When it comes to traveler accommodations, there are two main trends we see today. The first is blandness. The market is dominated by large chains run by faceless corporations which strive to provide the same experience no matter where you are staying. Individuality is shelved in favor of standardization.
The second trend it towards modern. “Newly renovated” scream the illuminated signs which dot the highways and byways of North America. Customers demand that their rooms have new carpet, flat screen TVs, the latest and greatest bathroom fixtures. Somehow we have become conditioned to believe that using a robin egg blue sink made in 1972 doesn’t provide the same quality of life that a gleaming white fixture made in 2010 does.
It is difficult to find a motel which not only bucks against these trends but actually embraces its history. The O’Haire Motor Inn in Great Falls is just such a standout.
I don’t recall where I first heard about the O’Haire or, more specifically, the Sip ‘n Dip Lounge it houses but undoubtedly it was from one of the many vintage/quirky/offbeat roadside attraction blogs I follow. Regardless of where the seed of an idea sprouted, it soon grew into a full-fledged travel bucket list item.
Emily and I needed to make a trip down the US border so she could complete her immigration landing process and officially become a permanent resident of Canada. That was all the reason we needed to drive a couple extra hours to Great Falls so we could finally take in these quintessential kitschy attractions.
But the real story of the O’Haire starts just south of the Canada/USA border in the small Montana town of Shelby. It was here in the early 1950’s where Edgar O’Haire started his legacy of motel ownership.
Edgar O’Haire worked in construction and one winter he decided to build a motel as a way of keeping his crews busy through the slow winter season. That motel must have caused quite a stir in the little town of Shelby all those years ago, as evidenced by the towering sign crossing Maple Avenue at Main Street which beckons to travelers. The sign is so dominant that one doesn’t expect to find the actual motel a full two blocks away. The road behind the motel is even named O’Haire Boulevard!
Since Emily and I normally stop in Shelby anyway — it’s our last chance to buy cheap US gasoline — it was an easy decision to search out this original O’Haire Manor Motel on our way home.
Photos courtesy of Emily J. Overes, used with permission.
Now, for the newer Great Falls version of the O’Haire…
Edgar O’Haire took everything he learned from ten years of running the motel in Shelby and decided to apply it to a motel in Great Falls. Working with his brother Bill, they set out to build a motel which featured a number of unique innovations and construction details. Construction started in 1961 and by the Spring of 1962, the motel was ready for its first guests.
The walls were made of cinder blocks filled with sand. This made the rooms extremely soundproof and also gave the motel a measure of fire resistance that few others could rival. The building was also constructed with a helicopter landing pad on its roof!
The motel is also unique in two other manners: the central parking lot is located indoors so guests do not need to go outside to go between their car, their room, and the lobby, restaurant, and lounge. When it comes to Montana in the winter, the importance of this idea should not be overlooked.
Also featured prominently is the indoor swimming pool on the third level. The pool has a transparent window built into it which allows patrons in the second floor lounge to watch the people swimming. I’ll talk about that a bit more when we get to the Sip ‘n Dip section of this post.
Now, with all this buildup in our minds, we must admit the motel was a bit of a letdown when we first drove up. All of the awesome retro signage which we had seen online in various historical photos of the property has been replaced. From the outside, the motel doesn’t really offer any hint as to the vintage wonder waiting inside.
The first hint that you are seeing something out of the ordinary is at the front desk, where a large control panel filled with lights shows the status of each room. Amber indicates the room is clean and available, green indicates the room has been rented and is occupied, red shows the checkout is incomplete / room needs to be cleaned, and blue indicates a holdover guest — at least based on the documentation I found and our personal experience.
Coming from the indoor parking area into the hallway reveals a set of four lights outside each room, corresponding to that room’s status on the main board at the front desk. This allows the housekeeping staff to have “at a glance” details about which rooms need attention and which rooms do not. It was a brilliant idea and there is a sense of satisfaction in seeing something so simple in design still functional five decades later, although I am sure it was not simple to implement in 1961.
The room itself was nicely furnished and mostly pretty modern looking as the motel does mention they were updated in 2009. There are a couple of things besides the vintage cowboy artwork over the bed that reveal its true age, however.
The first is the push-button light switch just inside the door. Four buttons are clearly marked as Entry, Vanity, Bed, and Desk, and pushing one turns on the light in the corresponding section of the room. Each of those areas have their own similar switch, making it easy to control the lights from anywhere in the room. The buttons provide both tactile and audible feedback as they perform their function with a satisfying “clunk”.
The second awesome retro touch in the room is the fold-down ironing board hidden behind the mirror, made by the Iron-A-Way Company of Peoria, Illinois. When Emily pulled open the mirror and brought the ironing board down to reveal this vintage wonder, I think we both audibly gasped and then let out a series of incoherent sounds of pure joy. I am so happy the ironing board survived the updating of the rooms. If the motel owners ever make the mistake of tearing these out, I will drive down to Montana and buy one for our house — honest!
After a meal at Clark and Lewie’s, the motel restaurant, it was time for us to wander up to the second floor to check out the Sip ‘n Dip Lounge. This place is likely worthy of its own post, but I’ll combine it with this one.
The Sip ‘n Dip started life as a art deco lounge, but in 1965 it was converted to a tiki bar, which is the theme it maintains to this very day. There are two main attractions to the lounge. First, there is Piano Pat, who has been playing this venue almost since it opened. She’s now in her 80s and doesn’t play on Saturday nights so we didn’t get to see her perform but we will better plan our next visit so we can see her in person.
The other is the aforementioned window to the swimming pool which allows people seated at the bar and nearby table the opportunity to watch people swim and, on certain nights, see the mermaids. The mermaids are apparently a relatively new addition to the Sip ‘n Dip legend, starting as a New Year’s Eve promotion in the mid-90s but they have become a very popular attraction. They were performing on our Saturday evening so we got to experience seeing them (well, at least one) while we were there.
Everyone we met during our short stay was really friendly, whether it was the staff at the front desk, in the restaurant, or in the lounge. We really felt welcome and it was a pleasure to get the opportunity to check out this unique piece of Americana. We can’t wait for a return visit one day!
Hammond, Robert P. “How to Build Business with A Whirly-Bird Pad.” Tourist Court Journal, February 1966, Pages 14-19. Retrieved from http://ohairemotorinn.com/history/ on January 12, 2016.
Information Binder from O’Haire Motor Inn motel room. January 10, 2016