1941: June - Construction begins on the 10 original buildings.

1942: Coral Court opens for business.

1946-48: Post World War II construction of 23 more bungalows.

1953: Greenlease kidnapper arrested at Coral Court.

1956: Coral Court & other roadside motels were part of a grand jury inquiry looking into possible illegal activities. Nothing came of the investigation however.

1975: Watson Road/Route 66 is completely bypassed by Interstate 44.

1984: April 12 - Original owner John H. Carr dies.

1987: May - Widow Jessie Carr and new husband Robert Williams are approached with an offer to buy the motel.

1988: Coral Court Preservation Society formed. Over 1,000 t-shirts are sold in 3 weeks with a portion of the proceeds going to the Preservation Fund.

1989: Coral Court is accepted to the National Register of Historic Places.

1993: Because of structural deficiencies, the motel was declared unsafe and was forced to close. Rather than spend $1 million in repair, the motel is listed for sale for $1.5 million.

1994: Coral Court fundraiser event raises $5,000 to save the motel. Despite no-trespassing signs, the motel is vandalized frequently by souvenir seekers.

1994: May 18 - Coral Court owner Robert Williams passes away. His widow Jessie Carr Williams is seventy-seven years old and in failing health.

1995: February - A commercial developer, Conrad Properties, purchases Coral Court with no interest in keeping the existing buildings.

1995: May - Museum of Transportation staff and volunteers work about 3 weeks to dismantle one complete Coral Court bungalow.

1995: June 11 - Spirtas Wrecking Company completes demolition of the motel property. It took about 6 weeks or 45 working days.

1995: Late June - Construction of a 45-lot subdivision, Oak Knoll Manor, begins.

1996: October 15 - Coral Court owner, Jessie Carr Williams, passes away—just 17 months after the sale of her property.

1998: June - The majority of single-family homes is completed. The only remnant left of the motel are the two distinctive stone entrance gates.

1999: March - The last home is sold at Oak Knoll Manor. The subdivision consists of just two streets: Oak Knoll Manor Drive and Oak Knoll Manor Court.

2000: May - A Coral Court Motel display opens with a partially rebuilt bungalow (curved glass block wall and a portion of the garage) at the Museum of Transportation in St. Louis. This temporary exhibit is scheduled to last 5-8 years, or until enough funds are collected for the permanent display to be built outdoors.

2000: May - A book is published about the motel "Tales from the Coral Court: Photos and Stories from a Lost Route 66 Landmark," by Shellee Graham, Virginia Publishing, St. Louis, Missouri.

2004: March - The play "Kid Peculiar at the Coral Court Motel" has its world premier at Washington University, St. Louis, created by Carter W. Lewis, an award-winning playwright.

2004: May - "Built for Speed: The Coral Court Motel," a video documentary is completed by Bill Boll and Shellee Graham.


C O R A L C O U R T :
The No-Tell Motel with a Touch of Class

( 1 9 4 1 - 1 9 9 5 )

Illicit fun Bring Your Own Sheets The Suicide Capital of St. Louis County
The Crown Jewel of St. Louis Quickies Architectural Excellence
Pleasure Palace Two-Lane America


Few motels on Route 66, or anywhere for that matter, elicit the wide variety of responses as the Coral Court Motel in St. Louis, Missouri. For mystery, intrigue and sheer tawdriness, you can’t beat the Coral Court.

The glazed brick motor court, formerly at 7755 Watson Road, was located just one mile west of the St. Louis city limits. Designed in the 1940’s Streamline Moderne style, the Coral Court was described by author Michael Wallis as “the proverbial ‘no-tell motel’ with a definite touch of class.” The motel was the premier surviving example of a motor court, an early phase of the motel. It was also highly regarded as one of the finest examples ever built in this late Art Deco style. Coral Court first became famous because of its prime location on Route 66, just outside of St. Louis. Heading west on the mother road, it was a natural stop after a day’s drive from Chicago.

