Starlight Motor Inn Co-owner Ham Morrison | Credit: Ruta Smith
Step into a time warp
At Starlight Motor Inn, everybody is a star — at least that’s what the Sly and the Family Stone quote says on the motel’s marquee.
The midcentury motel on Rivers Avenue in North Charleston is a pastel-hued haven where time seems to stand still. The building first opened as a motel in 1961 but rose back to life this January after being condemned for 15 years.
“When I saw this building, I thought it was right out of south Miami — like something out of a Scarface movie,” said Starlight Motor Inn co-owner Ham Morrison, a Charleston native and real estate developer.
Blown-up flamingo floats trail lazily along the surface of the pool across the parking lot from the lobby. Next to the lobby by the fireplace, a set of carpeted stairs lead to the Burgundy Lounge — a dark wood paneled time capsule that transports people back to a simpler day.
“Everything is put back just the way it was up there, including the carpet,” said architectural historian Brittany Lavelle Tulla, referencing the burgundy-colored carpet in the cozy lounge.
Tulla, who helped steer the restoration of the motel that reopened in January, said everything on the building’s exterior is true to its 1960s character with the exception of a few alterations. And on the interior, the decor was carefully curated to tie in the history of the place.
“In Burgundy Lounge and the restaurant space below [are] original bar stools, booths, chairs and tables — it was incredible how things were found,” Tulla said.
Spotlighting local music
Music is a big part of the vibe at the new Starlight for guests and locals alike, said general manager Hank Wharton, who is with the local vacation rental company StayDuvet.
Every room at the Starlight has artwork or photographs of iconic music artists, including Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday and Thelonius Monk, and some rooms have vintage posters ranging from James Brown to P Funk.
Burgundy Lounge, which is open to the public, features local music from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Tuesdays and from 8:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays, in addition to hosting events with vinyl DJs on Saturdays starting at 8 p.m.
“I’m always blown away by the caliber of the music scene here,” Wharton said.
Local musician Gavin Hamilton, who was one of the first to be booked for gigs at Burgundy, said the nostalgic environment in the lounge and the hotel is “extra chill.”
“[It’s] an oasis that’s close to all parts of Charleston,” he said. “The staff is great on all ends. They definitely curate a comfortable atmosphere for anyone staying [and for] residents and the artists that perform there.”
Wharton said he is looking forward to featuring local musicians Grace McNally and Harlem Farr from 7:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. on Monday nights starting in October.
“They will be playing some Brazilian lounge jams,” he said. “I’m really hoping our amazing housekeeping team, Fluffy, which is a predominantly Brazilian crew, will come out with friends and let loose. They work so hard and are really the backbone of the Starlight.”
A historical landmark
The retro building caught Morrison’s eye in early 2019 — and what resulted was a complicated yet rewarding four-year process of acquiring, reimagining and renovating the motel into what is seen today.
Morrison enlisted Tulla to look into the building’s history to see if it could be registered as a historical landmark, and turns out, it could. In 2020, the motel was officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The motel, which now houses 51 rooms, was built and operated as the Host of America motel in 1961 by used car salesman Woody Rogers, Tulla said. He and his family ran a used car lot at the location previously, and in the late 1950s, he felt the strain of federal regulations surrounding used car sales. So, the Rogers family converted the lot into a motel after being advised that the motel business was a quick way to make money off of the vehicular traffic of traveling Americans.
“What makes this motel interesting and of historic status is the way it was built,” Tulla said, which was with a method called prefabricated modular construction. She found an article from 1961 that said the “instant motel” was the first modular motel in the region.
Each hotel room was built and fully furnished on an assembly line in Georgia, including the carpet and TVs.
“The only thing left to do was plug in the plumbing and put on the sheets,” she said.
Pushed in like a drawer
Once the steel infrastructure was erected on site, each hotel room was pushed in like a drawer. The pool and pool annex were also built with the original motel.
In 1966 came a two-story addition, which housed the Burgundy Lounge on the second floor and a restaurant called Pilgrim Inn below it. And while the motel’s style was midcentury modern to a tee, the addition was done in a colonial-inspired style as curb appeal to attract travelers by resembling the older architecture of Charleston.
In the 1980s, the motel changed hands before Hurricane Hugo damaged the property in 1989, which is approximately when the name changed to the Star of America Motel. Ultimately, the motel fell into disrepair in the early 2000s, and the building was condemned.
“The number one thing that you look for when you’re trying to get something listed to the National Register … is if the building has the bones [of its] historic self,” Tulla said. “When we got into the history, it was like, ‘How did this story just not get picked up?’ We thought it was this beautiful gem of a story waiting to be uncovered.”
The 1960s reimagined
Morrison also enlisted his longtime friend and fellow co-owner Walker Lamond, who works with local design agency SDCO Partners, as a brand ambassador for the Starlight. Lamond was instrumental in naming the new place Starlight Motor Inn, which played off the star theme of the original signage. (Plus, motor inn is an old school way of saying “motel,” also known as a “motor hotel” designed to accommodate motorists.)
“What Walker and I were doing was making it a place that we want to hang out — that’s just the ethos — making it very flowing and easy and not nothing too precious,” Morrison said. “Motels are kind of grizzly — they’re just a chair and an ashtray.”
Burgundy Lounge (the original name confirmed by old advertisements) was initially a place for motel guests to unwind — but these days anyone is welcome, guest or not.
“We’re all about the community,” Morrison added. “We aren’t trying to exclude anybody.”
Starlight Motor Inn, in all of its distinct charm and sentimental comfort, testifies that preserving the past can enrich the present.
“I love being a part of a new concept when it comes to the development of North Charleston,” Hamilton said. “We shouldn’t have to tear every building down. It makes me feel as if I’m a part of preserving history in a sense.”
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