ONARCHITECTURE- Terminal vacancy: The Airport Motel finally checks out
The long abandoned Airport Motel will finally be demolished to make way for a Walgreen's.PHOTO BY WILL WALKER
In the mid-1990s, local film maker Alexandria Searls shot her short film American Motel– which tells the story of a young woman seeking advice and guidance from people staying at a motel– at the Mount Vernon Motor Lodge ( where the Best Buy is now) because it was the only motel in the area that would allow her to film.
"The Mount Vernon was a nice motel– the kind with a pancake house and huge candy, and the rooms were clean," says Searls. "The less nice places wouldn't give me permission to film– suffice to say, they don't exist anymore either."
Searls says she chose the motel as a setting "to make the metaphor of America as a giant motel... everyone always moving, living in new places."
Now it appears another old motel is about to vanish– the long-shuttered Airport Motel on 29 north, right across from Airport Road. A $50,000 demo project will soon be under way, taking out the old Mercer Quality Rugs & Carpet building too, according to County records. Indeed, a representative from Walgreen's says one of the company's drive-thru pharmacies should occupy the site by June 2008. Laird Development of Knoxville is the developer.
For as long as many can remember, the old motel and its vintage signs have been frozen in time, like other area motels demolished to make way for new development– the Town & Country Motel and the White House Motel on Pantops, and the Skyline Motel on Afton Mountain all come to mind. Indeed, architectural historian Christine Madrid French, who finds herself fascinated by these vintage motels, believes the Airport Motel has been closed since at least 1996, when she first noticed it.
French says that motels like these were popular in the '50s, '60s, and '70s, as tourists traveled around the county on cheap gas visiting popular places like the Blue Ridge Mountains and Monticello. But by the mid-'80s, after the gas crunch, and as the motels started to age, they began falling into disrepair. Remarkably, many of them were able to hobble along for another 10 years or so, but French says they've been rapidly disappearing. If fact, French is surprised that the Airport Motel was able to avoid the wrecking ball for so long.
According to County police Lieutenant John Teixeira, the old building has been a nuisance at least since 2001.
"In the past six years we've had 21 calls," he says. "Abandoned cars, a mental patient staying there, 911 hang ups from a working pay phone that was there... we've definitely had our share of calls up there."
Unfortunately, the history of the motel and why it has been abandoned for so long remains a mystery.
"Sadly, many of these old motels are not documented," says preservation activist Steven Meeks. According to Virginia Department of Historic Resources records, the motel was built in 1930 (the property consists of the motel, a separate dwelling, and an office building) and may have adopted its name when the Charlottesville/Albemarle airport opened in 1954. French says she discovered an old post card of the motel that listed "Mr. Neely" as the owner and operator, but neither she nor The Hook were able to find him.
According to County records, the property was purchased in 1969 by Richmond carpet king George R. Mercer Sr, and transfered to his son, George Jr., after his death.
Mercer Jr. and his family have been in the news recently, thanks to his oldest daughter, Tinsley Mercer Mortimer, 32, who was dubbed New York's top socialite by the New York Post last year ["The Socialist: Famous for nothing, Ready for anything: How Tinsley Mortimer Became N.Y.C's New Society Queen"]. More recently, on October 21, the New York Times featured a fashion piece on Tinsley and her husband, Topper Mortimer, 32, an heir to the Standard Oil fortune, who criticized his wife's Paris Hiltonesque lifestyle.
However, according to a 2006 story in Richmond's Style Weekly, Mercer is as concerned about his family's status as his daughter. When New York Daily News gossip columnist Lloyd Grove wrote that Tinsley "rose from humble beginnings in Richmond, Va., and bagged Standard Oil heir Topper Mortimer as a husband in 2002," Mercer shot back.
"To refer to her as having humble beginnings... is totally inaccurate," he wrote to Grove. "We're in the [Social] Register. Her ancestor is Thomas Jefferson. She was raised in the biggest home in central Virginia. We had a nanny, two gardeners, and a butler. She was selected to lead the Southern debutante figure... We have a lot more money than the Mortimers. They only got that Standard Oil by marriage."
Apparently, though, there was not enough money to fix up the Airport Motel or keep their carpet store open. Or perhaps there was so much money that they could afford to ignore the property.
A reporter with Style Weekly provided a long-time phone number for Mercer, but the number has been disconnected without a forwarding number. According to various news reports, Mercer now lives in Palm Beach. However, a carpet merchant in Richmond we spoke to, who competes with the Mercers, floated the theory that the family business fell into disarray when Mercer Sr. passed away, which may have led to the closing of the Charlottesville store and neglect of the motel.
Even Bill Pahuta, Charlottesville/Albemarle Airport's director of operations, says he can't recall exactly when the motel opened or closed or who ran it. "I've been here for 30 years, and I don't ever recall it being a very popular motel. I remember a few workers at the airport staying there, but that's it."
A vintage post card of the demolished White House Motel on Pantops was recently offered on eBay.
The Airport Motel circa 1984. According to historic record, the property was first developed in 1930.
VIRGINIA DEPARTMENT OF HISTORIC RESOURCES
The Airport Motel vintage neon sign with the old Mercer's Carpet store in the background.
PHOTO BY WILL WALKER
Old sign advertising newly decorated rooms. New sign advertising new court clerk hopeful.
PHOTO BY WILL WALKER
Some rooms at the motel appear to be frozen in time....
PHOTO BY WILL WALKER
Others have that 'lived in" look.
PHOTO BY WILL WALKER