Wednesday, December 15, 2021

The Envoy and the Diplomat


We're taking a break from London today, and traveling both in time and space back to Washington, D.C., in the late 1970s and early '80s.

In those years, after I was about 11 years old, my mom, brother and I would travel from our home in Florida to Washington twice a year, to visit my grandmother, who lived in suburban Maryland. We had to drive through D.C. to get there, and we often took a route along New York Avenue to Bladensburg Road, in the northeastern quadrant of the city.

On New York Avenue we passed two motels -- the Envoy and the Diplomat. I remember them as clear as a bell. That's the Diplomat, above, on an old postcard. (All pictures borrowed from the Internet, obviously!)


And here's the Envoy, surrounded by acres of grass and parkland and visibly backing up to both the Capitol and the Washington Monument -- which is nothing like its appearance in real life. It actually looked like this:


The Envoy's sign was blue neon, as I recall, in stylish cursive lettering that lit up the vertical concrete slab atop the roof. I don't have an image of the Diplomat's sign, but in my possibly inaccurate memory it had red lettering on a sort of shield, something like the logo on its brochure:


I never stayed in either of these places, and in fact, by the time we drove past them they'd seen better days. A Washington Post article from 1977 describes the Diplomat as a hotbed of crime, and I suspect the Envoy was no better. Northeast Washington could be dicey back then.

I always liked seeing them, though. It meant we were just a few miles from my grandmother's house, and I loved their '50s neon charm.


Here's an image of the Envoy that I believe was taken from an old matchbook. If it looked that cool, you'd stay there, right?

Unfortunately, by 2009 the Envoy had been stripped of almost all its character. It had been boiled down to a bland paste bearing the Quality Inn brand.


And now it's gone altogether, as is, I believe, the Diplomat. (I couldn't even find images of it on Google Street View, unless I'm confused about its location and/or it's completely unrecognizable.)

So, as I think about Christmases past, I can't help but recall these two seedy but swank Mid-Century motels, and the way I always watched for them and their bright, colorful signs on our long car trips north.

48 comments:

gz said...

How things change, when young you expect them to stay the same!

Debby said...

Where in Maryland? (We've probably discussed this before...I'm easily befuddled). I lived in Gaithersburg for years. The traffic was horrible, but it was so great to be able to hop a subway and go into DC every weekend. There was so much to see and do!

Steve Reed said...

I loved DC -- my first big-city experience. My grandmother lived in Hyattsville.

Steve Reed said...

So much of that area is unrecognizable now! To be honest it was quite depressed when I was a kid and I think it's had a resurgence.

Moving with Mitchell said...

Cool looks! The Envoy looked so much better in print. A shame Quality Inn didn’t find a way to restore its mid-century cool. Then again, it’s gone anyway. We went to DC every year during cherry blossom season when I was a kid. But I have no idea where we stayed.

Bob said...

I love those futuristic buildings from back in the day and wish they would have kept them around. Damn those Quality Inn folks for taking that motel and turning it into a box of rooms.

Yorkshire Pudding said...

A nice blogpost recalling the motel days before such establishments were taken over by big business - days when a lot of American motels and hotels were still independently run.

Ms. Moon said...

What in hell were those car/station wagons in front of the Envoy in the artist's rendition? Were they limos?
Ah, yes. I do remember the old glory days of motels.
I've been researching places to stay in Sanibel and Captiva Islands, just for fun, and it would appear that it's mostly old "cottages" which charms me. I'm sure at one time they were advertised as quite modern and now their drawing power comes from their vintage appeal.
Things change, eh?

ellen abbott said...

I never cared for mid-century modern but it's the favorite period of one of my husband's cousins who is an architect. When I was growing up we would go to the beach for the day returning home usually in the dark. There was a big neon sign we passed of a construction worker on an I beam and his arm would raise up (a set of lights that would come on sequentially) as if telling the crane guy to lift it up.

Sharon said...

What a fun post. My family took road trips quite often so I'm very familiar with motels that looked like this. When we first moved to Phoenix, there was one street full of motels like this. I think only a handful are left and they are very seedy looking and many shelter homeless families. I do love a good midcentury building.

Mary said...

Ha! Before I retired, I drove into northeast WDC on New York Avenue (at least part of it--I turned up Montana Ave) on my way to work. Decades of driving part of that less than charming avenue and its continual traffic nightmares did not endear it to me. Plenty of what one might term seedy establishments...if one was being kind. Always felt bad for out of town people choosing hotels/motels in that location thinking it was close to things. Problem was--the things it is close to weren't necessarily things one wants to visit or have visited upon you. :)

Ed said...

