|By Stacy Downs is a writer for The Star.
To comment, The Kansas City Star, Mo.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
June 25, 2010 -- (From August 12, 2007)
Step into the lobby of this painted-white brick motel on Metcalf Avenue and be whisked back to 1957, the year the White Haven Motor Lodge opened for business on what everyone then called Highway 69 -- before there was a city of Overland Park.
Check in for the night -- fill out the same registration card that lodgers used when they stayed here in '57. Then stroll through the U-shaped complex, past the gold-tipped wrought-iron fences and coral-cushion cabana chairs that surround the swimming pool, to your room, Suite 122.
Diamond-paned, leaded-glass windows and black-and-white crest accents with a "W" greet you. Unlock the door with a key on a brass ring and find burnt-orange flocked walls, an elaborate headboard and gilded mirrors.
As dusk settles, the '50s-era neon sign on Metcalf blinks through your window, illuminating two red words in capital letters: NO VACANCY.
It certainly is a throwback, especially when you consider that lodgers these days seem to prefer the comfortable sameness of chain hotels and their convenience to major highways.
So how has this anachronism thrived all this time? It might be because of the White family, owners and proprietors for the entire 50 years, though their tenure might be coming to an end as Overland Park revitalizes its downtown.
A $20 million community center is opening this month across the street from White Haven. The city has invested $1.1 million in consulting fees to beautify Metcalf Avenue, especially from 75th to 83rd streets. Developers have been knocking at White Haven's door, where the block the motel sits upon is worth more than a million dollars, city officials speculate.
"It might be time to sell," says owner Esther White. "It hurts me to even talk about it, because the time we've spent together as a family has been wonderful, and we have the finest customers I could think of. But there have been so many deaths in the family this year, and it's down to Gene and I as the ones who come here seven days a week."
Sheila Berry was 5 when her grandparents, Hugh and Mary White, opened the motel as an easy retirement job. The couple got the idea from friends who opened motels in small towns and turned nice profits. Bob, the couple's oldest son and Sheila's father, had already built a subdivision of ranch houses, called White Haven Estates, down the road at 85th and Metcalf, so he built the motel, too.
White Haven Motor Lodge opened in 1957 with 33 rooms but soon became more than a retirement job. The whole White family worked as they added a pool and more than doubled the number of rooms.
Sheila started cleaning rooms when she was a little girl. Once she showed up to work grumpy, and her father, Bob, sent her home. Working at a motel means leaving your problems at home, he said. Be sunny even when it's raining.
For years she's answered the phone -- there is no voice-mail system. She writes reservations on paper, not on computer.
At 9 a.m. on a Friday, mother Esther and daughter Sheila -- both wearing voluminous blond hairdos, scramble behind the front desk. White Haven is booked, no more reservations for today.
"Did you put the machine in 69?" asks Sheila of her 24-year-old nephew Ryan White. It's a smoking room and a nonsmoker wants it, so it needs an air purifier. "Did you take care of the doughnuts?" asks Esther of her grandson.
The motel buys doughnuts from John's Space Age Donuts across Metcalf, a family business that opened when White Haven was 10 years old. The motel features them with a continental breakfast: Free coffee; doughnuts, five cents.
Mother and daughter address both male and female guests as "honey" or "darling." Both wear cotton T-shirts dotted with tiny rhinestones. Even their eyeglasses look the same.
"Some people honestly think we're sisters," says Sheila.
"I tell everyone we grew up together," says Esther. "I had her nine months and one week after I was married. She made me a grandmother when I was 40."
'...loved this place...'
Both women endured heartbreak this year.
Esther's son and Sheila's brother, Mark White, 46, died in March after a brief illness. Years ago he fell 24 feet off a ladder while working on the motel roof, crushing his heels. He used a wheelchair for a while, then forced himself to walk. Mark had ordered the motel's supplies and created computer graphics. Like his parents and siblings, he put his soul into the White Haven.
In June, Esther's husband and Sheila's father, Bob White, died after suffering from Alzheimer's for more than a decade.
"After he couldn't drive anymore, he'd walk to work to get here when he physically could," Esther says smiling. "He loved this place, and he loved helping people."
The motel has regular customers and really regular customers. Steve Burnett has called White Haven home for 10 years.
Burnett divides his time among White Haven, his parents' home in Halstead, Kan., and hotels across the country. He works in risk management for an insurance company based in Overland Park.
