March 27, 2014

[Retro Roadmap] The Wigwam Motel in San Bernardino, California

  • By: Beth Lennon

The Wigwam Motel in San Bernardino, Calif.

Part of the fun of a road trip is to see things you usually don’t see -- places that are bigger than life and stand out from the ordinary. It’s one of the many reason we travel: to have experiences not possible in our hometowns. One iconic example of this type of roadside destination is the Wigwam Village motels built in the 1930s and ‘40s.

To many, the motels represent eye-catching structures built to entice weary travelers to turn in for the night, and to bring fond memories of family vacations and cross-country road trips before the advent of the super-highway. But to some, their loose misrepresentation of Native American dwellings is a reminder of how not long ago, cultural stereotyping was considered socially acceptable.

Now in the 21st century, we can see them as both: an architectural roadside reminder of where our nation has come from and where it is going.

Looking Back:

The Wigwam Village was conceived in 1933 by Frank Redford of Horse Cave, Ky., when he built a cone-shaped building to hold his collection of Native American artifacts. Adding a few more similarly shaped structures a few years later around the original building designated for sleeping, he christened the compound Wigwam Village. This misnomer has been a point of contention with some Native American communities.

Redford, with his knowledge of Native American ways, most likely knew that a wigwam was a rounded hut-like structure, while his building shapes echoed the teepees of the native Plains Indians. But, as the story goes, he simply preferred the name “Wigwam” instead of “Tipi,” so little thought was given to whether or not the structure’s name would spark conflict.

To modern visitors, it is somewhat surprising to learn that this collection of distinctive triangular buildings is considered by some to be the precursor to the chain motel. The consistency with which these conical structures would be designed as they were increasingly built across the country was helped along by the patent that Redford was granted in 1937 for a "new, original and ornamental design for a building.”

The swastika is featured on many of the structures at Wigwam Villages, because of its original meaning of good luck, despite its popular usage during the Second World War.

Another surprise to modern eyes when looking back at the history of the Wigwam Villages is on the patent itself, on which a swastika symbol features prominently in the design above the door.

While the swastika is chiefly associated with Hitler’s Third Reich in Nazi Germany, prior to that usage, the symbol was a familiar symbol of good luck used by many cultures, including many Native American tribes.

Of the seven of these patented Wigwam Villages built across the country, only three remain: Cave City, Ky., in 1937, Holbrook, Az., in 1950, and the last one in the chain in San Bernardino, Calif., in 1949. All of them are listed on the National Register for Historic Places.

Located on Route 66, The Wigwam Motel is a San Bernardino Landmark.

The San Bernardino Wigwam Motel, located on the historic Route 66, is unique within the original chain in that it was built by Redford himself. It is also distinct from the other locations as the 30-foot high teepees -- 19 in all -- are arranged in two rows, not just one, surrounding a swimming pool and barbecue pit. Additionally, the village is given an authentic feel with its 35 towering palm trees, interspersed along the manicured lawns.

The teepees gather in a semi-circle around the kidney-shaped pool.

Despite their eye-catching look and family-friendly appeal, once the interstates bypassed Route 66, the San Bernardino Village fell on hard times in the 1960s and ‘70s like most secondary road businesses. In the past 20 years, a sign offering daily and weekly rates encouraged passersby to “Do It In a Tee Pee.”

Luckily, in the past 15 years, the future looks brighter than it has in years as Americans grow to appreciate these kitschy examples of Americana.

Looking Forward:

The Wigwam Motel is now being run by the Patel family who acquired the property in 2003. Under their care, the motel has been restored to its former glory with each teepee completely renovated, the lawns manicured, and the gift shop turned into a treasure trove of Route 66 memorabilia.

The Patels were the recipients of the 2005 Cyrus Avery Award given by the National Historic Route 66 Federation for noteworthy restoration products, and in 2012, the Motel was added to the National Register of Historic Places. More importantly, along with the structural improvements, they also restored the reputation of the motel, so that it is now a desirable destination for those getting their kicks on Route 66.

Travelers from across the globe come to the U.S. to drive The Mother Road.

Much like how Redford's original structures weren't actual teepees, but buildings inspired by the shape of them, once you open the door (with an electronic key card) and step inside, there are only a few small clues to remind you of what the building looks like on the outside.

Credit: Beth Lennon
One can’t help but pose for vacation photos when staying at the Wigwam Motel.

No two rooms are decorated alike. They’ve all been updated to appeal to the 21st-century tourists, who still want modern amenities even when traveling back in time. Free WiFi, flat screen TVs, heat and air conditioning, and queen-size beds are all included. The bathrooms tucked into the back of the cone are charming with their original tile work.

All the modern amenities, in a vintage setting. Welcome to the 21st century!

Like many historical events that we look back at with 20/20 hindsight vision, we sometimes can't help but be embarrassed by what those who came before us did, however unintentionally, that would be considered nowadays as culturally insensitive.

Luckily, as we’ve learned not to repeat those errors, we can appreciate how far we’ve come from less-enlightened times, and how the existence of places like the Wigwam Villages stand as an important reminder of the progress we’ve made.

Visit Wigwam Motel

2728 West Foothill Blvd
San Bernardino, CA 92410
(909) 875-3005

Join the movement to save and sustain historic African American places. The African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund will help every American see themselves, their history, and their potential in our collective story and national cultural landscape.

Learn More