I really like the architecture from that time. Too bad motels these days are pretty bland and boxlike on the outside.

Ellen D. said...

These old hotels remind me of my 1964 NY World's Fair scrapbook. The brochures for the different exhibits try to make it all seem so modern and new!
I remember when we traveled as a family, us kids were always so happy when Dad found a motel with an outdoor pool! Yay!

Wilma said...

I can see the Jetsons staying at the Envoy!

robin andrea said...

Just reading this post sent me on a journey both in my mind and on the internet to find the name of the hotel my family I stayed in in Washington DC in 1963. It was the first real out of town vacation my family ever took. I kept thinking, "What was the name of that hotel, what was the name?" And then I remembered... The Shoreham. So, I googled it and saw that it's pretty big and highly rated and is now called the Omni Shoreham. So... thank you for posting these images and telling the story of your travels. It sent me on my own trip back in time.

Red said...

Motels at that time were very cheaply built and fell apart very quickly.

Kelly said...

Motels today just don't have the charm of those from the past. My favorite image is the one from the matchbook. I'll second Wilma's comment!

jenny_o said...

I don't know why, exactly, but I am fond of artist's renditions of 50s and 60s era living - everything from people to homes to schools to motels. It seems like a different world altogether. Which I guess it is, really.

I'm using a different browser and I can comment again!

Andrew said...

It's funny how some things from your childhood really stick in your mind, often fairly mediocre things.

N2 said...

Love this trip down your memory lane. I was born in DC at Andrews AFB not too long after WWII and spent years 6,7,8 in Forestville Maryland, just outside. The buildings/hotels in DC might have changed, but the "hotbed of crime" remains, the criminals just wear fancier clothing and stay at the "International Hotel."

Tasker Dunham said...

We could never have imagined in those days how easy it would be to travel there again virtually.

Mage said...

They certainly did butcher that motel. I love this era of architecture.

e said...

I love the era and the comment about the Jetsons. We are so wasteful in this country when it comes to buildings...

Catalyst said...

Coming, as I did, from far away and having only a t.v. screen picture of Washington, I was stunned on my first trip there (in the 1960's) to discover that the White House was right in the middle of a busy city and directly across the street from a pizza restaurant!

Steve Reed said...

Quality Inn really stripped it of any style. The parabolas at the front canopy looked better in the illustrations than in real life -- the slant was better.

Steve Reed said...

Who decided that Americans want their motels to look so boring?!

Steve Reed said...

The world was a lot more interesting before corporate chains dominated.

Steve Reed said...

We stayed at a place with little cottages called Mitchell's Sand Castles on Sanibel in 1979. I will never forget it. Last I checked it was still there!

Steve Reed said...

Funny how we remember signs like that so vividly! Do you remember the business it was for?

Steve Reed said...

Yeah, independent motels have not fared well all over the country. They're mostly flophouses now. I think people like the security of a chain.

Steve Reed said...

I wonder if many tourists even stayed in those establishments. Maybe when they first opened. You're right -- New York Avenue was pretty bleak all around!

Steve Reed said...

Enclosed buildings are the style now, for security reasons.

Steve Reed said...

Ha! We always looked for a pool, too. We used to stay at Days Inns, invariably somewhere in central South Carolina, and they usually had a pool.

Steve Reed said...

Definitely! I guess that's the look they wanted!

Steve Reed said...

You were in a much better neighborhood in a much grander hotel!

Steve Reed said...

Yeah, they probably weren't really built to last.

Steve Reed said...

We don't even really have motels anymore, do we? Just things like Hampton Inn and Holiday Inn Express, boxy earth-toned buildings.

Steve Reed said...

Yay! Glad you solved your commenting problem! I also love the artwork from that period. There's a great book by Thomas Hine called "Populuxe" that's all about American design in the '50s and early '60s, and it's full of illustrations like that.

Steve Reed said...

I know! Why should I remember this?! I didn't even stay there!

Steve Reed said...

Well, that's a whole 'nother level of crime, isn't it? LOL

Steve Reed said...

Yeah, it's amazing that I could sit in England and find all these images and even visit via Google Street View.

Steve Reed said...

They tried to update it but probably also knew its life span was almost over, so they didn't want to invest much.

Steve Reed said...

It is amazing how quickly buildings come and go.

Steve Reed said...

But not Comet Pizza. :)

Edna B said...

How sad it is to see such wonderful establishments go seedy. But such wonderful memories. Enjoy your day, hugs, Edna B.

Jim Davis said...

You just gotta love mid-century modern! Great post!

ellen abbott said...

Not specifically, a big construction company.

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