Capri Motel / Motel Capri

by Tim Gilmore, 10/15/2021

I keep coming back to the Motel Capri, to this compound of pink little bedrooms. I keep coming back to count the stories, to marvel at how much living occurs, how much life accrues, in even a random little highway inn like this one. For its first five years, the Capri was the Ace Motel, painted yellow, but even now, as apartments, 70 years after it was built at North Main Street and 38th, it carries the name Capri.

But in 1956, brave new world, a “television equipped lobby!” And in the dining room, “Wholesome food temptingly served!”

Your pick of a room, a family unit, or an apartment, 158 rentable spaces. “One of the South’s finest and largest motels!”

Soon enough the cities will creep outward. The Interstate Highway System will, by contrast, turn these old highways and byways into provincial little roads, folding these outer spaces into the inner city. The Capri sits just inside the city limits when new, a selling point, just within the outer fold.

The brochures brag. Convenient to the airport, to downtown shopping, to parks, beaches, fishing and golf, to “theatres and churches.”

So “get out your eye patch and red bandana,” Orlando Sentinel columnist Frank Murphy advises. “The Pirate Treasure Cruise is this weekend.” The Daytona Beach Outboard Club hosts a fish fry the first Friday of September, 1956. Saturday morning, the cruise hits Marineland before heading up to Jacksonville for a night of camping at the Jacksonville Zoo on the Trout River.

from The Orlando Sentinel, August 26, 1956

Those not wishing to brave the outdoors might want to stay nearby at the Motel Capri, which now has 200 units, priced at six to 10 dollars a night. The Sentinel highlights the Madison family—Lynne, Marge, Bud and Spike—decked out in pirate costume, grinning, excitedly studying a map.

It’s more like a neighborhood, or its own little town, than a motor court or a motor hotel. The little pink houses perch with columned porches on manicured lawns behind sidewalks. Small palms and dwarf red cedars pose among bursts of pink azalea blooms beneath corner lampposts.

Tasteful greens and reds in apartment suites, an accent wall of soothing floral wallpaper design, an all-electric kitchenette. Houseplants in the lobby, diamond checked floors, floral drapes and chair-height ash trays cleaned daily.

The last time Florida State University and the University of Georgia squared off, a field goal decided the game. That was two seasons ago, second game of ’56. While the Seminoles remember the field goal, they also recall they had a touchdown called back on a penalty. The Bulldogs won, three to nothing. Every year the Seminoles fly from Tallahassee to Jax, a flight of less than an hour, then huddle up at the Capri Motel between the airport and the Gator Bowl football stadium. It’ll be worse for the ’Noles this time when Georgia beats them 28-13.

Florida State senior lineman Leo Baggett, from The Tallahassee Democrat, October 9, 1958

“Many commercial travelers find the Capri ideal headquarters for this area. Our service around the clock helps to maintain schedules.” From his ideal headquarters, the traveling salesman makes his rounds. Rooms “all Beautyrest equipped,” with “finger-tip temperature control, Telephones (24 hour service) and Radio.”

Storms wrack wondrous over the pink buildings at night. Strange happenings with lights in the sky. A shadow moves through the darkness and radiates its own light. A woman floats lithe, against the palm fronds, shoulders and cheekbones aglow. The tornado, though, leaves no trace on the morning. As if it were a dream storm.

“You’ll enjoy the luxury of modern comforts and conveniences in the midst of pleasant tropical surroundings — where a warm welcome awaits you…Air-conditioned in summer — steam-heated in winter.”

It doesn’t take long for the crime to set in. It comes in with the humidity, from the ground up. It comes in on the hot wet wind. It’s always wriggling in the ground in this town, larval and desperate and hungry. “Just inside the city limits” becomes inner-city. A motorists’ hotel becomes a drive-by. “Reasonably priced” becomes cheap becomes expendable, devoid of value. The place is easy to rob.

George Pettibone robs the motel with a handgun in ’62. He gets $316 and a decade in Raiford State Prison, strange rental agreement.

