As Americans took to the road in an age of expanded highway systems and ease of travel, the Alamo Plaza Hotel Courts pioneered the field of luxury motels. From a small but luxurious beginning in Waco, the company grew into a nationwide chain known for its safety, comfort, and distinct style in the mid-twentieth century.
Alamo Plaza founder Edgar Lee Torrence, born in 1893 and raised in McLennan County, grew up in Waco at a time when the city’s business culture began to develop. Architecture, such as the Amicable and Praetorian buildings, and the wealth of higher-education opportunities, found at institutions like Baylor University, Paul Quinn College, and Texas Christian University, reflected this changing atmosphere. The climate agreed with Torrence, who received a degree from Toby’s Business College after high school. After working as a bookkeeper, the young entrepreneur set out upon his own, opening a used car business just as the automobile industry began to take off throughout the nation around 1918.
The expanding US highway system in the 1920s struck Torrence as a unique opportunity. Though tourist cabins – typically known for convenience as opposed to comfort and cleanliness – dotted the highways, few respectable options existed for economical travelers. Torrence sought to fill this gap through a partnership with Waco Judge D. W. Bartlett. Altering their original plans to build an apartment, the pair laid plans for the construction of a luxury motel in the bustling city.
The Alamo Plaza Tourist Apartments—later renamed the Alamo Plaza Hotel Courts—opened on the 900 block of Elm Avenue in 1929 with a façade mirrored after a striking symbol used throughout the state to garner Texas pride. An open house featured the American Legion Drum and Bugle Corps, and local newspapers touted the complex as “Waco’s finest tourist apartments” offering travelers every modern comfort. This would come to be the model upon which Torrence operated the Alamo Plaza business.
Adamant that Alamo Plaza remain distinct in every way, Torrence avoided the U-shape design prevalent among tourist cabins at that time. In an interview in 1953, he dismissed that model as “fit only for a barn,” instead utilizing the façade of the Alamo in San Antonio to frame the front and rear entrances to the motel, connected by a single story of tourist apartments on each side.
Despite the onset of the Great Depression shortly after construction, Alamo Plaza saw success in Waco, prompting Torrence to open a second location in Tyler, Texas, in 1931. He continued to expand the business into one of the first national motel chains, placing Alamo Plazas in multiple southern states. He sometimes partnered with family members or friends to open new locations. At other times, enterprising businessmen copied his luxury motel model and utilized the complex name, often without his permission.
As early as 1931, newspaper advertisements described Alamo Plaza motels as among the nation’s finest. The basis for similar motels in over twenty cities throughout the nation, the Alamo Plaza Hotel Courts in Waco became known for safe, comfortable, and innovative accommodations. In 1936, Alamo Plaza motels became some of the first in the nation to place telephones in individual rooms. Just over a decade later, the chain once again became a pioneer in the field, placing a television set in each room.
Though Waco’s Alamo Plaza Hotel Courts closed in the mid-1950s, the model the business established continued on throughout the nation for many years.