Words and pictures: Carol Altmann
[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #A02F2F;”] I [/dropcap]t is without doubt Warrnambool’s oldest and most iconic motel: a genuine throw-back to the 1950s when the motor vehicle created a whole new form of accommodation for travellers.
The Turn-In Motel sits on what was once the corner of the Princes Highway and Simpson St, with its red, illuminated sign (that originally said only ‘motel’) a beacon to those arriving into the seaside town from Melbourne.
The highway has since been diverted, and there are now far more motels in Warrnambool, but although the Turn In has halved in size, it has never gone out of business and still attracts a steady stream of loyal guests.
“We don’t do any real advertising, apart from the RAA website,” says current owner Ken McRae who, with wife Merrin, has managed the Turn In for the past 16 years.
“The same people just keep coming year after year, they just keep turning up, and the only time they don’t turn up is when they have died: we have lost a couple,” he says.
Indeed at the time of our visit, there was a French couple who were on their third visit and this time they bought some friends from China along as well.
“If we were to go on (the online booking site) Wotif or that sort of thing, we would be over-run I reckon,” Ken says, laughing.
[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #A02F2F;”] V [/dropcap]isitors are attracted to the budget pricing ($70-100 per night for a couple) and the homestyle feel of the motel, which has retained some of its original fittings from its earliest days, although much has changed.
“When we bought the place, it was in a very bad way. All of the shower stalls had to be replaced, all of the carpets had to be torn up, it was a real mess,” Ken explains.
The motel once had 51 units (it now has 15) and the in-house restaurant is long gone. Even the much-photographed, much-admired Turn In Motel sign is not the original: it disintegrated in the salt air, but the McRae’s invested $10,000 in an identical replacement.
Ken is unsure who built the motel (can anybody help?), but it has the tell-tale crazy paving detail on planter boxes inside the foyer that suggest it may have been the work of Tag Walters, Bruce Auty or John Downie, who specialised in American-inspired designs.
[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #A02F2F;”] T [/dropcap]he foyer also features the original timber reception desk, together with a set of thin, sliding wooden drawers that keep track of the paperwork for bookings: the McRaes still use it. The original phone switchboard, where calls were manually put through to each room, is also intact, but no longer functional.
One – actually two – precious items that remain in two of the 15 motel units is an art-deco style bathroom mirror made from thick blue and clear glass, with working lights on each side.
Not surprising, Ken says he has had offers from a number of people keen to buy them.
“I say, ‘sure, but they come with a motel attached’,” he laughs.
[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #A02F2F;”] A [/dropcap]nd the motel is for sale, with Ken and Merrin keen to retire, although they will continue to live in the house next door for at least the short-term.
“We have done 16 good years. Most motel managers average around five years,” Ken says.
Because of the hard work and around-the-clock availability required, Merran has actually talked some people out of buying the place, which doesn’t sound like a fast track to retirement.
“It has to be the right person: someone who knows what they are getting into, rather than dreaming about what it might be like,” Ken says.
The perfect buyer, perhaps, would be a realist with a penchant for retro who could turn the Turn In back to its full, mid-century self.
[box] Did you know the word ‘motel’ is a hybrid of motor and hotel? The Turn In Motel is on the corner of Simpson and Verdon sts, Warrnambool. You can contact Ken and Merrin on 03 5562 3677.[/box]
[button link=”http://the-terrier.com.au/subscribe-2/” type=”icon” icon=”heart” newwindow=”yes”]Bluestone is aiming for 500 subscribers. If you enjoyed this story, please click here to become one![/button]
If you enjoy retro, you might also enjoy…