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Remember the Alamo Plaza Hotel Courts

Written by Gene Fowler.
When an interviewer asked about the possibility of using neon to outline his Alamo Plaza Courts, Texas entrepreneur E.L. Torrance replied, “No, sir. No neon. We don’t want to look like a beer joint. We have a neon sign in front.” Torrance took pride in the elegant, hacienda-like configurations of his motels.

Texans have remembered the Alamo in many ways. Probably the most visible way has been by replicating its storied façade on new buildings. There’s an Alamo-ish photocopy shop in Cypress, for instance, and an Alamo-esque ballroom/convention center in El Paso.

McLennan County native Edgar Lee Torrance (1893-1971) applied the familiar curved parapet to a small chain of motels. The first Alamo Plaza Tourist Apartments—later called Alamo Plaza Hotel Courts—opened in Waco in 1929. The buildings rose across the street from Grande Courts, which apparently sported a Mission-style design and may have tweaked Lee Torrance’s memory of the Alamo façade. From whatever source the inspiration flowed, the multiple authors of The Motel in America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996) deemed the choice a “richly associative” one, a “retrospective reference [that] implied both respect for tradition and security for the traveler.”

In 1931, newspaper ads for Torrance’s new Alamo Plaza Motel, in Tyler, invited oilmen to stay in “America’s Finest Tourist Apartments.” In time, Torrance and his partners and franchisees opened Alamo Plaza Hotel Courts in Beaumont, Dallas, Houston, and about 20 cities in other states across the South. Most featured Torrance’s original layout, which motel scholars say created “a sense of gracious living not unlike that on a large hacienda.”

Today, some of the still-standing Alamo Plaza Hotel Courts struggle to compete with newer motels built along newer highways; others have succumbed to urban change. But, as Torrance told a reporter for American Motel Magazine in 1953, all still cause passersby to “Remember the Alamo Plaza.”

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From the December 2003 issue.

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