The Rise and Fall of the Atomic Era Architecture Called Googie

Aaron Gilbreath
34 min readJan 5, 2020

Searching for history, beauty, and my future on my desert city’s street of broken dreams.

City Center Motel, Van Burren Avenue and 6th Ave, 2007. Photo by author.

By the time I recognized their gaudy beauty in 1995, the 1950s and ’60s motels along Van Buren Street had largely turned into rent-by-the-hour sex dens and the haunts of drug users. Those buildings that had ceased operation sat fenced and boarded up, colonized by squatters and pigeons, pending future demolition. In the thirty years since its heyday, Phoenix, Arizona’s “Motel Row” had degenerated from class to kitsch, and finally into one of my hometown’s most crime-ridden corridors, a parched vacation-land graveyard desiccating in the same desert sunlight that once drew its customers. I wanted to photograph the vernacular architecture before the ’dozers arrived: the funky fonts, Polynesian huts, upswept flying-to-the-moon roofs and signs that said “Coffee Shop” in baby blue. I’d already shot the fronts of maybe ten motels, both functioning and condemned, and had collected from local antique stores all the vintage postcards featuring their images. The time had come to venture inside. So I jumped the fence one morning at the condemned Newton’s Inn and Prime Rib.

I was cornered by the time I heard claws on the pool deck. I spun around from the boarded office window I was about to photograph and there it was: a Dalmatian crouched seven feet in front of me, ready to pounce. The dog inched closer, barking and growling and showing its teeth. It trapped me by what used to be the door to the front desk. Weathered boards covered the windows behind me. A cyan-and-orange row of rooms stretched to my right. In front of me the kidney-shaped pool, black water stiffening in the bottom, palm fronds and pigeon parts floating atop its skin. To escape, I’d have to hustle past the pool toward the gap in the brick fence where I’d entered — some sixty feet away — then cross the forty feet of naked dirt between it and the two fences I’d jumped. This dog would overtake me in the open. I imagined its jaws clamping on my ankles, lashing its head from side-to-side like a feeding crocodile while gnawing them to a grizzly pâté of bloody socks and tendons. I shifted to the right to put the pool between us. It scrambled to meet me on the other side, snarling.

Aaron Gilbreath

Essayist, Journalist, Burritoist. Longreads Editor. Writing: Harper’s, NYT, Slate, Paris Review, VQR, Oxford American, Kenyon Review. 3 nonfiction books.