Alamo Plaza Hotel Courts

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.

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Economical Luxury

Economical Luxury

Alamo Plaza Hotel Courts stood apart in Texas for its unique offerings and emphasis upon customer service. Tourists and travelers stopping in Waco found clean, well-maintained, and organized lodging, and strictly enforced proprietary rules ensured the safety of all patrons. | Source: Image courtesy of Don O'Brien View File Details Page

Souvenir Postcard

Souvenir Postcard

Torrence recognized that innovation served as a key to bringing in new customers and sought out ways to cut costs without skimping on amenities. By hiring his brother-in-law W. N. McGrady to oversee construction, Torrence was able to open the motel with rates as low as one dollar per single and two dollars per double room. In the years following, advertisements often touted the tourist apartments’ comfortable mattresses and high quality furniture. By the 1940s, ads proclaimed that each room had a not only a Beautyrest mattress, but also its own telephone. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

Unique Marketing

Unique Marketing

Alamo Plaza Hotel Courts relied heavily upon its unique façade for marking, and Torrence sought to preserve the motel’s unique architectural character at every turn. Viewing neon lighting as fit only for bars, Torrence turned up his nose at the idea of adding exterior lighting to the tourist apartments. Note the spires of Paul Quinn College rising up above the motel in the background. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

Nationally Known

Nationally Known

Alamo Plaza offered comfort and rest for weary travelers searching for quality accommodations at affordable prices. The O’Brien family visited Alamo Plaza Hotel Courts on June 5, 1939, noting in a diary, “Along toward supper time we came to Waco, one of the great little cities of America.” Notice the family’s 1939 Ford Deluxe parked next to the motel. | Source: Image courtesy of Don O'Brien View File Details Page

Remember the Alamo Plazas

Remember the Alamo Plazas

Alamo Plaza had expanded into a national chain by the 1950s, with locations in cities such as Shreveport, Dallas, Indianapolis, and Memphis. Around that time, Torrence began to fully capitalize upon the appeal of the motel’s unique façade, using the phrase “Remember the Alamo Plazas.”   | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Amanda Sawyer, “Alamo Plaza Hotel Courts,” Waco History, accessed July 26, 2017, http://wacohistory.org/items/show/134.

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