Editor's Note: This is a three-part series. You can reach the other parts by clicking the link at the bottom of the article.
Dedicated Tucsonans interested in preserving our city's history have, over the past 7 or 8 years, saved quite a few of the old neon signs that once so brightly lit the main thoroughfares through the Old Pueblo. When Ms. Karen & I moved to Tucson 16 years ago, we did take note of these commercial signs; all of which were in deplorable shape. Fortunately, many have since made a glorious comeback.
These glowing wonders tell us a lot about our past, including changes in public tastes and transportation corridors. For instance, before I-10 was completed in the 1960s, tourists from the West motored into Tucson via Miracle Mile, then south on Oracle, a left jog on Drachman, then south out of town on 6th Avenue to Benson Hwy and places East or south on Nogales Hwy to Mexico. Many of these signs lit their way and encouraged them to stay awhile in one of Tucson's ubiquitous motor courts.
Ghost Ranch Lodge
Around 1922, the combination of affordable, (semi-) reliable automobiles and "modern" highways made Arizona tourism a blossoming industry. Ordinary folks could hop in their car and visit the wonders of the "Grand Canyon State".
The Ghost Ranch opened in 1941, although building continued through 1953. Originally, eight romantic Mexican casitas surrounded a formal courtyard and central terrace that "created the feeling of a destination rather than a motor court". The Lodge's Desert Cactus Garden became famous for its officially recognized “Great Tree of Arizona,” the largest Boojum Tree in the state.
When the Interstate was completed through Tucson, motorists bypassed the dozens of motor courts on the old highway through Downtown, and they all fell into disrepair and disgrace, including the once lovely Ghost Ranch Lodge.
However, in recent years, the Lodge has been re-purposed as affordable senior housing. Its run-down old sign has been refurbished, and its Desert Cactus Garden once again delights.
In its declining years, this was the Monterey Motel. In 2011, when it was being renovated and re-purposed as a cafe, performance stage, and artist studios, the new owners uncovered a brick wall with a painted sign that read "Monterey Court", the original name.
When it opened in 1938, Monterey Court was the first of many motor courts along Miracle Mile. It boosted 16 quaint cottages plus a manager's quarters.
A year earlier, Miracle Mile had just been completed and became the Old Pueblo's first divided highway. It was modeled after German autobahns, except it did not have any overpasses or exclusive rights-of-way. The best our city planners could do was create traffic circles at both ends.
South of Monterey Court on Oracle Road and just before the left turn onto Drachman, motorists today find this big Saguaro Neon welcoming them as they near the Downtown area of Tucson. This stretch of Oracle still has several operating motor courts. They have all seen better days & nights, including the infamous No-Tel Motel. Should you be curious about No-Tel, check out one reporter's experience.