Growing up in a Ravenswood motel now slated for demolition
Stories of children who grow up in hotels and motels frequently focus on the affluence of their lifestyles. Stephen Lewis, in his 2002 novel “Hotel Kid: A Times Square Childhood,” recalls his upbringing in the 1930s and 1940s in New York’s exclusive Taft Motel, in the shadow of the famous Roxy Theatre. His memoir captures the flamboyant atmosphere of the Taft, where his father, reputedly the best hotelier in New York, ruled over a motley staff who taught Stephen by third grade the intricacies of sartorial hotel life, including the proper way to handle a swizzle stick.
Kay Thompson’s fictional 1969 children’s book “Eloise” chronicled the life of a spoiled little rich girl who lived with her family in the Plaza, a luxurious and very real Manhattan Hotel. In both books, the children are pampered and surrounded by doting employees and strangers, with mothers who order room service for every meal and fathers who seem to know everyone in the big city.
“And charge it, please,” 6-year-old Eloise was quick to say of her lavish amenities.
Like Stephen and Eloise, Linda Nichols also grew up in a hotel — or rather, the Washington Motel in Ravenswood. Her life there may not have been like those portrayed in the books, as she did not sup on extravagant room service dinners presented on silver trays, served by a snooty assembly of chefs and white-gloved waiters. But those middle-class years were the best of her and her family’s life.
And now, her childhood home is slated for demolition. And the thought hurts more than she could have imagined.
“As far as what it was like to grow up there, all I can say is that it was unique,” Linda says of her exclusive childhood inside the 1950s-era roadside motel at 410 Washington St. “Unique and interesting, in that I not only had my parents so involved in my life but that I also got to see them live and work together.”
The Washington Motel was built around 1955 by a family named Ritchie as part of a nationwide pre-interstate roadside motel boom. Established routes, such as Route 68, carried tourists into small towns, and mom-and-pop motels, such as the Washington, sprouted up along these byways to accommodate those travelers.
These motels boomed until the early 1960s, with the advent of the interstate highway and the Holiday Inn business model and its later slogan “The best surprise is no surprise.” Suddenly, travelers began opting for the chain hotel’s proximity to exits and its bland familiarity, with each unit exactly like the last. To compete, the private roadside motels added sometimes quirky features easily seen from the highway, including lounges, swimming pools and garish neon signage.
Linda’s parents, Jack and Sharon Yencha, purchased the Washington Motel in 1981 and it became a second home to her and her sister and brother until she married in 1997. “The office had full living quarters so we spent much of our time there. We cooked meals there, hosted family and other guests and lived as anyone would in any home,” she recalls. “My siblings and I were blessed with very loving and present parents, and besides all the crazy things and people that we encountered over the years I can honestly say that watching them work together and stay together is a memory I will always cherish.”
Linda is quick to point out that the Washington was certainly not the Taft or the Plaza of the books, nor even the finest hotel in West Virginia, but her parents took great pride in it and worked diligently to keep it family-friendly and welcoming.
Even with the presence of George.
George was a benevolent but mischievous spirit who reportedly inhabited the motel in the late 1980s. George’s presence was so obvious to Linda and her sister that in 2010 she wrote a story about him on the West Virginia Ghosts website. “Occasionally a doorknob would rattle, a door slam shut, or an object [fly] off a wall,” Linda recounts of George’s propensities for misbehavior.
One night she was in the motel living quarters with a skeptical boyfriend named Garren when George made his presence known. She claims she will never forget the look on Garren’s face as they both stood in the hall and listened to footsteps slowly descend the stairs. “I counted them, 14 exactly …” Linda laughs of the paranormal experience. When the footsteps continued into the downstairs kitchen, Garren tore in and flipped on the lights, certain he would find an intruder. There was none, and after that, he stopped doubting the presence of George.
“We have all just done with George what we did with every other motel guest,” Linda wrote, “welcomed him and given him a warm place to stay.”
The Yenchas had just begun a complete remodel of the rooms in 1992 when a fire gutted the front office. They soldiered on, however, and continued to run the place until Jack died in 2000. Suddenly the magic seemed to disappear.
“Although Mom hung onto it for a few years after that, it just kind of felt like the very heart and soul of the place had died too,” Linda remembers. Finally, by 2005, when the facility stopped functioning as a motel and evolved more into a long-term housing complex, the family knew it was time to let go. With Sharon’s health failing, they sold the motel and have since sadly watched their beloved and unusual home fall into disrepair, then suffer another fire. “I wept bitterly watching the fire that occurred there this past March,” Linda says. “In fact, I can recall being a bit shocked myself as to just how emotional I became.”
Soon, pending a hearing, Linda supposes her old home will be erased from the property. “The good news, however, is that even though the building may in time be gone, the memories will never go away,” she declares with a sense of optimism. “No wrecking ball or bulldozer can demolish the many memories I carry in my mind and my heart, and that’s what I have to hold onto.”
Dale Brumfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.