Several decades ago, a newlywed couple — fresh from saying their vows — needed a quick room for the night as they were due to fly out the next morning for their honeymoon. This led to a random stop at the Golden West Motel on Aurora Avenue. The young groom parked their car, walked into the front office and inquired about availability.
The desk clerk — a rumpled fellow with a cigar in his mouth — responded with a question, “Do you want your room with or without?”
There was a long pause and finally the confused groom asked, “With or without…what?”
“With or without a girl,” was the curt reply.
This prompted a swift and immediate departure for the young couple, who were successfully able to find more reputable accommodations closer to the airport.
That story was told to me many years ago and perfectly sums up the long and sordid history of all the cheap motels situated along Aurora Avenue — one of the area’s most notorious stretches of roadway. On any given day, a drive down the century-old highway often provides some rather interesting roadside theater, with the motels often serving as visual backdrops.
Such has always been the case for Highway 99, beginning with all its roadhouses — the area’s original citadels of sin — which first started dotting the newly constructed road in the 1920s. Joining these forbidden nightclubs were several other roadside businesses, including the highway’s first generation of motels. This was during the birth of car culture — a romantic time when traveling in an automobile held the promise of fun and adventure, and many overnight inns sprang up along Aurora Avenue to cater to these new travelers.
The second wave of motels were built in the late 1950s in anticipation of the upcoming Seattle World’s Fair. Interstate 5 was still a decade away, so a flurry of new motels were built along Highway 99 (Seattle’s primary north-south arterial at the time) to accommodate all the expected World’s Fair visitors that would soon be descending upon the city.
The Golden West, known for its iconic neon sign, falls into this latter category. Built on the Edmonds stretch of Aurora Avenue in 1959, stories about the infamous motel began circulating from the moment it opened. Such unsavory rumors were confirmed a year later when it was announced that the Snohomish County Sheriff was facing a grand jury indictment due to accepting bribes and willful neglect of duty. Specifically, he was charged with “knowingly, without making a complaint and without making an arrest, permitting the keeping of a house of prostitution.” At the heart of the scandal was the Golden West Motel. The sheriff was later found guilty and deposed from office.
The toppling of the disgraced lawman would merely serve as the first of many dubious chapters for the Golden West. In 1992, officers from the South Snohomish County narcotics task force arrested eight people for possession and distribution of crack cocaine at the motel. That same year, a small group suspected of having ties to the Russian mafia were arrested at the motel and charged with defrauding local banks and merchants of more than $60,000. There was also the time that a local nonprofit agency, tasked with finding temporary housing for families in need, pulled all its clients out of the Golden West after one of their case managers was assaulted there.
Unsurprisingly, the Golden West’s track record is not much different than most of its overnight brethren. In fact, it was recently reported that the Seattle Police Department issued Chronic Nuisance Declaration letters to two Aurora Avenue motels — the Emerald Motel and the Seattle Inn — accusing them of “fostering and contributing to an environment of criminal activity.” This was on the heels of two people being arrested at the Seattle Inn due to human trafficking. The declaration required the motel owners to eliminate all illegal activities and safety concerns or be shut down. Judging from the closed signs at both establishments, it seems apparent that the letter’s instructions were not too wisely heeded.
While many of these motels seem to serve no apparent purpose other than being hotbeds of crime, some have inadvertently stumbled into being landmark destinations. Consider the Marco Polo — a no-frills motel that was built just prior to the World’s Fair. In 1994, it became a footnote in rock history as being one of the last places that Kurt Cobain was seen alive. In fact, during his later years, the Nirvana frontman would visit the motel often, famously staying in Room 226 for days at a time when he wanted to escape the pressures of rock stardom. Today, the motel and its famous room is a popular stop for music fans and grunge enthusiasts wanting to visit some of the city’s more off-the-beaten-path tourist spots.
There is also the bittersweet fate of the historic Klose-In Motel — one of the original Highway 99 motels. Built in 1930, the notorious North Seattle establishment was home to a bevy of criminal enterprises over the decades, including everything from meth labs to check fraud businesses. However, the Klose-In’s instantly recognizable clock sign was considered a local landmark and made several popular media appearances, including in Macklemore’s “White Walls” music video. In 2014, a natural gas explosion closed the place down for good and it was later demolished. Fortunately, the historic neon sign was saved and sent to Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry, where it underwent a complete restoration. The fact that one of Seattle’s top museums took such careful stewardship of the sign is a testimony to its historical significance.
Over the years, several other Aurora Avenue motels have been closed for various reasons, though the buildings themselves were repurposed into new businesses. The Georgian Motel, for instance, now operates as an apartment complex, while others have been gutted and reconfigured into various types of stores. Architectural preservation such as this helps maintain the highway’s unique character that is seen in other iconic markers such as the neon Puetz Golf Range sign, the concrete elephant that sits atop Aurora Rents, and the original Burgermaster drive-in restaurant which first opened in 1963. These are some of the last remnants from a bygone era.
Overall, the future of these motels — imperiled by the combined forces of urban development and law enforcement — remains uncertain. Despite decades of bad conduct, these motels and their radiant, mid-century signs remain an important part of Aurora Avenue’s legacy and represent a time when the local highway served as the city’s Route 66.
–By Brad Holden
A 25-year Edmonds resident, Brad Holden is a columnist for Seattle Magazine, is a contributing writer for HistoryLink.org (an online encyclopedia of Washington state history) and his work has also appeared in the Seattle Times. Holden has been profiled on KIRO and KOMO news, Seattle Refined, NPR, KING 5 Evening! and various publications. Holden’s trilogy of books related to local Prohibition history — including his latest book, Lost Roadhouses of Seattle — are available online and at bookstores.