local Steak'n'Shake, and of course, just two miles east stood the Coral Court Motel.
The Coral Court Motel was more than a legendary no-tell motel--it was a gigantic neon shrine to sinful living and we loved it. In 1993, when I was 13, a great battle to preserve this piece of Americana ended and the Coral Court was closed for good, despite its status on the National Register of Historic Places. For two years it stood empty until its final demolition in 1995. Today its artifacts can be perused at the Museum of Transportation in St. Louis. But as a young girl, I always wondered why it was such a big deal.
Coral Court seemed to be created for the American institution known as the "Quickie." It was a motor court, so every cottage had its own garage in which to conceal the automobile of the inhabitant. It rented rooms on a 4 and 8 hour basis to appeal to truckers or horny teenagers. It had a prime location on Route 66, attracting tourists, travelers, and the unsavory types who work on that kind of busy street. The Coral Court Motel practically screamed, "ONE NIGHT STAND!" and its gaudy pink neon sign didn't argue. Additionally, the staff were widely known for their discretion. They would not disclose the names of guests, nor would they transfer calls into cottages unless expressly requested by the renter.
Even the structural appeal of Coral Court is notorious, if not legendary. German architect Adolph L. Struebig used bright yellow ceramic bricks and opaque glass blocks to create bungalows that were called, "Ultra Modern" in 1941 and "eyesores" by the 1980s and 90s. The early cottages had rounded corners and flat tops, which Struebig described as "Streamline Modern." The very concept of a motor park/motel in the early days of automobiles was ultra modern, as well--not to mention that Coral Court was one of the first motels to offer private showers and heated floors. Its placement, exactly one full day's drive away from the beginning of Route 66 in Illinois, made it a brilliant commercial move and a definite stop for loyal travelers.
Many die-hard fans of the Coral Court Motel turn a blind eye to its sordid past. Some claim it was a beautiful landmark for families and romantic World War II soldiers, whisked away to Europe. They deny that the motel was primarily about sex and crime, an interesting assertion considering that owner John Carr was an infamous brothel owner and mafioso. If the sexploits and the mafia ties aren't enough, there's always the Greenlease kidnapping. In 1953, a six-year old Kansas boy was kidnapped by a man named Carl Austin Hall and his girlfriend. The two ransomed the little boy, earning $600,000 from his millionaire father, Robert C. Greenlease. The couple fled to St. Louis with their money after killing the boy and hid out for two days at the Coral Court Motel, where they were later apprehended and eventually executed for murder. Mr. Greenlease only received half of his money back; the other $300,000 seemed to have disappeared, leading many to believe the money was stashed somewhere at the Coral Court.
The conservative movement of the 1950s, coupled with the construction of many new highways and the negative publicity of the Greenlease case, tarnished the Coral Court Motel's appeal for many. By the 1970s the motel had become the place to go when you wanted to lose your virginity or land your date on prom night. In the 1980s it was a joke--somewhere you went for a laugh, a souvenir, or to see derelicts in their natural habitat. Sadly, in the 1990s it was turned into a subdivision after a serious fight between preservationists and city officials.
I passed the Coral Court Motel at least a thousand times in my childhood and adolescence. I saw my first naked man there. I was eleven or so, and he was a poor victim of circumstance, standing at the door to one of the cottages, banging on the knocker with one hand while his other tried to alternately cover his bare front and back. I saw my first prostitute there. Perhaps the same year or the next, she was in magenta and black fishnet, standing on the side of the road with a suitcase. To this day, the Coral Court Motel has a kitschy little place in my heart. We still enjoy a laugh at my naive interpretation of Uncle Bobby's adventure with the cleaning lady. My grandma has kept a bumpersticker that reads, "Your place, my place, or the Coral Courts!" Adults are like that.
For etouffee, who said, "Tell me a story about Coral courts sometime,,ok??" Thanks for reminding me.
Also, thanks to http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/alabaster/A1984403 and http://www.coralcourt.com for the additional information.