|By John Biemer, Chicago TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune
Aug. 12, 2007 - PONTIAC, Ill. -- With its name writ large in red cursive letters and lit by a neon glow, The Palamar Motel once beckoned countless travelers driving Downstate on The Mother Road. Now the "T" and half the "P" have fallen off, the faded pink motel room doors are bolted shut, and weeds fill the swimming pool to the rim.
But Gerald Hillyer remembers The Palamar's heyday, when Saturday night crowds jammed in to hear big bands swing the adjacent supper club where he tended bar.
"We're actually halfway between Chicago and Springfield, and a lot of the politicians would come in here," Hillyer, 77, recalled as he stood in the broken parking lot of the property his parents once owned. "It was a nice watering-hole break."
Like so many stops along Route 66, The Palamar has fallen into disrepair -- some say beyond any hope of renovation -- as nostalgic tourists from around the globe are fueling a renaissance of interest in the storied 2,400-mile route, which once connected Chicago to Los Angeles.
In particular, Route 66 motels, including a couple of dozen in Illinois, are having such a hard time that in June the National Trust for Historic Preservation collectively listed them among America's 11 most endangered historic places, an annual alarm about serious threats facing what the trust considers the nation's greatest treasures.
Some of the motels were decorated in flashy Art Deco style. Some had huge neon signs. Others were shaped like tepees or adobe homes -- anything to catch the eye of drivers speeding by. But a wide spectrum of problems is leading to their demise, including shabby maintenance, stiff competition from hotel chains and the temptation to demolish and redevelop.
Contrast that with other sites dotted along the old road such as Lou Mitchell's restaurant in Chicago and Dell Rhea's Chicken Basket in southwest suburban Willowbrook. Both were named in 2006 to the National Register of Historic Places, an honor that helps coordinate efforts to protect them.
Like all real estate, location is crucial. Lou Mitchell's and Dell Rhea's benefit from being in more populated areas long after the 1977 decertification of Route 66 and the construction of Interstate Highway 55, a development that speeded up travel times but left many old businesses behind.
Though Lou Mitchell's is a breakfast institution in the Loop, the Chicken Basket's location is not as ideal as it once was. It's in a thriving suburb, but what once was Route 66 is now an industrial side street, although you can spot the restaurant as you zoom by on I-55.
"The thing that keeps us going is the fact that we've been here 61 years, and we've got the best fried chicken you'll ever eat in your life," said owner Patrick Rhea, 53, whose parents bought the restaurant in 1963.
Some smaller buildings in rural areas, such as a 1932 Standard Oil gas station in Downstate Odell, also have been preserved as historic sites. But old motor lodges present trickier problems because they are larger and must continue to be viable businesses.
They often are a mile or so from the highway, while chain hotels -- such as the Comfort Inn, Holiday Inn Express and Super 8 in Pontiac -- are just off the exits. The homogenous dependability of brand-name fast-food restaurants and hotels dominates the highway travel experience. Though some travelers branch off to a diner for a sandwich or a drumstick, they are less likely to snuggle up in the sheets of a mysterious motel.
Plus, the independent motels don't have advertising budgets like the chains do -- and they are less cost-effective because they have fewer rooms. The days when families owned and staffed them have largely come and gone.
"It's proven to be a difficult fit to find that new generation of preservation-minded redevelopers," said Mike Jackson, chief architect with the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. "It's a unique set of challenges [for motels], and so far we've got more challenges than we've got successes."
Still, Daniel Carey, director of the National Trust's Southwest office, says such Route 66 motels could pool together to market themselves and upgrade to meet certain across-the-board standards of cleanliness and modernity. He compared such an effort to the trust's Main Street Program, which started to revitalize downtowns in 1977 by preserving their historic character while attracting new businesses.
"There are just scores of neat little communities along the way and in these neat little communities are these little gems, in some cases dusty gems, and they're worth exploring and trying," Carey said.
"Individually they are important, but collectively they're even more important because they embody the whole traveler experience. And to save one here and there is fine, but without the whole collection and the whole linear experience of one after another, then something is lost."
Route 66 aficionados say there is a market for "heritage travelers" seeking authentic experiences along the historic open road. Some successfully rehabilitated motels, such as the Munger Moss in Lebanon, Mo., and the Blue Swallow in Tucumcari, N.M., have been able to tap into that.
Tourist traffic has been coming through the Illinois stretch of the old Mother Road, too. Pontiac's Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum has attracted tourists from more than two dozen countries and 38 states since it opened three years ago.
"People come into the museum and want to know, 'Where is a good motel on Route 66?'" said Jim Jones, the museum's tour director. "They don't want the chains. They want one of these mom-and-pop motels."
Though such motels may hold collective value and potential, they each have problems, such as the flooded, moldy basement and caved-in ceilings in the supper club of The Palamar, which was constructed in 1940 and rebuilt after a 1967 fire.
One motel building on The Palamar's premises is still open for business, but the supper club and the other long-closed 22-room unit, with bird nests poking out from window air conditioners, are for sale for $325,000.
Frank Panno, the motel's real estate agent and a Pontiac city councilman for more than 40 years, describes its overall condition as "really pathetic."
But preservationists like Jackson still see a diamond in the rough.
"Here's this great vintage motel sitting there and waiting for the right buyer," he said. "It's very striking; it looks like it's in Las Vegas."
But some locals say it's a safe bet that it will end up a teardown.
"It's getting to the point where it might be dangerous now," said Pontiac Mayor Scott McCoy, who attended a high school prom at The Palamar in the 1980s. "It's a cool look. It's a neat place. It's that boundary between: Is it a tourist place, and how much is someone going to put in to bring it back to speed? And I believe we've passed that point."
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