"I like it better than renting an apartment or house," says Burnett, a 53-year-old bachelor. "I don't have to clean. I guess you can call me low-class royalty or high-class homeless."
Burnett always had been intrigued by White Haven's old-school-Vegas sign and the statues that greet guests at the entrance. One day he decided to check in. Now he rents any room that's available.
"I've been everywhere across the country, including luxury hotels," he says. "What I like is that this is a $50-a-night place, but a higher class of people stay here. You can tell by the cars, the Lexuses, Cadillacs and Infinitis."Family reunions, weddings and funerals also fill the place. D.W. Newcomer's Sons Funeral Home is within walking distance. Church groups have longstanding relationships. Selex, the Overland Park company that makes navigational instruments for airport runways, books rooms for about 100 international students each year, says Ruth Charpie, the company's executive assistant for programs.
Guests also have included a steady stream of men going through divorces. White Haven includes three houses and five apartments, all furnished, in back of the main complex.
On the flip side, it's been the site of many honeymoons. Gary and Marilyn Keller of Shawnee spent theirs at the White Haven on Jan. 14, 1961.
"We haven't been back since, but it's so nice to drive by it and see the 'NO VACANCY' sign on," says Gary. "Back when we stayed, there wasn't much else around. It was way out in the country."
Behind the scenes
The youngest son of Hugh and Mary White, Gene White, maintains White Haven's interiors.
"I definitely don't like places with beige walls, beige carpeting, beige drapes and beige bedspreads," says 69-year-old Gene, who has a shock of orange-blond hair and glasses.
Rooms at White Haven are a melange. Most feature filigreed wallpaper and oil landscapes in ornate frames. Drapes, bedspreads and carpeting are elaborately patterned. Gene went through his tassel period, so tassels accessorize many rooms.
He has his sources: J.C. Penney Outlet for comforters and mattresses, Hobby Lobby for lamps and Home Fabrics & Rugs for elaborate drapery fabric. He'll buy curtain rods and other spare finds and store them in the basement so he can replace pieces as needed. The family has never closed rooms to do a major overhaul.
"We couldn't afford a million dollars to change everything," says Gene. "So because we do things bit by bit, the place never seems to change much."
Rob White makes sure White Haven stays the same. He fixes everything at the motel except the heating and cooling equipment, which require permits.
Rob gets started early in the morning like his Uncle Gene and like his dad, Bob.
"Dad always said the world's over at 8 a.m."
And like his dad, who would clean off guests' snowy windshields before they woke up, he never wants anyone to be uncomfortable.
"Rob's the one we call in the middle of the night when something breaks down in our own homes or the motel," says his sister, Sheila. "He's Good Neighbor Sam."
Rob planned to start his own plumbing business, earning a master plumbing certificate. But White Haven needed him more, especially after his dad became ill. So he's welded the motel's metal stairs, trimmed trees, repaired curbs and mended furniture. He even fixes guests' cars when they break down.
"If he doesn't know how to do something, he'll get on the computer and study it and figure it out," says Steve Joseph, an industrial veterinarian and frequent guest who lives in Council Grove, Kan. Rob helped him fix his BMW. "He's the problem solver."
Esther and Sheila finish each other's sentences.
"Is that man out there by the pool wearing something under his towel?" Esther mutters. Sheila runs outside to talk to the guest and scope out the situation. She returns shortly. "Oh, yeah, he's fine."
They laugh riotously.
"Good," says Esther. "This isn't that type of place."
The frenetic pace of White Haven has helped the family cope with Mark's and Bob's deaths. If they do sell, they want to make sure the 35-foot neon sign out front goes to a local museum.
"This is one of our stars," says Mike Welch, co-owner of Welch Sign Co. in Merriam, who's maintained the porcelain and iron sign for years. "Most cities have outlawed giant signs that make a colorful splash with a lot of razzle-dazzle. It's in good condition, the last of its kind."
This year Overland Park residents oohed and aahed when they saw a picture of the White Haven sign in a slideshow, a survey that's part of the city's beautification of Metcalf Avenue. But when it came to actually rating the sign, they were split down the middle: They either hated or loved it.
"We preliminarily recommend that it's something the city keep," says Andrew Svekla, assistant planner at A. Nelessen Associates, the Belle Mead, N.J., consultants who conducted the survey. They stayed at White Haven and enjoyed the experience, including the sign, one of Overland Park's most recognizable landmarks.
