Santa Rosa’s remodeled Astro Motel readies for liftoff

After a long and thoughtful restoration by the Spinster Sisters team, an iconic iconic googie architecture motel reopens its doors in Santa Rosa’s SOFA district.|

When the Astro Motel burst onto Santa Rosa Avenue in 1963, man was just starting to rocket into space and Americans thrilled to the possibility of a future where foreign travel would mean a ticket to other planets, not to mention a flying car.

The Space Age was all the rage. But “the future” of 1960s fantasy came and went with a fizzle as the millennium ushered in the Digital Age, where worlds could suddenly be explored virtually with a microchip.

The future was not kind to the once-glitzy little motor lodge just beyond Juilliard Park. Abandoned by vacationers, taken over by drug addicts and prostitutes, it suffered decades of criminal activity and fell into seedy disrepair.

But what’s old is new again, especially in the burgeoning South of A Street, or SOFA district. Fueled by the imagination of the same folks who created the hip eatery “The Spinster Sisters” one street over, the old motel has undergone a major renovation that capitalizes on its retro chic charm while adding a few new twists.

In a bit of contemporary irony, the drive-up-to-your-room parking lot that was a hallmark of the 20th century motel, has been turned into a landscaped courtyard with three mature olive trees and other fruit trees for guests enjoyment. By special arrangement with the city, the Astro has met its parking requirements with an offsite lot a block away where guests can park and receive valet service back to the hotel.

“I think we saw it as a way of doing something else in a neighborhood that we’ve really come to care about,” said Liza Hinman, the chef and co-owner of the Spinster Sisters.

Hinman and her team, mindful of the growing appreciation for mid-century modern design, have taken pains to maintain the forwardist design, including furnishing all 34 rooms with authentic period furniture and accessories they’ve been madly buying at auction and having a blast doing it. An Astro guest might have a room not with a standard issue corporate chain motel suite of furniture built to take a beating, but an actual and iconic bent wood and leather Eames lounge chair complete with ottoman and an Eames modular desk by Herman Miller.

Do you covet that chair? Do you wish that fixture was hanging in your own house? You can buy it right out of the room. In an interesting twist on the hotel business model, all of the furnishings are inventoried with prices. You can pack it up and take it with you. The staff has a ready supply of vintage replacements to swap in.

Old downtown revival

Long an eyesore and petty crime magnet across from Santa Rosa’s landmark Luther Burbank Home and Gardens, the new and vastly improved Astro is slated to re-open in early November.

It comes on the heels of the re-opening of the newly rejoined Old Courthouse Square, and is part of what is hoped will be a revival of Santa Rosa’s old downtown. The park area nonetheless, is still sketchy, fraught with crime, from drug offenses to assaults.

“Somebody has got to make a first move to improve the neighborhood,” said Sheryl Chapman, an illustrator and designer who came up with the signature color scheme - teal, orange and yellow, a classic 1950s color combo vividly evident in the Astro’s bathroom tiles.

She doesn’t believe the urban-loving hipsters and cyclists expected to be drawn to the new and vastly improved Astro, will be dissuaded by the location.

“The neighborhood is a little bit raw but it’s no different that going to San Francisco. You get a hotel downtown in San Francisco and you’ve got to watch your stuff too. Here in Santa Rosa we’re in this little bubble of relatively little crime,” Chapman said.

:The phoenix rising,” is how Santa Rosa’s Chief Building Official Mark Setterland, describes the transformation of a property that has long bedeviled building officials and law enforcement.

Fans of mid-century modern design and vintage travel are watching the project with keen interest and following the progress on Facebook.

With custom features like a communal lounge complete with vinyl turntable and full service bike shop - cyclists can send their bikes ahead and have them assembled and in their room by the time they arrive - the Astro is part of a new wave of lodging - “the retro-boutique motel.”

“I’m excited about The Astro in Santa Rosa because the Bay Area doesn’t have too many of these and architecture and the bones are still there,” said Heather David, an authority on old-time motels and author of the coffee table book, “Motel California,” which makes reference to The Astro and its iconic theme.

Kitschy designs

At one time there were thousands of motels up and down the sunshine states of California and Florida with gimmicky and kitschy designs aimed at delighting the middle class family on a road trip with a station wagon packed with kids.

The Astro was one of a chain begun in 1962 and that over time included properties in California, Texas, Arizona and Utah. A few still stand, but are a rarity, David said.

The Astros were designed by Frank Schneider under contract to the Glendale chain.

