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Landmark status eludes lost neon glory of Route 66

MIAMI, Okla. -- The Riviera Courts motel is crumbling away, and nobody seems to care.

Once a stop along Route 66, the 2,400-mile neon carnival that connected hundreds of communities from Chicago to Los Angeles, this late-1930s Mission Revival is just a weather-worn building on the side of a country road in far northeast Oklahoma.

Next door, soybean farmers Richard and Rosemary Woolard watch the place deteriorate from their front porch.

"Been a lot of changes in this old county," Richard Woolard, 77, says.

The Riviera Courts is among hundreds of mom-and-pop motels that met their demise along the ribbon of Route 66 as America's interstate system siphoned traffic off the Mother Road onto a four-lane, divided highway called progress.

In Oklahoma, with more Route 66 miles than any of the eight states it flows through, many motels are derelict or abandoned, used as junkyards , makeshift car lots, and flophouses.

Owners who inherited these historical footnotes have no use for them and would rather sell the properties to a developer if the price was right.

Today, many structures that made the road what it was -- the diners, family owned service stations, barbecue joints -- have fallen apart. With efforts to fix up these architectural landmarks scarce, time has become the road's worst enemy.

The nonprofit National Historic Route 66 Federation in Lake Arrowhead, Calif., estimates at least 3,000 motels along the route are in various states of disrepair.

"Motels are such a part of our recent history that it's often hard for people to view them as historically significant," says Kaisa Barthuli, with the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program in Santa Fe .

To drum up support for these forgotten properties, preservationists in Oklahoma recently added Route 66 motels to a list of most endangered historic places.

"People say, 'It's a nice sign, but I would never stay there,' " says Jim Gabbert, an architectural historian with the Oklahoma Historical Society. "There are dozens of old motels . . . fighting the perception that these are rat traps."

In Flagstaff, Ariz., residents are taking advantage of a facade improvement program that helps Route 66 building owners restore their neon signs. In Albuquerque, the city bought the historic De Anza Motor Lodge several years ago and recently selected a developer to restore the landmark as an upscale Route 66 destination.

Route 66, immortalized in John Steinbeck's 1939 novel "The Grapes of Wrath" and crooner Nat King Cole's catchy tune, debuted in 1926, instantly becoming a slice of Americana.

The road meant steady work for scores of unemployed men who built it in the 1930s; an avenue for thousands of Okies who migrated west to escape the Dust Bowl and a post-World War II playground for millions of Americans looking to roam in the 1950s and '60s.

With the interstate came the Holiday Inns, chain gas stations, and drive-thrus, popping up overnight. Neon and quirky were on the outs. Pre-fab and fast were in.

The business model for the motels became outdated, too. How was a place built in the 1920s to accommodate 11 to 20 patrons to compete with a big-box motel that could cram 10 times more customers in?

By 1984, the interstate had bypassed the last bit of 66 in Arizona, ending America's romance with the iconic highway.

The handful of motels that survived fight a stigma that they are no-tell motels, offering no-frills accommodations.

Traveling west from the Riviera Courts, the Chelsea Motel about 45 miles down the road seems in worse shape.

A couple of beat-up cars are parked on the grass in front of the wood-frame structure. Dandelions and shards of glass carpet the courtyard. In Room No. 6, there is noise from a television or radio and a couple bottles of shampoo on the window sill, but nobody answers the door.

Suddenly, John Hall pops out from behind the building. He is tall, gray-haired, and shirtless, and could pass for a tattooed department store Santa Claus.

The 62-year-old owns the motel with his wife, a pack rat who uses most of its rooms as storage and wants to sell the place to build an Indian tobacco shop.

The motel was built around 1935 to cater to the traffic moving west. By the 1970s, it was headed downhill.

Holding on to a piece of history isn't in the Halls' blood, even though it's in their backyard. Restoring it would cost tens of thousands of dollars.

"I hope we sell the whole place and move into the country," he says.

Canute, a dusty town of 500 about 105 miles west of Oklahoma City, hides a Route 66 landmark in the Cotton Boll Motel. With its classic red, white, and green neon sign shaped like a tuft of cotton, the Boll is one of the most photographed along the route.

Its owner, Pat Webb, checked into the 16-room building in the mid-1990s and never left.

The 55-year-old oil field pipe inspector turned part of it into his private home and playground for his grandchildren.

"I just leave the sign up so people can take pictures," he says with a shrug.