Growing up, staying in hotels was a special treat. My family didn’t have much disposable income, so our trips were short and our destinations were drivable—which usually meant that we’d stay only one night before packing back up and going home.
The first time we stayed in a hotel as a family, we’d descended on a Quality Inn near Owen Sound, Ontario, Canada. (I was 6 and thrilled to have my own double bed.) The last time, I was 14 and we drove to Trout Creek, a small (small) town in the northern part of the province. We stayed at the Princess Motel, a tiny place my dad and his family used to stop at during his childhood treks to Powassen. In the ’60s and ’70s, I’m sure it was charming. In 2000, it was shabby, relatively isolated, and terrified me to the point of making my best friend push the nightstand in front of the door, lest any number of local murderers (I assumed) chose to prey on us. The next morning, me, my best friend, and my parents left and vowed never to speak of our endeavor again. Motels were now cursed to me; a painful reminder of how fancy my family and I were not.
After that, the older I got, the motels I grew up visiting quickly became synonymous with underage parties or after-prom get-togethers. Instead of finding the charm in those decades-old summertime meccas, I saw them as seedy, gross, and an embarrassing part of my own vacation story. So I never expected that I’d eventually turn to them as a source of joy, nostalgia, and even interior design inspiration.
It began with old postcards: snapshots into the long-ago charm of (mostly) independently run places that offer a glimpse of what holidaying once looked like. On one gloomy winter day a few years ago, I found a stack at an antiques market (I’m a vintage freak and mid-century decor obsessive), and began searching for the most vibrant photos to frame and make my dark room feel slightly sunnier—and unsurprisingly they did. And even more unsurprisingly, I became addicted to finding more motel postcards. I wanted more pools, more sunlight, more mid-century furniture and architecture.
The more I showed these new favorite finds to friends (and my parents), the more I wanted to start channeling them in my own house. I wanted to squash the embarrassment that stemmed from my shameful socioeconomic snobbery. I wanted to pay tribute to the places that had meant so much to my family. I wanted to bask in the promise of summer holidays and day trips that faded away as I began to grow up. I wanted my home to be somewhere I looked forward to going, the same way I looked forward to an afternoon check-in at a hotel.
Which began with a chair. As I was planning to move into my new space, I’d started perusing antiques markets for furniture that would encompass the majesty of what everybody’s grandmother’s house looked like decades ago. On one Sunday afternoon, I found a bright green chair that still smelled like the cigarette smoke of its former owner. Soon after, I chased it with another ’60s-era aqua vinyl chair, a secondhand coffee table, a telephone table, and a teak lamp (attached to another table, since you can’t possibly ever have enough). Admittedly, nothing matched. I will also confess that the level of kitsch I had achieved bordered on tacky.
But like the old motels I’d come to romanticize, my apartment looked—and felt—like a place that wanted you to be in. I know that regardless of how many pink flamingos I keep on my patio, I will never capture the true essence of a beautiful mom-and-pop motel like the ones I dreamed of as a kid. But I like to think that by channeling what used to be, I can recapture a slice of history and magic.
While writing this, I visited the website for the Princess Motel, figuring it was long closed and if open, likely more “scary” than I remembered. But I was wrong: The rooms are well lit, they’re clean-looking, and they open up onto a pretty wood deck. It looks like a mishmash of ’60s-, ’90s-, and ’00s-era interiors, and it’s hardly what I pictured when drawing on memories of the Trout Creek adventure. It’s now the snapshot of a moment shared by my best friend and my family, and one I wouldn’t mind bringing into my own home.