On June 11, 1941, the St. Louis Daily Record reported that owner John H. Carr planned to build 10 two-room cabins and a central building at a cost of seven thousand dollars. St. Louis architect, Adolph L. Struebig, was hired to build John Carr’s vision of the best motel in St. Louis. Struebig was quoted in an interview with E.F. Porter of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “There were a lot of mom-and-pop motels in those days, little buildings of eight to twelve units. Johnnie didn’t want anything like that, he wanted something outstanding.” See John Carr with his grandson John Dover.

Struebig designed and built the original 10 bungalows in grand style. The honey-colored glazed ceramic bricks and large glass block windows gleamed in the sunlight, or reflected the headlights of your 1950 Buick Roadmaster at night.

There were two different architects who designed and built Coral Court, although credit has usually been given to one. During the course of the research for my book I found there was a second architect, Harold Tyrer, who was responsible for more than half of the Coral Court complex. Tyrer designed and built the exceptional 1946 cottages, which feature two rounded bays and pyramid-shaped glass block windows.

1941 floorplan (original)
1946 floorplan

After World War II, from 1946-48, twenty-three new buildings (or 46 rooms) were completed. Motel enthusiasts refer to this bungalow style as the “Mae West” unit because of the curvy, rounded bays. After the 2-story units were built near the back of the complex, the final tally reached 77 rooms. Yet the highest room number was only #65. This was because of the odd numbering system of the 2-story rooms: #51, 51a, 52, 52a. “A” indicated upstairs rooms.

To roadside fans, Coral Court was a shrine. To many St. Louisans, the motel was a rite of passage. Attending a late night prom party and escaping with a Court towel or matchbook was a must for any local teenager. For many who prefer to remain anonymous, the motel was the place “to get that groove on;” and of course there were always the chaste few who considered it “a monument to adultery”. How did Coral Court get its reputation? Three reasons: (1) The rooms could be rented for a rest period of 4 or 8 hours (initially created as a courtesy to truck drivers), but not actually hourly rates as is often said. (2) Every room had its own garage, so cars were hidden from passersby. The clean and cozy bungalows, with attached private garages, provided whispered asides and off-colored jokes for decades. (3) The management at Coral Court was very discreet. The legend of the motel spread across the United States and beyond.

One of the most memorable parts of the Coral Court legacy was the eye-catching sign on the edge of Watson Road. It advertised quality and style with its neon and chrome. During my research, another interesting research fact was discovered: the famous pink Coral Court sign was not the original. When Coral Court opened in 1942, there was an Art Deco gold & red sign that displayed, “Coral Court, Ultra Modern”. A small pennant was attached at the top. This initial design can be confirmed by the view on this vintage postcard. Later, circa 1948, the sign was changed slightly. The word “Modern” is replaced by a new word “Motel.” This sign was used until the early 1950s.

That impressive, pink Coral Court sign, that we all remember, was not created until around 1952. It was reminiscent of the original Holiday Inn “Great sign”. Coral Court’s new sign proclaimed “Moderate Rates”, while the lower banner with moveable letters declared, “Room Phones, Free Television, Air Conditioning, Swimming Pool”. (Cool 1957 advertisement) This distinctive neon sign lured customers to check-in until 1993. In November, three months after the motel closed, the owners ordered the sign taken down and destroyed.


A particularly notorious moment in the life of the motel was the Greenlease kidnapping case. On September 28, 1953, six-year old Bobby Greenlease Jr. was kidnapped from his Kansas City, Kansas school by Carl Austin Hall and Hall’s mistress, Bonnie Heady. In a series of phone conversations, Hall repeatedly assured Bobby’s parents that the boy was alive and well. Unaware that his child had already been murdered, millionaire Robert C. Greenlease paid $600,000 in a desperate effort to save his son. Hall and Heady collected the ransom, crossed the state line and fled to St. Louis. Hall hid out for two days at the Coral Court Motel. An odd assortment of St. Louisans—a policeman, a crook, a cab driver and a prostitute—were all instrumental in the capture of Bobby’s killers. The incident received national attention and is often compared to the infamous Lindbergh kidnapping.

