by Tim Gilmore, 1/28/2018
“Prob’ly ’bout time I headed home,” Bonnie says.
She’s standing in the open door to her room, wearing acid wash jeans and an acid wash jacket, a denim purse slung over her shoulder. I ask her where she was before she came to Mount Vernon.
Kingsland, Georgia. Metter, Georgia. Up to Claxton. Into South Carolina, to Clearwater. Lake City, Florida.
“Where’s home?” I ask.
“Don’t know,” she says with no irony. “Ain’t never been.”
A taut-skinned black woman tells Bonnie about the time, almost two years ago, when the man crawled naked in front of traffic on Philips Highway. Cars stopped in both directions. The police came out and Tasered him.
“Now what they had to tase him for? He already nekkid. He already crawlin’. Hands and knees bleedin’. Mind blown. Ass in the air. Poe-leece with his belly hangin’ over his belt, he just stand there and tase his ass.”
Not the same man, further down Philips, who ran naked to a stoplight and jumped on top of an SUV one night.
Bonnie tells me I shouldn’t pay attention to all the bad stuff people say about Mount Vernon. The housekeeper is really nice. Mr. Patel too. He works in the office. Yes, there’s drugs, yes, there’s prostitution, but nobody’s been killed the whole time she’s been here.
“’Bout a month,” she says when I ask. “Six weeks maybe.”
Mount Vernon Motor Lodge has kept its name longer than any other motel on Philips Highway, this boulevard of noir where characters in Michael Wiley novels live, those outlaw antiheroes with nothing left to lose who outsmart corrupt cops, a corrupt (in)justice system.
It wasn’t always so. Before Interstate 95, Philips Highway, U.S. 1, long called Kings Avenue, took most motorists between Jacksonville and points further south. Motels, a portmanteau for “motor hotels,” or motor courts, or tourist courts, or motor lodges were middle-class drive-up hotels. Just as owning a car promised to make “working class” “middle class,” ordinary people pulled safely into motor courts on the two-lane highways that traversed the vast continent.
On Philips, you could stay just out of Jacksonville (now inner-city) at the Patio Motor Court, the Rodeway Inn Motel, Green Acres Motor Court, Bishop’s Motor Court, the Starlite Motel, Gator Lodge, the Palace Motel, Mount Vernon.
E. Ben Walton Jr. built Mount Vernon Motor Lodges in Miami, West Palm Beach, Daytona, and Jacksonville. In 1941, he’d built the Heart of Palm Beach Hotel and co-developed the so-called Royal Palm Way in West Palm.
If the motel, in abstract, implied an Everyman’s accommodation, Walton hit the American Dream between the eyes by building George Washington’s ye-olden-Virginia plantation, Mount Vernon, highwayside, for everybody.
Entrenched as were the Founding Fathers in the Enlightenment and neoclassicism, Washington had built his plantation house in approximate Palladian. Palladian architecture in England had evolved from Italian architect Andrea Palladio’s ideas of the late 1500s, visions of villas built like ancient temples and agoras.
Walton crudely copied into his motor lodges Palladian elements of the first president’s Mount Vernon—two-story porch columns on the motel office, (clumsily copied) classical symmetry, the (somewhat) hipped roof, and most importantly, the central cupola topped by a spire topped by a dove as symbol of peace.
The dove hovered above. In the early days. 1948. 1955. At some point, the dove disembarked. The spire disappeared. The cupola crumbled.
In the beginning, E. Ben built his patriotic motor lodges so that any working-class American might feel a bit of the grandeur, the greatness, the nobility of the first president’s country home while traveling between, say, Miami and Asheville, North Carolina, 1952.
Mount Vernon Motor Lodge was Everyman’s estate, plebeian Palladian—for a night.
Remember? Room 23. Our age exactly. 1963. We were so tired. But life seemed newly ours. Our baby daughter slept between us on the hard single bed. We held hands across her. There was even a phone in the room. You called your daddy. That little restaurant called Dobbs’—we wondered who he was. We felt so tired in the morning, but giddy, kept giggling. Eggs Benedict and too much coffee. Then we were back on the road.
