Neon sign outside the Blue Swallow Motel.

photo by: David Kafer

July 24, 2018

Blue Swallow Motel: A Historic Route 66 Legend

You’re in Tucumcari, New Mexico. You may have been driving for hours, days, or even weeks along Historic Route 66 when a neon blue swallow appears out of the dusky evening glow and dry heat of the Southwest like a mirage. As you drive closer to the swallow, a pink stucco building pulled straight from a classic Hollywood movie begins to take shape. You’re at Blue Swallow Motel, a National Register for Historic Places-listed motor lodge that’s been perfectly preserved to match the iconic vintage travel of yesteryear.

The lot where Blue Swallow Motel now stands was first purchased by Carpenter W.A. Huggins on March 29, 1939. Huggins named the motel Blue Swallow Court, so called because (like many accommodations during the explosion of cross-country auto travel) its main feature was a motor court, where guests would park their vehicles after a long day’s drive. The motor court also included 10 rooms and a cafe when it was first built, though it later expanded to 12 units with garage units located in between.

Lillian Redman was the first owner of Blue Swallow who was truly dedicated to its longevity. Redman first traveled west in 1915 to work as a Harvey Girl, one of many young women commissioned by entrepreneur Fred Harvey to work in the West as waitresses around the turn of the 20th century. Her time as a Harvey Girl ended when her soon-to-be husband, Floyd Redman, bought the motel as an engagement present for Lillian in 1958.

Exterior, shell facade, and wooden garage doors of Blue Swallow Motel

photo by: David Kafer

The motel is known not only for its classic neon, but also for its stucco walls decorated with shell designs, and its vintage garages between rooms.

The couple installed the iconic neon sign and changed Blue Swallow’s name from “Court” to “Motel,” a term growing in popularity at the time. When guests didn’t have the cash to stay the night, the Redmans accepted personal belongings and even provided rooms for free.

After Floyd died in 1973, Lillian safely guided the motel through some of its most challenging years. Though many travelers began bypassing Route 66 for a faster, more efficient mode of travel on Interstate 40, Redman took up the mantel of Blue Swallow. She once said, “I end up traveling the highway in my heart with whoever stops here for the night,” and her dedication to the motel and the route was long remembered by lovers of The Mother Road after her death in 1999.

“I end up traveling the highway in my heart with whoever stops here for the night.”

Lillian Redman

Shortly before her death, Redman sold the motel to Dale and Hilda Bakke, who decided to restore it to its original 1940s charm. Dale was a licensed electrician employed by the Colorado prison system for nine years before he decided to move to New Mexico upon hearing about an old motel for sale. With Dale’s experience and a competitive grant from U.S. West, the couple modernized the motel’s electrical systems and repaired the original neon. They also installed the 1939 Bakelite Bell rotary dial phones, vacuum-tube radios, and 1950s light fixtures, showerheads, and toilets in each room. They even maintained some of the garage units’ original wood overhead doors, which remain at the motel today.

Current owners Kevin and Nancy Mueller, plus their son Cameron and daughter-in-law Jessica, ensured that the motel was well cared for when they purchased it in 2011. While the family first bought Blue Swallow Motel to make a living after Kevin and Nancy had retired, it turned into a passion project.

Black and white photo of the Blue Swallow Motel's lobby, circa 1949.

photo by: Hilda and Dale Bakke, Courtesy Blue Swallow Motel

Much of the motel's lobby remains unchanged today, as evidenced by the black and white photo circa 1949.

“You see what time has done to a lot of different places, and Blue Swallow has survived,” Cameron Mueller says. “We’re doing everything we can to make sure that the kids of tomorrow will be able to enjoy it, and that the people who went on the trip in the ‘50s can still [experience] it and see the businesses thriving.”

The Muellers kept the motel’s Southwest Vernacular style in tip-top shape. They made sure its pink stucco walls, decorated with shell designs and stepped parapets, continued to bring guests into the past. They also put sentimental touches for older Route 66 travelers, such as Lillian Redman’s “Blue Swallow Benediction,” on display in each of the 12 rooms. The rooms do have some modern updates, like flat screen televisions and Wi-Fi, but their vintage light fixtures, bedding, and reading nooks make them feel much more authentic to the motel’s 1950s heyday.

In 2017 the family put a new roof on the motel, and the year before that, they rewired all the electrical outlets and updated the water system. While it’s true that upkeep never ends, particularly when you own a historic property, the Muellers take it in stride. Cameron notes, “Any time we have to replace something—and we always try to repair it first, because in our minds the original item has a lot more character and history and age—we find whatever matches the old, even if it costs double.”

Despite its flawless vintage style, though, Blue Swallow Motel is still around today because of the owners’ dedication to an easygoing way of life, where travel isn’t just about reaching a destination.

Sepia toned postcard of Blue Swallow Motel exterior and sign, circa 1941.

photo by: Courtesy Blue Swallow Motel

The front of a postcard, circa 1941, featuring the Blue Swallow Trail as a New Mexico travel destination.

As Cameron says, “The personalities running the motel can be as important as the motel itself.”

And the Muellers’ guests seem to be in agreement. After just one night at Blue Swallow, Route 66 Roadie Morgan Vickers said: “Around 7 p.m. … patrons emerged from their rooms to chat and lounge. Cameron walked around with his golden retriever at his heels, his wife at his side, and his baby in his arms, chatting with the guests along the way. Everything felt like it was of a different era, where people were unconcerned with phones and television, and were instead engrossed in the simple pleasures of the outdoors.”

Carson Bear is an Editorial Coordinator at the National Trust. She’s passionate about combining popular culture with historic places, and loves her 200-year-old childhood farmhouse in Pennsylvania.

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