Wigwam Auto Court

Iconic architecture captured the imagination of Arizona's tourists

The distinctive Teepee designs were dotted along famed Route 66, and Arizona's Wigwam Auto Court was iconic on the Mesa Tempe "opportunity road".

Architect Frank A. Redford inaugurated the use of Teepee designs for mid-century hotels in Kentucky in 1933. This roadside hotel architectural style quickly captured the popular imagination and spread Westward across the country along the growing federal highway system, especially Route 66.

After his first Wigwam opened in Horse Cave, Kentucky, in 1933, Redford patented and sold the designs and rights to use the Wigwam Village name to Frank E. Lewis. Lewis installed coin-operated radios into the hotels and paid Redford a royalty--every dime inserted for 30 minutes of play was sent to Mr. Redford as payment. Lewis constructed six other teepees across the country: Alabama, another city in Kentucky, California, Arizona, Florida, and Louisiana. Located along the burgeoning federal highway system, the hotels emphasized the comforts of home. They included gas stations and restaurants to ensure the tranquility of guests.

The Wigwam lodges' historical import is deeply related to their connection to the roadside culture of the first federal highway system that emerged with the Hayden-Cartwright Act of 1926. Route 66 is perhaps the most mythologized route along that highway, where most of the Wigwam Lodges were built. In his 1939 novel, Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck nicknamed Route 66 "The Mother Road." Evoking Oklahomans' desperate search for freedom and opportunity as they fled the Dust, the book helped to define one aspect of the highway system. Middle-class travelers seeking adventure, truckers carrying shipped goods, and the military all used the roads heavily. Especially with the advent of the family-car vacation, which was popularized by Harry Truman's road-trip return to Kansas City at the end of his presidency, the highway system became a focal point for entrepreneurs seeking tourist dollars through evocative gas stations, motels, restaurants, and attractions.

At least part of the allure of the Wigwam lodges was how well they fit into a broader narrative of the American West that was sold to tourists. Like many other cultural expressions of the period, Redford's design appropriated the form of Native American dwellings used primarily by Plains and Woodland Indian tribes. The particular form of the houses mattered less than the connections the Wigwam lodges made to Native American culture broadly. In a similar vein, the Fred Harvey Company--which famously sold its Western resorts to tourists--hired Pueblo Indians to serve as guides on its "Indian Detours." The particulars of Native American culture mattered little in this performance, as the Pueblo Indians were outfitted in uniforms of feathers and buckskins--evoking the dress of Plains Indians but not their own culture. Accuracy mattered little to tourists whose road trips introduced them to the grand myths of the American West.

The story of the development of the Wigwam Auto Court in Tempe fits neatly into this broad story. The Mesa Tempe Highway--Routes 60, 70, & 80--played an oversized role in developing the Valley as a tourist destination. Highways 60, 70, & 80 converged East of Mesa, running along what is now Apache Boulevard through Tempe and then curving north along Mill avenue into Phoenix, where it split again. Like Route 66, the Mesa Tempe Highway was dotted with unique roadside architecture. Tourists traveled the highway to escape the drudgery of their lives, and the Mesa Tempe Highway became known as the "opportunity road."

A local entrepreneur, Maurice Barth built the Wigwams Auto Court in 1946 (four years before Lewis built a Wigwam Lodge along Route 66 in Holbrook.) Located adjacent to what is now McCalister and Apache, the Wigwam Lodge (as it was later renamed) had the typical tourist amenities, including a swimming pool, shuffleboard court and accommodations for travel trailers. It consisted of six thirty-five-foot tall structures--the only two-story wigwams--and were crafted to give the impression of teepees with their leather skins and lodgepoles. By the late 1960s, the expanding Interstate and Tempe's growth had begun to limit their appeal, and the Wigwam Lodge was converted to apartments. Half of the units were demolished in 1971.

According to preservationist Jay Mark, Arizona State University's expansion ultimately doomed the structures. In 1982 ASU acquired the property and, a year later, bull-dozed the remaining buildings.