Al and Donna Delegal bought Green Acres Motor Court in 1966, Frances’s Patio Court in 1973, a Thunderbird Motel at Silver Springs, and three motels at the beach. At one point, the Delegals owned more than 350 units. I-95 and white flight had begun to shame Philips, but nobody expected the great decline to be so steep and dramatic.
Frances’s Patio became American Eagle, and South Jacksonville Presbyterian Church in nearby San Marco still offered summer camp for kids at the motel and its pool. Those halcyon days were 15 years yet from the drunk man wandering from whoknowswhere over Philips, 1987 or so, falling into the motel pool, lost in the deep night and drowning.
“When the other motels were still respectable,” Donna says, “Mount Vernon was a little shadier. You wouldn’t recommend anybody stay there.”
Mount Vernon led the Great Philips Highway Motel Decline. It was “dirtyish,” in Donna’s hesitant and calculating description, by 1970. “If there was any activity that was a little on the shady side, it began at Mount Vernon early on.”
Motel managers found their position a good place to conduct side business, “drugs, prostitution, hourly occupation, all of the above.”
The “Adults Only” sign went up in the late 1970s. At first it referred to adult films, a Mount Vernon specialty.
I-95 had made of Philips a shadow road, and people did there what they do in the shadows. No longer was this yester-highway Kings Avenue. In South Georgia, a joke circulated that Beaver Street, running northwest of downtown, was slang-named for its availability of prostitutes, while on U.S. 1, heading southeast, the chain of Everyman’s accommodations deteriorated into the rancid honeycomb of smack and crack and hookers.
In 1999, police raided motels up and down Philips Highway, looking not only for drugs and prostitution, but easier targets—zoning and safety code violations. That April, police made 52 arrests for prostitution just outside of Mount Vernon. They cited Gator Lodge and American Eagle Motel for 100 violations each, Siesta Motel for 150, and Mount Vernon for 75.
In July 2017, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office published a sketch of a serial rapist, described vaguely as “a short, stocky black man, 30 to 45 years old, with a low, wavy hairstyle, clean-shaven complexion, and a large tattoo on one of his calves.”
The trail started at Mount Vernon in October 2015. The last thing the first victim remembered was smoking pot and crack with a group of strangers in a room at Mount Vernon the night before. She awoke the next day, her pants down around her ankles, behind a dumpster behind the motel.
I’m talking to Bonnie and her anonymous friend about how “this motel ain’t the worstest one,” when Mukund Patel steps out the front door in the faux-plantation office building and looks at me with a forcefully inquisitive expression.
I tell him I’m exploring the history of the place and he says nothing bad’s happened here for the past two years, his tenure of management.
Bonnie and her friend look uneasily to Philips Highway. I look to the missing cupola, the absent spire, the van(qu)ished peace dove. What happened to Everyman’s George Washington? To plebeian Palladianism? To the days when responsible families without much money could build a tourist court on a two-lane highway just outside the city, yet just inside the city limits?
I ask Bonnie, Mr. Patel, and Bonnie’s friend if they knew the motel was built to resemble George Washington’s plantation, and they stare at me silently and suspiciously, slightly dazed and irritated, puzzled as to what I’m doing here and when I first appeared.
After all, America’s so much older than America, so much other than America, vast stretches of this country are no country at all, and George Washington might be any other freak walking Philips Highway’s brutal humidity and heat. It makes no difference to Mount Vernon.
Bonnie’s friend finally tells me her name is Xandra, spells it for me, the X, says she’s walked this same street in 10,000 cities, and I believe her. Xandra looks much older than she must be. She also looks much younger.
“George Washington, huh?” she says.
“Yeah,” I say. “George Washington.”
“What he did? Chop down the berry tree?”
“Yeah,” I say. “I think so. Among other things.”