Sam McManis

Discoveries: Yuma motor court a link to car travel’s early days

The Historic Coronado Motor Hotel in downtown Yuma, Ariz., has a museum next to the rooms. You can relive the old days of the motor court. This is the original furniture from 1938.
The Historic Coronado Motor Hotel in downtown Yuma, Ariz., has a museum next to the rooms. You can relive the old days of the motor court. This is the original furniture from 1938.

A museum located about 20 feet – or, more precisely, 17 Nike Zoom Elite paces – from my motel room door?

Now that’s convenience.

It’s a perk you get for staying at the Historic Coronado Motor Hotel (yes, “historic” is part of its official name) on Fourth Avenue here in history-saturated downtown Yuma.

The hotel itself is one of the first Best Western-branded hotels in the United States, part of the chain until the Peach family, the original owners, decided to cut ties last summer after 68 years and go it alone once more. So that’s history enough. I mean, how often these days do you get a chance to pull your car up next to your room at a motor court – check that: a really nice, somewhat upscale motor court – that retains the charm and comforting simplicity you’d find back in the day when road trips were adventuresome and not a grind to be endured?

Included on the property is the original red-tiled adobe front desk/residence of John Peach’s parents, who opened the then-14-room hotel in 1938, nine years before Best Western came a-courtin’ with a branding deal.

They call the cottage Casa de Coronado, and it’s a museum now, housing memorabilia from the early halcyon days of tourism, all the little knick-knacks hotels would provide, gratis, to travelers, plus some state-of-the-art 1950s-era gizmos meant to entice tourists to stop here instead of that neon-lit competitor down the road.

Curated by John Peach and docent-led by his wife, Yvonne – that is, when the couple is not busy with the daily challenges of what has grown to a sprawling six-wing, 127-room hotel – the Casa de Coronado has been restored to look as it did when the elder Peaches registered guests in the front room and lived in the back. Much of the furniture is what was in the rooms, circa 1938, and it looks sturdy, not the fake wood-grained particle-board stuff used today.

The walls are festooned with Best Western signs and slogans, but the Peaches want to make it clear they no longer are affiliated with the chain. Yvonne prefers not to elaborate on the reasons why, and it’s not germane to our purposes, anyway.

What the Peaches love to talk about is the history of motor courts and why they’ve been replaced by boxy, boring and generic-looking LaQuinta/Days Inn/Comfort Inns that dot interstate highway exits.

“Most people just didn’t keep them,” Yvonne says of motor courts. “This has always been in the same family, so it’s been maintained. Our customers like the idea that they can park outside their room and go straight in their room. A lot of people don’t like going down a hall and up and elevator, toting their luggage for a quarter mile. We get a lot of bikers, but they’re upscale bikers, I call them. They got these fancy bikes. This way, they can keep an eye on their bikes.”

I made the linguistic faux pas of referring to the Coronado as a “motel.” Yvonne set me straight right off.

“No, no, no,” she said. “We’re not a motel. It’s ‘motor hotel.’ There’s a reason Johnny’s folks named it that. Because, you know, ‘motel’ has a bad reputation. Especially for those from Europe, that’s not good.”

Still, calling the Coronado a hotel seems too snooty. The rooms are well-appointed, have all the modern conveniences (fridge, microwave, Wi-Fi, flat-screen TVs, central AC), but looking at the humble, low-rise facade and, especially after touring the casa/museum, the label “hotel” is too sterile.

“Everything you see is as it was,” Yvonne said.

She led me to a back room where the original furniture is stored. It all looks so, well, substantial. There’s a dresser made of what looks to be solid oak, hand-painted floral designs around the cabinets. The bed is four-poster and looks sturdy. Yvonne upended a cabinet to show the bottom. Burned into the wood is the word “Coronado.”

“Johnny’s parents hadn’t settled yet on the name when the (furniture) arrived,” Yvonne said. “She wanted to name it ‘Coronado,’ and Johnny’s dad didn’t want that. But when the furniture came, see, it was all stamped ‘Coronado.’ So she won.”

Attached to a nightstand is a boxy black radio.

“You’d put a nickel in the slot to play it,” Yvonne said, “but Johnny’s mom took it off and gave free radio to everyone. It was good for business.”

Another boxy machine on display was quite popular in the pre-Internet era.

“That’s the Check Your Mileage machine,” she said. “It used to be at the front desk, and people really complained when Best Western made us take it out of the lobby. You could turn to any city in the U.S. and it’d show you highways to take to get where you’re going from here. Say you’re going to El Paso; it’d give you all the routes. It was a courtesy to guests.”

In the days before Yelp reviews, it paid to have good word-of-mouth from travelers along the road. That’s why motor hotels such as the Coronado peppered guests with all manner of freebies and enticements. There are cases upon cases of Best Western-branded bric-a-brac, ranging from buttons (example: “I Only Sleep With The Best”), to playing cards, matchbooks, ashtrays, key chains, stationery and even a pen light.

“Used to be you got something when you travel,” she said. “Now, you don’t get nothing. Pens, maybe. Some guests tell me it’s hard as heck to get a package of matches now. The reason we have so much is that Johnny’s mother kept everything. I mean, everything.”

She pointed to several long glass display cases down the hallway, said, “We have every Arizona Highways magazine ever done, every one of them, multiple copies. Johnny’s mom put them in frames and hung them in the rooms.”

Almost as an afterthought, Yvonne pointed out a case with Bob Hope memorabilia. Seems the comedian and actor always stayed at the Coronado when he came to Yuma to perform for the troops in a USO show.

“He stayed right over there,” she said. “It was Room 8 then. Now, it’s Room 120.”

When I mentioned that my room was 119, only three Nike Zoom Elite steps from Hope’s old haunt, Yvonne frowned.

“Oh, if I had known, we would’ve given you that room,” she said.

Now that is personalized service.

Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.

Historic Coronado Motor Hotel and Casa de Coronado Museum

233 Fourth Ave., Yuma, Ariz.

Information: Tours by appointment only (877) 234-5567, (928) 783-4453,