The Motel Safari opened in 1959, designed and built by Chester Dohrer, an independent motel developer, using an architectural style known today as 'Googie' or 'Doo Wop.' Many of the original design elements are still very evident today, including the quirky geometric sign, oozing brick mortar and counter stacked bricks in the facade, square holes in the cinder block structures, and the metal cylinders with perforations that light up at night.
The Motel Safari derives its name from the words Motel, meaning 'motor hotel,' and Safari, meaning 'a long journey.' In other words, a motor hotel where you can park your vehicle near your room after a long journey on the open road.
After the Dohrers' brief initial ownership, the Motel Safari was lovingly owned and operated for many years by Ronald and Arlene Frey. They amazingly raised five children on the property while also establishing the motel as one of Tucumcari's most popular. Upon their retirement, other owners followed... some good, some not so much. By the mid-2000s, the motel, like many others on 66, had fallen into great disrepair due to neglect and bad management and was on the brink of fading away into memories of what used to be.
Fortunately, the Motel Safari was saved when Richard & Gail Talley purchased the property in 2007 and began intensive renovation and restoration efforts. With their combined hotel experience and design expertise, they integrated top-of-the-line modern amenities into the room's original dècor without sacrificing its historic appearance. In each of the standard guest rooms, artwork of original photo archives from Tucumcari's Route 66 heyday is displayed, along with old linen postcard prints of local motels that are sadly no longer standing. Much of the furniture are original mid-century modern pieces custom created onsite during the motel's construction in the late 1950s. Newer pieces were carefully selected to complement this decor.
The Motel Safari is also home to two of the most unique and luxurious suites on 66. The Rockabilly Suite honors the legendary Queen of Rockabilly, Wanda Jackson, the room's inaugural guest, and features a variety of memorabilia from renowned musicians who've also stayed at the motel over the years, including Lee Rocker, Wayne Hancock, Jonathan Richman, Jess McEntire, Deke Dickerson, Lance Lipinsky, Heidi Swedberg, Daniel Ward, and more. The Rawhide Suite, meanwhile, pays tribute to the classic western TV series, Rawhide, several episodes of which were filmed near Tucumcari. The show starred Eric Fleming, an up-and-comer named Clint Eastwood, and Tucumcari's own Paul Brinegar as Wishbone. The suite is filled with show-related photography and authentic western decor. You won't find suites like these anywhere else on the Mother Road!
The exterior also received a complete refresh with a period-appropriate color palette that accentuated the motel's unique architectural features. A fun boomerang design was added to doors and the drive-up area. Several wall murals were also created by regional artists Doug & Sharon Quarles, including Elvis Presley emerging from his 1959 Cadillac ready to check in with suitcase in hand. Another favorite is a 1950s Santa Fe Trailways Flexible Clipper tour bus with 'Tucumcari Tonite' as its destination. Murals paying tribute to Tucumcari and the Mother Road can also be found, as well as a humorous assortment of vintage advertising billboards on the patio, including a particularly funny one for Camel Cigarettes (of course). When the Talleys decided to retire after ten years, they left behind a motel that was arguably even cooler than it was in its 1960s heyday.
Current owner Larry Smith bought the property in summer 2017, moving from his Tennessee home and leaving behind a soul-sucking corporate job to follow his dream of running and preserving a Route 66 business. Like the Talleys, he is a big Mother Road enthusiast and is excited to be part of the larger 66 community. Carrying the torch onward, Larry has already built on the Talleys' big success with new murals, the opening of two new guest rooms, a custom patio fire pit, and the addition of Clyde Jr, a vintage, near life-size camel in the lobby. Coming soon are a guest vending room and the long-awaited relighting of Clyde the Camel atop the Motel Safari sign.
Many of the motel's owners, past and present, have considered themselves humble stewards of this authentic yet long under-appreciated Route 66 classic. It is the sincere hope of the current owner and his staff that guests enjoy and find as much pleasure in this special piece of Americana as they do. Discover for yourself this hidden gem of a motel the next time you visit Tucumcari on Historic Route 66. You'll be happy you did!