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The former glory of the Bel-Aire Motel May 31, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in History, Motels.
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The historic Bel-Aire Motel in Springfield, Illinois, is known for its retro neon sign and Sputnik structure on the roof. It’s also known for hundreds of code violations and criminal activity by many of its tenants.

It didn’t used to be the latter. Columnist Dave Bakke of the Springfield State Journal-Register spoke to the daughter of one of the Route 66 motel’s owners, long before the Bel-Aire became an eyesore and a problem for the city.

Sandra Brunner’s father, Charles Ciesler, built the motel. The newspaper’s story focuses on her regret of the motel’s decline after it was sold, but it also serves as a history.

Tidbits from the article:

  • No one seems certain when the motel was built, but city directories and the family’s memories narrow it down to 1949 or 1950.
  • The Bel-Aire started as a small bunch of cabins and grew from there.
  • Ciesler at one point during the mid-1960s planned to convert the Bel-Aire into an six-story motel with a restaurant, tavern, and convention space. Why the plans never came to fruition isn’t known.
  • Brunner and her cousin, Chuck Ciesler, said they saw the property decline almost immediately after Gopal Motwani of Florida bought it in 1986. Chuck Ciesler said Motwani laid off many of the housekeepers about two weeks after he took possession.
  • The city and a court ordered the motel closed in 1995 because of varying code violations. Somehow, it was allowed to reopen after a few improvements and repairs were made.

The city at one point floated the idea to buy the property and convert it into a Route 66 tourism center or museum. But the city lacked the money. And Mayor Timothy Davlin, who championed the idea, committed suicide in 2010.

Despite more than $100,000 in fines and countless other problems over the years, Motwani continues to hold on to the motel as it continues to deteriorate. Bakke writes:

What does a person have to do to be shut down, their property condemned or be hauled into court? Motwani’s Bel-Aire is as hard to kill as its cockroaches. So you can expect to read the same story again in the future.

There must be some financial advantage to owning a place like this. I’m just not savvy enough to know what it could be.

But really, how toothless are Springfield’s ordinances to allow this situation to fester for so long? It’s nuts. I feel bad for the Ciesler family, and I feel embarrassed for Springfield.

(Images of the Bel-Aire Motel courtesy of 66Postcards.com)

Grand Canyon Railway bringing out steam engine for Father’s Day weekend May 31, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Events, Preservation, Railroad.
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The Grand Canyon Railway, based in the Route 66 town of Williams, Arizona, will bring back a 1923 steam locomotive and Pullman cars for special displays and excursions on Father’s Day weekend, June 14-15.

It’s part of the railroad’s first Williams Train Days festival, which, according to the news release, will have other goodies that many Route 66 fans will like:

This historic operating railroad is firing up its 1923 steam engine for the occasion and pulling out rarely seen equipment, rolling-stock and memorabilia. To complement the glory days of rail travel, vintage and classic automobile exhibits take center stage at the GCR depot and in Williams on iconic Route 66. Vintage tractor and farm equipment will also be on display.

On Saturday, June 14 and Sunday, June 15 the GCR will operate the Cataract Creek Rambler—a special, one-hour roundtrip excursion from Williams, AZ through the Arizona pine forest in vintage Pullman cars pulled by steam locomotive No. 4960. While the Grand Canyon Railway operates 364 days a year (closed Christmas Day) and is normally powered with diesel engines, the Cataract Creek Rambler will make special trips Father’s Day weekend that depart at 11:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m., with a special sunset departure Saturday evening at 6:00 p.m. Tickets to this unforgettable experience are value-priced at $15 for adults, $10 for children ages 2-15 and free for children ages 2 and under. Tickets will be available at the Williams Depot ticket counter on the day of travel. No advance reservations available.

Here’s a video about the Cataract Creek Rambler from two years ago:

The event promises a lot of neat stuff, and the price of the train trips themselves that day are a good value. I wouldn’t show up at the last minute for one of those excursions.

Downtown Albuquerque may install public bathrooms May 30, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Towns.
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Downtown Albuquerque is strongly considering the construction of public bathrooms partly for the use of Route 66 tourists, reported KRQE-TV.

But it’s not just for tourism reasons (ick):

The report sort of dances around the issue, but I suspect the downtown problem primarily comes from the homeless and those who’ve had a little too much to drink at downtown’s many bars.

What’s interesting is a similar “potty problem” afflicted Albuquerque’s Old Town area about a decade ago. It built public bathrooms, and the problem was largely alleviated. And I’ve seen such bathrooms in other high-tourist areas of towns.

And for those who worry about drug users, New York City opened a few pay toilets that pop open after 15 minutes (with an alarm, of course) and are self-cleaning. Apparently they are popular, but haven’t multiplied quickly because of the expense and bureaucratic hassles.

