Santa Rosa’s remodeled Astro Motel readies for liftoff
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.
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.