But it’s November 21, 1964 when liquor and hatred threaten to burn their way from Capri bedrooms out into the city. It’s October 28, 1965 that reporters from the United Press International lead with “Congressional investigators charged today that the Alabama leader of the Ku Klux Klan once threatened to shoot up a Florida restaurant after a drinking session with fellow Klansmen.”

The group of Klan leaders from around the South, “grand dragons” they call themselves, holds secret meetings at the Capri to figure out how to get Rosecrans out of jail.

William Rosecrans is the only Klansmen convicted after the bombing. He pleaded guilty. In early July, the all white jury set the other four free and J.B. Stoner, the attorney who’ll later defend James Earl Ray, Martin Luther King’s murderer, called it “a victory for the white race.”

Donal Godfrey, age 6, courtesy Godfrey

The Klansmen had bombed the home of first grader Donal Godfrey, the first black student at previously all white Lackawanna Elementary School. Sunday morning before sunrise, February 16, 1964, 20 sticks of stolen dynamite blew through the six year old’s home at 3259 Gilmore Street in Murray Hill Heights. Donal and his mother were sleeping on the other side of the house. The bomb blew their refrigerator through the roof, but failed to kill its targets.

In the Klansmen’s rooms at the Capri, anger boils over. A couple bottles of Kentucky bourbon sets it alight. They have to get Rosecrans out, but not out of solidarity. They owe him no more loyalty than he’d shown them. He’d squealed. Confessed. It’s Rosecrans’s statement the court tried to hang the other men on. Co-conspirators, it called them.

Robert Creel, left, at a Klan rally in Huntsville, Alabama, from The Bradenton Herald, October 28, 1965

Creel keeps swilling, swigging. The stuff burns a hole in his rotten heart. He can’t sit down. He should be getting tired. Somebody else has passed out. It’s three in the morning. And Creel’s getting hungry. And the more he thinks about Rosescrans, the angrier he gets. They need to get him out of jail alright, teach him one final lesson. And make him a lesson to others.

When Congress pressures Robert Scoggin, “grand dragon” of the KKK in South Carolina, drags him before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he refuses to answer their questions about what went on that night at the Capri, invokes his right not to incriminate himself or his comrades under the Fifth Amendment.

from The Miami Herald, October 29, 1965

Chief Investigator Donald Appell pushes him on it: “Robert Creel, grand dragon of Alabama, became so intoxicated that at three a.m. he wanted to go into the city and shoot his way into a restaurant and get breakfast. You people had to subdue him to keep him from carrying out his threat.” Again Scoggin pleads the Fifth.

from The Times (of Shreveport, Louisiana), October 29, 1965

Appell displays Klan materials showing how to make bombs from fertilizer, getaway fuses, dynamite booby traps ignited by flashlight batteries. He speaks of training sessions at the farm of O.C. Mixon outside Macon, Georgia that taught Klansmen to blow up cars. When Scoggin and other Klan leaders refuse to turn over records, comparing themselves as always to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (members of which they’ve murdered) and claiming that organization’s rights aren’t thus violated, they’re sentenced to nine months in prison.

from The Jacksonville Journal, June 28, 1976

Exeunt the Klan and their vile drunken dragons. At the Capri, the robberies continue. Monday morning, late June, ’76, a motel maid finds Florida Junior College student Harlan Jefferson, who’s been staying at the Capri off and on for a few months, dead in bed, his motorcycle parked out front, a bullet through his head.

“For That ‘At Home’ Feeling, Try Us! We Think You’ll Like Us!” A large swimming pool. An airport courtesy car. “For the Economy-Minded!” An epiphany or two. In one room, salvation. In another, damnation.

I keep coming back to these little pink bedrooms. I’ve never enjoyed my stay. I don’t come back for the television in the lobby, the all-electric kitchenette, not even the hash browns and clean ashtrays. It’s the stories that bring me around, even the ugly ones, the chance to plumb the accumulation of world history in one random wayside corner, to bleed into its wounds.

“Reservations suggested during Winter Season.”