Opinion: Our American treasures hidden in plain sight
Manns Choice, Penn. — There is a little burst of wonder that road travelers experience when they head west out of Bedford, climb Tulls Hill and are welcomed by the Lincoln Motor Court at the crest. It's a burst of wonder up for sale.
The motor court is a concept that is both familiar and foreign to the modern eye: part motel, part cabin, delightfully welcoming as 12 detached cabins all form a semicircle around the central office, nestled cozily among scores of pine trees.
Long before the orange-roofed Howard Johnson's dotted America's highways or Holiday Inns opened at interchanges of our newly constructed interstates, the middle-class family had nowhere to stay on vacation other than tourist camps.
Lincoln Motor Court owners Debbie and Bob Altizer explained that tourist camps didn't have much other than a parking space and outhouses to offer this new generation of travelers until some enterprising farmers turned portions of their fields into tiny coves of cabins and a main house.
"And thus, the motor court was born," they said in unison.
"We estimate that our motor court was built in 1940, based on the number of people who have come back to see the place they stayed on their honeymoon just before being shipped off during the beginning of World War II," explained Debbie.
Each cabin is lovingly preserved from the era, beginning on the outside, where two red-and-white metal chairs are waiting for the occupants to sit a spell while they lazily watch cars zoom past on U.S. 30, America's first coast-to-coast two-lane highway.
The insides are equally welcoming, especially for those travelers who are obsessed with midcentury modern architecture. The bedroom is encased in knotty pine; the bright turquoise (or pink or yellow, depending on which cabin you choose) sink and tiles in the bathrooms are a delight for purists; and the original linoleum floors are, too.
They were the original tiny house before the tiny house fad came along.
"Motor courts are often a forgotten part of American history, but not only did they provide a number of firsts for their customers, including things like indoor plumbing, electricity and central heating, they were also innovators for their time," Bob explained. "Linoleum was introduced to the motor court. Wall-to-wall carpeting was first introduced to the motor court. Spring mattresses were first introduced to the motor court."
When the Altizer family purchased the motor court in the 1980s, there were several others scattered around Bedford County. Continue west along the Lincoln Highway and you'll see a whimsical string of cabins from a long-closed motor court in Schellsburg, not far from the entrance to Shawnee State Park.
"We moved here from the Washington, D.C., area and essentially just wanted to raise our family in a small town and run our own business," explained Debbie. "We were in our 20s, pretty naive and idealistic, and bought it overnight, knowing nothing about running a motor lodge."
The first decade was tough. The motor court had an unsavory reputation. The history of the Lincoln Highway and all of the adventure, history and nostalgia that went along with it was untapped. And they struggled.
"Things started to change around 1994 when the dormant Lincoln Highway Association rekindled and decided to hold their meeting in the front yard of our motor court," Bob explained.
From that moment on, as the LHA grew its efforts to bring awareness to the history of the highway, along with tourists and amateur road warriors looking to relive traveling the nation's first transcontinental road for automobiles, the Altizers have benefited from that growing interest in the part of America outside large cities.
Soon, PBS made a colorful and compelling documentary that featured them. There came the popularity of the books and Facebook groups created around the LHA. The result: An unrealized enthusiasm of people looking for something that reminds them of simpler times has emerged and brought visitors from all around the world.
To run a place like this and live here — they raised both their daughters in the main house at the center of the court — takes dedication, a passion for history and preservation, and a lot of gumption.
It is clear the Altizers love this court. They love the cabins; they love the people who come to their home office to check in or take a tour; and they love when new friendships are struck at the picnic tables, at the fire ring or across the front porches, like people used to do until backyard decks eliminated that neighborly connection.
But they realize that, in their 60s, they cannot keep it up in the way it needs, so they placed the court up for sale last week.
"It frustrates me that I cannot do the things I did at 26, but that is the reality of aging," Bob said, his voice cracking. "So, before I move any slower, and before anything starts to wear down, I think, out of love for this court, we need to sell her to someone who will love and preserve her for future travelers and future generations."
The Lincoln Motor Court is the last of its kind on this legendary highway that stretches from Times Square to San Francisco. Because of the separate-cottage layout, it is perfect for nostalgic reasons but also a safe place to stay during the pandemic.
"We listed it for $265,000 last week with Howard Hanna real estate," explained Debbie.
Too often in our culture, we discard our treasures, including the innovators like the motor courts that paved the way for the bigger, faster, shinier models that came after them. The old way may not be any of those things anymore, but it still holds an important value to remind people of what came before.
It also holds value because it is a peaceful place where you can hang your hat for a night and meet people from all across the country as you banter across the 12 front porches. Or where you can just watch and listen to the passing trucks and cars and wonder where they are off to next.
Salena Zito is a CNN political analyst, and a staff reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner. She reaches the Everyman and Everywoman through shoe-leather journalism, traveling from Main Street to the beltway and all places in between.