Motor lodges epitomized luxury travel before Arlington’s skyline went vertical.
Nestled in the shadows of Crystal City’s high-rises, the four-story Americana Hotel stands as an emblem of a bygone era when motor lodges dominated the hospitality landscape. It was founded in 1963 by William D. Green, a former engineer with General Electric who built jet engines during World War II.
Opened with 30 rooms (a number that soon expanded to 102) and an outdoor pool, the Americana might have enjoyed a run as Arlington’s swankiest hotel, had an entrepreneurial couple from Utah not beaten Green to the punch six years earlier. They built a 365-room structure overlooking the 14th Street Bridge that claimed to be the first and largest motor hotel in the world.
“Guests can drive up…select accommodations from a look at 3-D Kodachrome prints, then drive straight to their rooms guided by a bicycle-mounted bellhop, without once stepping out of their cars,” Time magazine gushed about the Twin Bridges Motor Hotel upon its 1957 opening.
The owners of this modern marvel? J. Willard “Bill” Marriott and his wife, Alice, who first made a name for themselves by turning their A&W root beer stand in Northwest D.C. into a chain of popular restaurants. (Hot Shoppes, as the franchise was known, would boast 66 locations in 11 states by the time the Twin Bridges Motor Hotel was built.)
The Marriotts’ expansion into Arlington came by way of a rather unorthodox method of site planning. The couple suspected that a hotel would do well near one of the bridges, but they were initially unsure which side of the river would prove more profitable. So they stood on opposite sides of the Potomac and counted cars to see where the traffic was heavier. This exercise ultimately determined the locations of their first two hotels: the Twin Bridges Motor Hotel (later known as the Twin Bridges Marriott) and the Key Bridge Marriott, built in 1959. Buffered by protected national parkland, both spots ensured that guests would enjoy spectacular Potomac views for years to come.
What the Marriotts didn’t foresee was an eventual hotel boom on the river’s south side. In the late ’70s and ’80s, hospitality briefly became Arlington’s biggest industry as hoteliers capitalized on the county’s abundant riverfront property and lenient zoning laws (compared with the District’s). By 1984, Arlington had 7,280 hotel rooms, and the county had approved construction for another eight hotels that would bring another 4,111 rooms to the area.
The Twin Bridges Marriott was demolished in 1990, but the Key Bridge Marriott is still in business. It is now one of the oldest properties in an empire that includes 3,800 hotels spread across 72 countries.
And the Americana? The venerable competitor lost its original front entrance and pool with the widening of U.S. Route 1 in the ’80s, but it’s still welcoming weary travelers. Today it is run by the Green family’s real estate company, Amitel, as is the Inn of Rosslyn (formerly Motel 50), which Green built in 1957.