Most American motel rooms are distinguished by their numbers and little else. But the 110 rooms at Alex and Phyllis Madonna‘s place in San Luis Obispo, Calif. also have names—numbers alone wouldn’t do them justice. Take “Rock Bottom” or “The Flintstones,” for instance, which are cave-like dens with natural boulder walls, ceilings and floors. Or “Cloud Nine,” which is chockablock with gilt cherubs, some of whom hold the lamps. Then there’s “Old Mill,” which boasts a 24-foot-long stone headboard with prancing Swiss-style clock figures driven by a red wooden wheel turned by a stream of piped-in water.
The Madonna Inn neither advertises nor accepts credit cards, yet its occupancy rate is 99 percent year-round. The most popular rooms, like the $63.60-a-night “Caveman,” are regularly reserved a full year in advance, often by honeymooners-to-be. Busloads of tourists swarm through the ornate and kitschy coffee shop, then peek at the chambers while maids make them up. Considered a must-see for both sexes: The urinal flushed by an electric-eye-triggered waterfall in the restaurant men’s room (a man clears the coast before the women go in).
Nestled under a hillside 200 miles north of Los Angeles, the inn falls geographically—and philosophically—between those two other California monuments to phantasm and obsession, Disneyland and the Hearst castle at San Simeon. Alex Madonna, 60, may lack Walt Disney’s artistry or William Randolph Hearst’s aesthetic, but his multimillion-dollar contracting business long ago put him too in a position to indulge his imagination. The inn was launched on a whim in 1958 after Madonna‘s secretary had bought the original site at a public auction, thinking her boss wanted it. He didn’t. So she suggested, “Why don’t you build a motel?” Madonna, picking up the story, recalls that “architects didn’t want to hear my ideas so I decided, ‘Hell, we’ll do it ourselves.” And he and his wife did. Executing Alex’s caprices, Phyllis became the purchasing agent. “People say the building looks like a Swiss chalet, but we never went to Switzerland until the ’70s,” explains Mrs. M. The inn’s staff of 250 chipped in for the air fare.
The trip was really a pilgrimage, since Alex’s grandparents on both sides were Swiss. His father, a San Luis Obispo dairy farmer, died when Alex was 8, and his mother helped support the family wrapping butter in a dairy. A high schooler during the Depression, Madonna hauled gravel in a Model T truck and was soon hiring other teens to work for him. By the fall of 1938 Madonna decided to forgo Stanford University and instead launched his own construction company.
After World War II Army combat duty on Okinawa, Alex returned to make his fortune building highways, dams and airports. He met Phyllis Boyd at Elmer’s Cafe in Orcutt, Calif. in 1948—she was a young secretary celebrating her birthday. They were married the next year. Today Madonna owns 11 ranches around the state stocked with some 8,000 head of cattle, and he employs 200 people in his construction company. He also flies his own jet and personally grows the plump strawberries that top off the inn’s gloppy desserts. The Madonnas have a son and three daughters aged 14 to 26.
A favorite place for the parents to hold court is their private corner table in the coffee shop. A famed California designer and frequent visitor, the late Richard Neutra, once told Alex that he was lucky he didn’t use an architect. “It’s been fun,” admits Madonna, adding wistfully, “It would be even more fun if I could build it again, but I wouldn’t be allowed to do it today because of all the permits.”