The Sahara Motor Inn

From Landmark to Law Building

Mid-century motor culture brought tourism to the Southwest.

Built by an investment group led by prominent Phoenicians Marion Isbell and Del Webb, the Sahara Motor Inn opened in 1955. It became one of the signature hotels of the Ramada Inn motel chain during the 1960s. It served a generation of tourists to Phoenix. However, like other mid-century hotels, the property lost a bit of its luster. It became ripe for urban renewal efforts sweeping through central Phoenix. In fact, civic and university leaders reimagined downtown Phoenix by the opening years of the 21st century, including the blocks surrounding the hotel. Eventually, Phoenix and Arizona State University razed the building in 2010 over the objections of preservationists to create a new campus for its Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law. 

The Sahara Motor Inn developed at the intersection of multiple trends in the mid-century, including the rise of auto culture, the rapid development of the Southwest, and new architectural styles. Webb, Isbell, and their partners built the hotel near the intersection of 1st Street and Polk Street, near Phoenix's central business district, and along Van Buren Avenue, the region's main artery along with Highways 60, 70, 80, & 89 flowed. The group hired Matthew E. Trudell to design the hotel. He used popular materials from the mid-century period, including red brick, colored art glass, tiles, floor and ceiling glass, cast-in-place concrete, and solid and patterned block. 

The hotel included amenities that made it appeal to a wide array of visitors. The Sahara Motor Inn covered an entire city block, with 175 guest rooms, a bar area, a dining and lounge facility, and two terrace suites for holding meetings and parties. It even included two apartment penthouses. Shortly after its opening in the 1950s, the hotel attracted celebrities, partly because of its novelty and style and because one of its investors was a prominent performer of the period. Comedian George Goebel, who had a well-regarded comedy show on NBC that lasted from 1954-1959, invested in the hotel. Other celebrities stayed in the hotel as guests. For example, Marilyn Monroe resided in one of them while filming her movie Bus Stop in 1956. Based on William Inge's play, comedy-drama tells the story of a rodeo cowboy (played by Don Murray) who falls in love with a nightclub singer, played by Monroe. Both characters meet in Phoenix and attend a rodeo before heading out of town. 

Interestingly, the Sahara emerged from a matrix of different business interests that coalesced in central Phoenix around the nascent motor hotel business. Mike Robinson created The Flamingo Inn in McAllen, Texas, in 1946. Along with a small group of investors from Chicago, they expanded the Flamingo into a chain with properties in Yuma, Phoenix, and Tucson in 1948. (Later, in 1962, Robinson started the Rodeway Inn Hotel Chain.) The group began working with Del Webb and Marion Isbell in the 1950s, using the name HiWay House Group, developing a series of hotels across Arizona, including the Sahara Motor Inn in downtown Phoenix. After the group's business interests diverged, Webb developed his own chain of Hiway House Hotels, as well as the Sun City retirement community. Robinson and Isbell, meanwhile, began developing the Ramada Inn motel chain. 

The development of the Ramada Inn in the 1960s represented both the expansion and consolidation of the hotel industry, including the emergence of chain hotels. The idea behind chains was to create inexpensive and consistent lodgings that would profit off increasing numbers of automobile tourists and business travelers. Robinson recalled that he came up with the name Ramada, a Spanish word meaning "a place to rest by the side of the road." Robinson initially took the position of chairman of the board, and then Marion Isbell succeeded him in 1960, raising capital by taking the company public on the stock exchange. The influx of capital allowed Isbell to build the chain from 45 hotels in the American west to more than 500 motels in 45 different states.

Large hotel chains, such as the Ramada franchise, competed with local hotels, such as the hundreds located along Van Buren Avenue. As a result of economies of scale, attempts to homogenize the guest experience, and national marketing campaigns, hotel chains eventually undermined the business models of small, locally-owned hotels and supplanted them. With the development of the chain concept, formerly independent properties, such as the Sahara, lost their identity, becoming subsumed under the Ramada name. In fact, the Sahara became the "Sahara Ramada Inn," a title it held through a renovation in the 1970s, when it lost some of its distinctive design flair.

By the 21st century, the Ramada Inn downtown had lost its luster. It became vulnerable to the forces of development and redevelopment sweeping central Phoenix. Countervailing and somewhat paradoxical forces reshaped Phoenix's downtown. On the one hand, the sprawling regional development of Phoenix led to a lack of investment in the city center. At the same time, developers sought ways to revitalize the urban core. As these tensions and periods of recession saw central Phoenix witness incomplete redevelopment, older mid-century properties declined. Finally, in 2004, Phoenix and Arizona State University unveiled a plan for a "world-class" core of bioscience and commercial development. According to the Arizona Republic, the "faded pink stucco walls (were) greening in value," giving the owners a unique opportunity to profit from the land's redevelopment. Historic preservationists sought to save the building and re-use the mid-century materials. Still, their efforts were thwarted as the hotel was sold in 2010 to ASU for $5 million. Although ASU briefly used the property as a dorm, it demolished the Sahara Motor Inn to create a parking lot, which became the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law site.  


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111 E Taylor St