In terms of public restrooms, you could do far, far worse than the Bryant Park facilities in New York City. It features classical music, fresh flowers and an attendant. It was ranked No. 1 in the world by VirtualTourist.com.

(An image of the much-praised Bryant Park public restrooms in New York City by Comrogues via Flickr)

Cracks appear on Skydeck Ledge of Willis Tower May 29, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Attractions.
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Cracks spidered on the transparent floor of a Skydeck Ledge of Chicago’s Willis Tower, formerly known as the Sears Tower, after visitors stood on it 103 floors above ground level, according to various media reports.

The NBC affiliate in Chicago posted this video:

The Chicago Tribune reported:

“I had my palms on the floor and I could feel it cracking,” said Garibay, who was posing for pictures at the time with his brother and two cousins. “Honestly, I was in shock, in disbelief. I was scared.”

But he was never in any danger, according to Willis Tower officials, who said Thursday that only a protective coating cracked and the three half-inch-thick layers of glass underneath remained intact and still capable of holding five tons. The coating is about 1/8 of an inch thick.

“This protective coating occasionally cracks,” said Willis Tower spokesman Bill Utter. “Usually when someone has something sharp in their pocket and it gets poked. It did what it was designed to do.”

Skydeck Ledge is closed for inspections, but is expected to reopen later today.

Skydeck Ledge opened in 2009, and features 1 1/2-inch thick glass that juts out about 4 feet from the building.

Here’s Skydeck’s official video:

One of the most memorable moments of Skydeck Ledge occurred during “Billy Connolly’s Route 66″ television miniseries. If the embedding doesn’t work, skip ahead to the 11-minute mark:

The Willis Tower stands just a few blocks west of the beginning of westbound Route 66.

(Image of looking down from the Willis Tower’s Skydeck Ledge by geekoftheweek via Flickr)

Webb City wants to add downtown to National Register May 29, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Preservation, Towns.
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A move is afoot in Webb City, Missouri, to add its entire downtown district to the National Register of Historic Places, reported KOAM-TV in nearby Pittsburg, Kansas.

Webb City is looking at the move not just to add a publicity hook, but to help owners renovate historic buildings with tax credits.

Here’s the report:

KOAM TV 7

Having been to Webb City’s downtown many times, its historical significance seems obvious to the eye. But in case you need more convincing:

43 of the 50 properties in the district were built between 1883 and 1965 [...]

I was surprised to find Webb City’s downtown wasn’t already on the National Register, and its inclusion seems far overdue. Route 66 goes right through Webb City’s downtown.

Folks in other Route 66 towns need to consider what Webb City is trying to do. Thanks to many state and federal officials who can help with the paperwork, the National Register nomination process usually isn’t as onerous as many people anticipate. And people within such historic districts usually find out the benefits far exceed the potential red tape.

(Image of the Route 66 Movie Theater in downtown Webb City, Missouri, by Bill Eichelberger via Flickr)

Bloomington moves forward on Route 66 tourism center May 29, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Attractions, Museums.
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Even though it doesn’t have all the money needed for the project, the McLean County Museum of History in Bloomington, Illinois, is taking bids on building a tourism center that will highlight Route 66, reported the Bloomington Pantagraph.

The project would turn the south lawn of the museum square into a plaza pointing visitors to the ground floor of the Museum, where visitors would be greeted by a trained staff member, a gift shop, videos, kids play area and an interactive exhibit, said Museum Executive Director Greg Koos. The Tilbury Flash plane that now occupies that space would be moved.

Koos said the museum applied for a $249,000 tourism grant through the Illinois Office of Tourism, and the rest of the project will be funded primarily through the Bloomington-Normal Area Visitors and Convention Bureau. The state’s tourism office said Tuesday the museum’s grant application was recommended for funding but the grant has not yet been “executed.” [...]

Koos said the museum would have a better idea of when it could open the visitor center after bids come in, but he’s hoping the project could be complete within a 90-day time frame. Bids are due June 17.

The museum’s director cited the nearby towns of Atlanta and Pontiac that have capitalized on Route 66 tourism, and said the Bloomington-Normal area had failed to do so.

The museum is on 200 N. Main St., which is about a block west of northbound U.S. 51 (aka eastbound Route 66) and two blocks east of southbound 51 (westbound 66).

(Image of the McLean County Museum of History in Bloomington, Illinois, by Paul Sableman via Flickr)

Tuxedo cruising May 28, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Music.
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Here’s Roy Gaines and His Orchestra playing a nice arrangement of Bobby Troup’s “Route 66,” from Gaines’ 2009 album, “Tuxedo Blues.”

If you like a big horn section, this is for you:

The song may be downloaded for 99 cents here.

Gaines has quite a biography. In addition to a long career in music, he’s done some acting as well.

(Image via RoyGaines.com)

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