Auto courts and motels on Van Buren Street once helped make Phoenix the Motor Court and Motel Capital of the World. As time passed, however, Van Buren Street became a place of crime and despair.
From the 1930s to the 1960s, America had a rise in automobiles and a growing economy with travelers exploring out west. These travelers stopped in Phoenix for nights of rest, relaxation, and entertainment on Van Buren Street. Van Buren Street, starting in the 1940s, was the place for vacationing families if you were looking for a motel. There were many types of motels with different styles of architecture and accommodations for families. One such motel attraction was the Log Cabin Motel which reflected a Log Cabin style and a functioning waterwheel for the children to enjoy.
Originally Van Buren Street was nothing more than just a street named after the 8th President Martin Van Buren, with houses clustered next to each other. Van Buren Street grew in the 1920s when Route 80 and Route 60 were built, and travelers from around the country started to stop and rest on Van Buren Street. During this time, auto courts were on the rise. Travelers would park their vehicles in stand-alone structures with limited accommodations. Auto courts became the method to attract travelers because it was a one-night stay, and a person could leave and park their car safely. As auto courts spread and diversified, there would also be a rise in tourism in the Van Buren Street area. These types of accommodations would later morph into the motel phase of the coming decades.
The Log Cabin Motel, located on 2515 East Van Buren Street, was built in 1939. Originally the motel was called the Log Cabin Auto Court and was renowned for its redwood structures. Once Route 60 was built, it became famous for being a fun place to stay and rest. The Log Cabin Motel changed over time. In the 1950s, a working water wheel was installed with a gift shop selling candies and a polar bear statue next to the pool. The motel became a popular Phoenix area attraction for families looking for a bit of adventure.
Amid the New Deal, Van Buren Street became a tourist attraction as road improvements were made to boost easy accessibility for a tourist economy. By the 1940’s Phoenix claimed to be “The Motor Court and Motel Capital of the World.” During this time, there was a diversity of motels, including the Log Cabin Motel, which had an old log cabin decor with a waterwheel attraction for children. Climate control was necessary as motels were trying to combat the heat by installing pools and air conditioning.
The Log Cabin Motel was featured in the Arizona Republic on March 5, 1952, when Miss Mary Jane Truman, the sister of President Harry S. Truman, stayed at the motel. She was traveling from Tucson to the Grand Canyon, but the roads were too icy. Instead, she spent the rest of her two-week trip in Phoenix before returning to her home in Missouri.
By the 1950s, neon lights were popular because they were easy to see from a distance. They were a great marketing tool to attract traveling families. Artist Glen Guyett established himself on Van Buren Street, making neon signs for motels. Motels were trying to separate themselves by using unique architecture. Some motels had World War II and South Pacific themes. An example of this architecture was the Kon Tiki, built in 1962 to reflect Polynesia.
On January 20, 1964, the body of a Flagstaff man was found in the Log Cabin’s pool where he had been staying. The Phoenix police identified the man as Harlan Heywood Siler. The body was found in the deep end of the pool floating, and his cause of death was drowning. His parents, Mr. and Mrs. Siler, owned the Bakers Village, and his brother-in-law Walter McDonald owned and managed the Starlight Bowling Lanes on East Santa Fe.
The head of the CIA, J. Edgar Hoover, wrote in 1940 about how lodges were places for prostitution in the United States. Van Buren Street did not fit this description. The street was a tourist attraction that brought young families to the area on vacation. During the 1970s, with the construction of the interstates, Van Buren Street began to lose its popularity and would become the street of weekly rent and prostitution. Van Buren Street fell on hard times, and these hard times included the Log Cabin Motel. It no longer attracted young families; instead, it attracted people in poverty, prostitution, and drug dealing.
On May 23, 1975, Kathy Panitzke petitioned the Arizona Supreme Court to drop three counts of commercially exhibiting obscene items. She was arrested at the Log Cabin Motel as an employee on September 12, 1974, by Phoenix police. Ms. Panitzke claims three Phoenix police officers and presiding City Magistrate Roger Goldston watched three adult films (pornography) at the motel before her arrest. Her motion to dismiss the charges was denied by the Maricopa County Supreme Court.
What once was a place to take the family was now where you could watch “adult” films and pay for a prostitute on Van Buren Street. Travelers began to stay at motels by the highway exits, and motels on Van Buren Street started to disappear. It would fall further into disrepair with the completion of the Papago Freeway. Eventually, Van Buren Street in 1991 would no longer be commissioned as a highway.
Phoenix, in many ways, has forgotten the motel industry. The Log Cabin Motel would be destroyed in 2010, as it was considered dirty and a place of prostitution. Public outcry wanted the motel preserved, but Van Buren Street was seen as a shadow of itself, and no preservation methods were used for the Log Cabin Motel. When a person drives around Van Buren Street, the view is of open lots where places like the Log Cabin Motel once stood or remnants of abandoned buildings and broken neon signs that once housed families.