Speaking frankly, he doesn’t consider it his finest work.

“I had just started my career. They were one of my first clients and I was not one of the world’s most experienced architects,” he said, speaking by phone from Newport Beach. “I was going for all the little jobs that other people didn’t want. These guys were a marginal client...I don’t remember the plans but I remember losing money.”

Schneider recalled that the company engaged in sketchy business practices that ended in bankruptcy.

“I would call it dingbat construction,” he said. “They had the smallest room you could have. It was terrible.”

But with the passage of time, even the commercial designs of the ‘60s are gaining appreciation, both for their playfulness and for the nostalgic feelings they trigger, even among a generations that never lived through it.

The Astro is what is now dubbed “Googie architecture,” a futuristic imagining inspired by the Space Age and Atomic age, David said.

A 1960s matchbook cover for the Santa Rosa Astro featured a cartoon of a contented space-suited guest with suitcase reclining on a cloud with the words, “Space Age Luxury...Down to Earth Prices.”

“I do think a lot of people my age go for something that reminds you just a little bit of when you were young on a road trip. Those are some of your best memories,” said Jeff Kunkle, founder of the website Vintage Roadside, dedicated to what he calls, ‘the Golden Age of roadside design.’

Places like The Astro offer a chance to relive that experience, said Kunkle. At 48 the Portland, Ore., resident was born at the end of the ‘60s but fondly remembers the vestiges that remained in the 1970s before so much of the signage and architecture went to seed.

The new Astro is not a faithful reproduction of the original so much as an homage to the period.

The work of local artists and craftspeople has been incorporated int the design. The headboards are all salvaged wood slabs sourced by Marin artisan miller Evan Shively, whose Arborica is sought out by high end designers and restaurants like Chez Panisse. Omar Perez of Windsor created the cast concrete sinks.

The linens are handmade. And the rocket sign lit by LEDs that appears ready for liftoff was done by local artist Todd Barricklow, complete with a little spinning satellite on the top.

Barricklow also designed the metal balcony rails with a jet-machined latticework design reminiscent of a 1960s circuit board.

The same design is cut into the cement in “the courtyard,” another modern addition. Hinman and her team won permission from the city to turn the big ugly parking lot into a little urban oasis.

They’ve brought in a dozen fruit trees, including three mature olive trees, which Spinster Sisters eventually will harvest for olive oil.

“It speaks a little more to our thoughts about how an urban environment should exist in the modern 21st Century,” said Hinman, whose popular “Spinster Sisters” restaurant helped revitalize the forgotten SOFA area into a lively little arts district.

Hand selected

The rooms are furnished with vintage pieces, hand-selected by staff who have been bidding and buying online for iconic and fun pieces from the late 1950s to mid 1960s. The aim was to make each room feel like a gallery.

The $10 million project, which included the purchase price and renovation, wasn’t always a pretty undertaking. Camille Canon, the general manager of Spinster Hospitality, which includes the restaurant and new motel, said one wing of The Astro had to be completely gutted. It was riddled with termites and had to be tented. The project also required a major asbestos removal. They did keep the old concrete floors, stripping the carpet and simply polishing the gray concrete.

“We found hypodermic needles hanging from the ceiling,” Cannon said. One workman was startled to discover a sex toy stashed behind the plywood underneath one of the old baseboards. Setterland said The Astro had a history of code violations dating back at least to 2000.

“It just became something of a low-hanging fruit nuisance trap, so to speak,” he said. “We’d issue violation notices. They (previous owners) would come in and get a new permit or re-up an old permit and try to do the work and it would fall by the wayside.” Violations ranged from faulty heating and electrical systems to complaints about mold and lack of maintenance.

The city finally ordered it shut down in 2016, creating a opening for members of the team who built The Spinster Sisters, including former cycling champion Andy Hampsten and Santa Rosa native Eric Anderson, to step in with a radically new vision.

“This building was in pretty rough shape,” Cannon added. “There was just a lot of evidence of elicit behavior that went on before.”

That chapter is now closed and the reinvented hotel is ready to accommodate guests who might want a more urban feel to their accommodations. The dismal “One Star” rating on Yelp has been scrubbed and a few posters eagerly watching the transformation have positively weighed in.

Room rates will start at $160, to hit that sweet spot of people who can’t afford most of the expensive lodging in the Wine Country, but still want something more unique than a chain hotel, Canon said.

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at or 707-521-5204. On Twitter @megmcconahey.

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