Nestled between Route 101 and at the foot of Mount San Louis in California lies the Madonna Inn, a magical kitsch palace frozen in time, an epic monument to Americana. In his series of essays Faith in Fakes: Travels in Hyperreality (1973), Umberto Eco introduces the Madonna Inn as “a series of motels of disarming pop vulgarity.” Disarmed as ever, I instantly fell madly in love with this mythical place.
The Madonna clan first came here to pasture roughly one hundred and fifty years ago. Creator Alex Madonna’s maternal and paternal grandparents were among the first Swiss immigrants to farm the land of California’s central coast. Seven years after losing his father and brother, sixteen-year-old Alex set up the Madonna Construction Company with a 30$ loan, equipped with only a pick, shovel, a trusty Ford Model T and his pioneering spirit. In the 1950s, the construction company boomed and Alex was clocking miles on the road, busy overseeing the construction of endless lengths of highway. He missed home and was struck by the limited numbers of motels in the area offering appealing places to stay the night and dine. He fantasized of building his own motel with coffee shop and dining room.
In 1958, designs Alex had sketched out on the back of a napkin were made manifest and the first incarnation of the Madonna Inn opened to the public on Christmas Eve. Alex and his beauty queen wife Phyllis had decided that each of the 12 rooms in the single story building would offer an entirely different experience, hoping that this would cater to the aesthetic tastes of a wide range of clients. A greater variation of interior themes, they reasoned, would heighten the chances of guests finding a room where they felt at home. In 1969, the Hilltop Unit was completed and its 84 gemlike rooms dazzled guests who were now well and truly spoilt for choice with over 100 treasures to choose from. Alex literally built into the hill, incorporating huge boulders into the designs for both the interior and exterior of the building.
Umberto Eco fumed that “the poor words with which natural human speech is provided cannot suffice to describe the Madonna Inn.” Nevertheless, the motel’s list of rooms manages to provide a general overview. The American self-made fairy tale of the Madonna Inn is clearly woven into its exuberant aesthetic. “Irish Hills” refers to Phyllis’ Irish roots and features a rock shower, green leprechaun and “serenity of the Celtic hillsides.” “Matterhorn,” “Carin” (a Swiss term of endearment), “Edelweiss,” “Swiss Belle,” “Swiss Chalet” and “Swiss Rock” echo the Alpine inspired exterior of the inn and Madonna family heritage, like cowbells ringing in the mountains.
“Ren,” “Dez,” and “Vous” are a trio of plush rooms designed to “enhance the unspoken language of romance inspired by the French, thanks to “affectionate” features such as vaulted ceilings and a circular bed, recommended for a get away with “someone special.” “Yahoo,” described on the company site as “a reflection of the Madonna family’s lifestyle,” boasts a buckboard bed complete with a driver’s seat ready for equestrienne guests to mount and drive some cattle home for the night. “Yosemite Rock” brings the great American outdoors indoors and “Buffalo Room” celebrates the Madonna’s beloved family pet who fell victim to the local highway traffic, his taxidermied head held high on “the whispering grass-green wall coverings.”
The cave grotto rooms have been popular since the motel first opened, offering neo-Neolithic spaces lined floor-to-ceiling with rocks. The “Caveman” room is complete with an emergency club fitted to the wall, stained glass caveman windows, animal skins and its very own rock urinal with automatic waterfall effect next to the toilet. Fred Flintstone used to feel right at home here in a grotto suite named after him — until Hanna-Barbera threatened copyright infringement and the name was quickly changed to the less officious “Jungle Room.”
The Madonna Inn has been featured in countless music videos and fashion shoots; for recent examples see Grimes and Ellen von Unwerth. However, Julien Temple captured the true carnal allure of the Madonna Inn in Rigoletto, the fourth segment of Aria (1987), an anthology of 10 short films by British directors. Temple tells the tale of a movie producer cheating on his wife with a German blonde scantily clad in loincloth in the aptly named “Neanderthal” room, unaware that his wife is likewise indulging in some fun and frolics in the neighbouring “Heidi Hideaway” suite, dressed as an innocent fluffy lamb at the mercy of a toy boy stud in lederhosen. Mr. and Mrs. Movie Producer film their fantasies on video, intent on capturing the movie set sleaze of their getaways as testaments to happier times. The chase around the Madonna Inn climaxes with an Elvis impersonator lip-syncing to Rigoletto as Mr. Movie Producer peaks takes to the dance floor on ecstacy, and a tiger polyester print donning Mrs. Movie Producer struts her stuff for her moustached gigolo.
None of this seems too far off today. The Gold Rush Dining Room is a pink frenzy of satin upholstered circular booths in a sea of floral shagpile carpet, seating up to 500 people under the seductive LED winks of artificial rose trees and creeping gold fittings made of electrical conduit and copper scraps leftover from construction. Steaks are offered in abundance and washed down with rosé sipped from an official Madonna Inn goblet, available for purchase in the gift shop.
Opulence certainly does not stop short at the dessert menu. The in-house bakery prides itself in Pink Champagne cakes stacked high and slathered in glittering Madonna Pink chocolate. Madonna Pink originally even permeated their white sandwich bread, dyed to blend in with the Barbie-like surroundings, and adorned wish-you-were-here postcards from the Sixties. First-timers to the freeway Disneyland dining room may be baffled by the groups of women nervously clamoring at the entrance to the men’s toilet. Not to be mistaken with any risqué activity, they are in fact gathered to sneak in and behold one of the Madonna Inn’s gendered spectacles: a large rock lined urinal featuring a state of the art electric eye mechanism, which activates an artificial waterfall cascade after male patrons relieve themselves.
The late Alex Madonna once said in an interview “anybody can build one room and a thousand like it. It’s more economical. Most places try to give you as little as possible. I try to give people a decent place to stay where they receive more than they are entitled to for what they’re paying. I want people to come in with a smile and leave with a smile. It’s fun.” Umberto Eco seemed to agree on this point: “[The Madonna Inn] appeals to the savage taste for the amazing, the overstuffed, and the absolutely sumptuous at low price.” The first guest to sleep in all 110 rooms of the Madonna Inn took seven years and finally completed her circuit in 1977. Many more have followed since, happily disappearing into the kitsch inferno.