Filed Under Architecture

Dunes Hotel

The rise & fall of mid-century tourism

The Dunes Hotel was once an iconic tourist locale on popular Van Buren in the middle of the twentieth century, but Phoenix's growing highway system became its downfall.

In the middle of the twentieth century, the developers of the Dunes Hotel sought to attract a new generation of travelers to the American West by locating it along Van Buren Avenue - arguably Phoenix's central artery. The Federal Highway system, built in the 1920s and 1930s, converged at the edges of Phoenix, and highways 60, 70, 80, & 89 flowed through the city, including along Van Buren Avenue. These highways traversed the American Southwest, bringing out-of-town visitors that generated growth in the region's tourism industry.

Van Buren Avenue held a symbiotic relationship with The Dunes Hotel. The Dunes Hotel would not have been around if it had not been for the creation of the Federal Highways (60,70,80,89). Van Buren in the 1950s was the place to be as the Federal Highways allowed travelers to drive through Van Buren street, stay for a couple of nights, and explore the surrounding area. The New Deal Road Improvement worked on Van Buren Street, allowing easier access to Phoenix. These improvements also created a tourist industry that would pick up in the 1940s as tourists from all over the country stopped on Van Buren to get a night's rest. Eventually, these motels/hotels would change in look and what they offered as they tried to beat their competitors. The tourist industry allowed Phoenix to grow as a city, and motels/hotels grew in number to meet the increased demand. So plentiful were these motels and hotels that businesses started to try to outdo one another by tapping into popular themes. The Dunes Hotel represented the desert. The themed motifs were used to distract travelers and make them forget they were in the desert of Phoenix. Like a theme park, the over-the-top decor could visually send visitors worldwide. On Van Buren, one could see themes like Polynesian (Kon Tiki Motor Hotel), Native American (Navajo Motel), and even a log cabin (Log Cabin Motel). It would not be until the 1970s that Van Buren started to disappear from travelers' minds.

With the installation of the Maricopa Freeway and later the Papago Freeway, travelers could bypass Van Buren. The motels placed closer to the freeway exits were able to retain tourism traffic, but establishments on Van Buren, like The Dunes, were forgotten. During this time, the types of visitors on Van Buren shifted away from young families traveling the country to a more mature audience. Motels began to display "adult" advertisements, and prostitution ran rampant; what little tourism remained on Van Buren was quickly scared off. By 1991 Van Buren was reflecting poverty, crime, and lack of care for outward appearance. Those warm family lodgings, glowing with neon lights, became despondent, empty lots with "No Trespassing" signs. Like many on Van Buren, the Dunes Hotel fell to changing times: the highways that allowed for the hotel's success now ushered in its failure. Those highways offered a quick pass-through in Phoenix via Van Buren Street, ultimately leading to a rising tourist economy.

Along with the Dunes Hotel, it's thought that there once were 150 motels that existed on Van Buren. But once the installation of the Maricopa Freeway was finished, Van Buren Street lost its heavy traffic and, along with it, its economy. In more recent years, there have been efforts to preserve some of these hotels/motels, like the Log Cabin Motel. But with little funding or public outcry, these historic sites are being destroyed and left as dilapidated lots, leaving little trace of Van Buren's glory days.


Dunes Motor Hotel Postcard
Dunes Motor Hotel Postcard A postcard mailed in 1962 describes the Dunes as being "designed with an accent on vacation luxury of moderate prices in the valley." Source: Tebeau Postcard Collection Creator: Bob Van Luchene Date: 1962
Dunes Motor Hotel Postcard Verso
Dunes Motor Hotel Postcard Verso A postcard mailed from Phoenix, but post-marked in New Mexico of the Dunes Motor Hotel in Phoenix. It bears bad news of a family illness. Source: Tebeau Postcard Collection Date: 1962


2935 E. Van Buren


Suzanne Collett, Mark Tebeau, and Jennifer Schaper, “Dunes Hotel,” Salt River Stories, accessed May 19, 2024,