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Couple revamps old roadside motel into apartments

September 15, 2014

In 1958, a quarter would buy a gallon of gas; America launched Explorer 1, officially joining the space race; and Pontiac Chieftan station wagons were barreling like buffalo past the Kaiden Motel along U.S. 40 just west of Greenfield.

The Kaiden, complete with 13 roadside units, a gas island and a restaurant up front just off the National Road's apron, was among some half-dozen motor hotels that gave families traveling in Chieftains, Impalas and other bullet-bumpered beasts of the day respite for the night on their great American journey.

The Korean War was five years gone; future, murkier conflicts had yet to crest the horizon; and the car was a big, gleaming god.

How could anyone know then that roadside motels like the Kaiden were already skeletons in the desert with President Dwight D. Eisenhower's signing of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, unleashing the great American interstate system that would slowly bleed business from some of the country's then-major roads?

"It's really the story of every U.S. highway in the country," said Joe Frost, executive director of the National Road Association and a community preservation specialist for Indiana Landmarks. "It's a story that's been repeated in a thousand places in this country."

The National Road, the first federally constructed major highway in the country connecting Cumberland, Maryland, with Vandalia, Illinois, cut through the Hoosier midsection with two distinct periods of life.

The pioneering days of the mid-19th century spawned commerce, toll booths and road houses, Frost told the Daily Reporter in Greenfield.

But the automobile, and America's love of it from 1920 onward—especially the post-war boom years—seeded the ground for the motor courts and roadside motels.

"They were literally everywhere," Frost said.

According to James Glass, former director of the Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, some 500 motels were built throughout the state, with 120 of them dotting U.S. 40 from Terre Haute to Richmond.

According to Glass's research, one of the earliest was Hancock County's Shamrock Plaza Courts, built east of Cumberland in 1936.

However, when workers finished Interstate 70 in the mid-1970s, they also finished off the days of the roadside motel along the National Road.

Many of the quaint brick motor courts are boarded, some have little left to board and others have been repurposed to weekly and short-term rentals that have long forgotten their glory years.

The former Kaiden, once known as Walls Villa Apartments, however, is a Phoenix rising on the common will of Jesse and Nancy Eccles, who purchased the property for their retirement in 2012.

"I drove by this place for a year," Jesse said. "And I told Nancy, 'Honey, that place is a little jewel in the rough.' "

Nancy, however, saw a bit more rough than jewel.

"I begged him, no," she said, sitting in the now neatly manicured courtyard at what will be their 18-unit apartment complex, now called The Village, just west of County Road 200 West in the little-known unincorporated Hancock County community of Philadelphia. "It's too big, and we're too old."

That was over two years ago, and now, one by one, with their own hands, the Eccleses have gutted and transformed half of a dying establishment lost by the roadside into bright, cheery efficiency and one-bedroom apartments with modern colors, new appliances, updated wiring and stone tile floors.

Tracy Reynolds, a trainer at Applebee's in Greenfield, recently moved into one of the one-bedroom units after waiting nearly a year.

Reynolds, who lived previously on the east side of Indianapolis, drove by the property for years commuting to work. When she saw the first unit come up for rent, she jumped.

"Everything in here is new down to the knobs," she said, proudly showing off her new home. "It's like a little village. It's quiet. Why would you not want to be here? People are going to be envious."

The Eccles think the motel was built sometime around 1942. At least that's the date on the newspapers they found stuffed in the walls and used as insulation when they began their demolition and rehab work.

They started with what was the restaurant and service station out front, making it livable and then moving in to be resident owner/operators.

Since then, the couple has slowly been working to bring the place back, and people are noticing.

"It's just incredible how many people stop," said Nancy. "In the first two months there couldn't have been less than 100."

As they become available, the efficiencies and one-bedrooms rent for between $424 and $474 monthly, and to date the owners say they've had no trouble finding good tenants.

Though Frost cites pockets of resurging interest and vibrancy along the National Road, The Village is a repurposed success story, and the future is probably not as bright for most of the other establishments that welcomed families and traveling salesmen in their Chieftains, Impalas and big Buick Limiteds.

In addition to new roads and shifting traffic patterns, the culture itself has shifted.

Calling on the works of writer James Kunstler's "A Geography of Nowhere," Frost said people simply don't travel the way they used to.

"We used to travel for the pleasure of the journey," he said. "Today, we travel for the destination."

And getting there usually doesn't include time to pull off the National Road at sunset for a good night's sleep.

"It's a very nice road and a scenic way to travel," Glass said. "It depends upon whether people take the time to take a more leisurely trip."

Though most of the old roadside motels have gone the way of the big Pontiac Chieftan, which gave way to the sleeker, more stylish Catalina in 1959, Jesse Eccles relaxes at sunset in his Adirondack chair as traffic blows by on U.S. 40 as it has for decades.

He's not worried.

"Most people today don't keep the faith," Eccles said. "If you have the faith, you can do anything."

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