Modern amenities, old-school charm: Roadside motels updating for a new generation of visitors

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SHAFTSBURY — Martha Wiles has a theory: "Psycho," Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 horror film, "ruined motels."

In the film — spoiler alert — a woman finds respite at the Bates Motel, near the fictional Fairvale, California, only to be slain in the shower by its psychotic proprietor.

Ever since the film's release, according to Wiles, "if a director wants to establish, `We're in a scary place,'" an exterior shot of a motel does the trick.

Probably not a shot of The Harwood Hill, though. The motel, on the west side of Route 7A in North Bennington, offers a broad view of Mount Anthony and the Bennington Battle Monument; bright, clean rooms; and a curated selection of artwork on display and for sale.

Geotagged photos on Instagram show children engaged in various craft-related activities at the motel, courtesy of an artist-in-residence. The arts — as might be obvious to passersby, given the collection of outdoor sculptures close to the road — now represent a key element of the motel's identity.

"Part of what we've tried to do," said Wiles, a member of a group that purchased the property about five years ago, is "make the exterior not scary."

The group's work may not persuade every tired traveler on the state highway to stay the night — Wiles recalled one woman who refused to get out of the car when her partner suggested as much — but it's emblematic of how the newer generation of Bennington County motor lodge owners is zhooshing up the roadside properties long after their supposed mid-century heyday and, in the process, perhaps, dispelling a notion of their inherent seediness.

Modern, again

This rebranding effort is baked into the new name of the former Red Sled Motel in Manchester, rechristened "Rest, a Modern Motel" by owners Philip Carter and Jamie Nolan Carter, a couple who purchased the Depot Street property about a year and a half ago.

The rooms at Rest, which opened in October following extensive renovations, are styled with paper-lantern lamps and mid-century-style bedside tables. Some feature Jacuzzis on newly constructed rear decks, which already are proving to be a draw, Philip Carter said.

Though structurally sound, the 1970s-era, brick complex needed a comprehensive overhaul, Carter said.

What is currently a mothballed indoor pool area, following future construction, might prove to be the motel's signature amenity: a lobby-lounge with seating, food and beverages, a fireplace or pit and a pub game or two.

This kind of common area might prove popular with both overnight guests and locals, Carter believes. Guests would not be confined to their rooms between ski outings, as they might at a more traditional motel, and Northshire residents could avail themselves of midweek specials.

Carter said he is now "actively looking" for a food partner, whose needs would dictate the exact layout of the space.

"We want to see people use it"

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At the Casablanca Motel in Manchester, which consists of 10 individually themed cabins, owners Diane Pouliot and Linda Benway have sought to encourage guests to enjoy the property's grounds.

Weddings, reunions and even a wildlife tracking event for children have all been held at the 3-acre property, the owners said. A wine tasting was slated to be held at the site's capacious gazebo.

"We figure, we have this beautiful property," Benway said. "We want to see people use it."

Fire pits and lawn games help to support a convivial atmosphere. Sometimes, when one half of a wedding party stays at the Casablanca, the other half — who, perhaps, opted to stay somewhere ritzier — ends up visiting and enviously admiring the accommodations, the owners said.

Tabitha Turgeon, who along with her husband Joseph purchased the Brittany Motel on Route 7A in Manchester last year, said a fire pit was one of the first amenities they added.

A ring of red Adirondack chairs in front of the complex is visible from the road. Turgeon said guests have enjoyed sitting by the fire and getting to know one another. "It's been a lot of fun" to watch, she added.

"Appealing and different"

The fate of the region's motels — typically situated alongside highways outside of village centers, a world apart from the sort of dense, downtown development that planners tend to endorse today — is a question owners are answering individually, with each new amenity and construction phase.

The businesses that are "making it," said Jim Sullivan, executive director of the Bennington County Regional Commission, seem to be striving to find niche markets by offering something "appealing and different."

Some motels have gone out of business, Sullivan said, while others have begun to offer longer-term stays, essentially converting their facilities to multi-family housing complexes.

It's important to recognize that motels, though they belong to a different era of development, "are still there" and provide economic value to their respective communities, Sullivan said.

It's worth noting, too, that motels, despite owing their existence and name to the automobile, are not necessarily inhospitable to guests who like to walk. The Casablanca, for instance, is a mile from the Northshire Bookstore and other attractions in Manchester Center.

And at The Harwood Hill's southern edge, an opening in the hedges leads to The Publyk House, a dog-friendly restaurant with a similarly grand view.

Oftentimes, arriving guests have "been on the road for hours — and you know how dark these roads are out here — and they're tired," said Martha Wiles. "They just want to relax."

Advised of the restaurant next door, their eyes light up, Wiles said. "They're like, `Really? We can just walk somewhere? Thank you.'"

Luke Nathan is a reporter for the Bennington Banner and Manchester Journal. Reach him at lnathan@benningtonbanner.com.


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