For now the motel sign flashes "NO VACANCY" about half the time. But soon, if developers get their way, there will be a vacancy -- and the White Haven Motor Lodge will be gone.
WHERE THE NAME COMES FROM
No, the motel is not named for a neo-Nazi splinter group in suburbia -- it's named after the White family. Four generations have worked there, more than two dozen Whites in all.
Hugh and Mary White started the motor lodge in 1957 after operating Wolverine Dairy on the land. Their sons Bob and Joe built it. All four are dead.
Family members who work there now: Hugh and Mary's son Gene; Bob's wife, Esther; Bob and Esther's daughter, Sheila Berry, and her brother, Rob. Bob and Esther's son, Mark, worked at the White Haven until he died earlier this year. Mark's son, Ryan, currently works there.
Hugh and Mary's daughter, Louise Foster, still works on Saturdays with her daughter, Chris.
Family who once worked there:
Louise Foster's children Kent, Denise, Hugh and Jean
Joe White's daughters Marsha, Lisa and Bridget
Gene White's wife, Ursula; their daughters Erica, Angela and Monica; and their son Alex
Sheila Berry's son, Chris
Rob White's son, Jake
Erica White's son, Brandon Garrett
THE FEW, THE PROUD
Since 1960 the U.S. Marines, both retired and off-duty, watch White Haven at night.
Bob White read an ad in a newspaper that said Marines were available for part-time work. White thought they were a perfect fit, a way to make travelers feel safer and give the White family some relief.
Medically discharged Marine Sgt. Bud Morgan is in charge of night scheduling. He addresses guests as "sir" and "ma'am." He's 6-feet-2, weighs 230 pounds, has closely cropped hair and reports little action in his tour of duty at the White Haven.
"Kids under 21 try to rent the rooms," the 43-year-old Morgan says. "It's against the law in Johnson County, so I ask them to leave."
Sixty-year-old Walter "Pete" Peterson, a retired Marine gunnery sergeant who works for the Department of Defense, has worked part time at White Haven since 1988. And he's become close with the Whites. He sold Bob White a 1939 Jaguar, then bought it back after Bob died.
"To know them is to become part of their family," Peterson says. "Sheila and Esther could run any corporation because of the way they've run the White Haven."
Letters and greeting cards from guests:
"Our room was comfortable, roomy, pretty and convenient. Besides, you two are efficient and friendly. When we plan another trip to Kansas City, we shall call you for reservations. Hopefully, you will have them!"
Leona Baker, postmarked El Paso, Texas, August 1982
"I received my earrings yesterday. Thank you for sending them. We look forward to our stay with you in December."
Rita Skaggs, postmarked Topeka, Kan., October 1985
"The room was great and the lady who cleaned it did a terrific job Â… it's nice to see that some places still keep their pop at regular prices."
Amy Middleton, St. Joseph, Mo., December 1988
"We wanted to thank you for shuffling things around to ensure that we had a room each day, even on days when we know you were booked in advance."
Linda Holland, Towson, Md., November 1998
"To Sheila and Esther and two chamber maids: Very many thanks for all your efforts to help us have a lovely holiday."
The Patersons, Yorkshire, England, 2006
Operators of White Haven flipped the "NO VACANCY" switch almost every night through the late 1980s. That's before more hotels were built nearby and they got a smaller slice of the pie.
White Haven also filled up when the Future Farmers of America convention and NCAA basketball tournaments were held in Kansas City.
The owners now say they're full a little more than half the time. Here are the events that fill up the motel:
<>Royals at home versus the Cardinals or Yankees>
<>NASCAR weekends >
<>><>Chiefs home games>
<>University of Kansas graduation ><>>
<>Annual antique shows>
<>Merchandise gift marts>
WHITE HAVEN MOTOR LODGE
8039 Metcalf Ave., Overland Park
Units: 77, including rooms, suites, furnished apartments and houses
Single room: $51 per night
Two-room suite: $92 per night
Amenities: Air conditioning, cable television, refrigerators and data ports in rooms. For 50 years it's had continental breakfast in the lounge. There's a 9-foot-deep swimming pool in front and a gazebo in back. The motel is next door to a Sonic drive-in and is within walking distance to downtown Overland Park, featuring the farmers market.
Guests served in 50 years: More than 900,000
--Stacy Downs is a writer for The Star. To comment, call 816-234-4780 or send e-mail to email@example.com.
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