Carl Austin Hall and Bonnie Heady both pleaded guilty. A jury in Kansas City recommended the death penalty. Eighty-seven days after the murder, Hall and Heady were executed in the gas chamber at the state penitentiary in Jefferson City. Somewhere, somehow, half of the ransom money—$300,000—disappeared. Many people believed that the missing money was stashed on the premises of the Coral Court Motel.

The mystery of what happened to the $300,000 has never been solved. Recently, I spoke with a lady whose husband was an FBI agent assigned to the Greenlease case. She told me the case is still open, 50+ years later.
(I haven’t phoned the FBI to confirm that, but I thought it was interesting.)

For two years, I interviewed dozens of people who stayed, played and
worked at the Coral Court Motel. Here are a few of my favorite quotes from the book:

“I admired its architecture, if not its bedsprings.”
—S.L., St. Louis

“It’s a dark, sleazy place with bad memories.”
—Marie, Fenton, Missouri

“It seems so unconscionable that it could be destroyed. I liken it to crucifixion.”
—Bob Waldmire, Rochester, Illinois

“I lived in my van and delivered flowers. She was high society and very married. I had never been to the Coral Court, but I’d heard about it since high school. It became a Shangri-la solution, 10:30 to 2:30 p.m. every Tuesday.”
—Bob B., St. Louis

“…I loved working there, I really did. It was fun during the pool days. What really was the final blow for the tourist business at Coral Courts was when the pool was no longer open…”
—Alan S. former employee (1973-1982), St. Louis

“It was an institution. I’ve got a glass block, a tin ashtray, some towels and a matchbook. I grew up here and spent my whole life here in St. Louis. Coral Courts, even as a child, you heard the older people talking about it. It had its nefarious reputation, but when you drove by it, it was a beautiful little affection, with its trees and all that. A lot of people didn’t know that place and [that] there were two different check-ins. Like if you were a tourist wanting to spend the night, you went in one section. If you were [there] for the notorious 3-hours, that was another section. Because they didn’t want the tourists being upset by the garage doors clanging all night long.”

—Ron Raumschuh, St. Louis
(NOTE: Sadly, Mr. Raumschuh passed away on May 23, 2003. He participated in both the Coral Court BOOK & documentary.)

“Most people laugh when they hear the name Coral Court, and think of it as a seedy place. My recollection—maybe I’m one of the few in St. Louis—is that it was an extraordinary place. As a kid, we swam there frequently and met nice families. Some people came back year after year to the Coral Court Motel…My recollection was not a place for one-night stands; I remember it as kind of a classy place.”
—Rick Anthony, Ellisville, Missouri

“In the ’70s, for our anniversary…I took my husband out to dinner and asked him if I could drive home. Then I drove him to Coral Courts. It had such a reputation; I had to stay there just to find out if there were mirrors on the ceiling, television sets on the ceiling and if the beds were really warm…It was just a nice comfortable room with a bath.”
—Marilyn H., St. Louis

“Along 66, there were motels shaped like tepees and taco stands built like sombreros. There’s so much history in this highway. It was the style of an era, it is our culture. Of course, we don’t see anything like it anymore. What are we building nowadays that’s real cool, like the Coral Court Motel?”
—Ray Benson, founder of the Texas swing band “Asleep at the Wheel”


Actions by retail developers and the motel owners in the late 1980’s and the early 1990’s, led architectural experts and Coral Court fans on a preservation crusade. Unfortunately, even a listing on the National Register of Historic Places, pushed for and received in 1989, did not provide protection from the wishes of its owners, private developers and a demolition permit. A property on the National Register is only protected if federal funds are involved. Also, the Village of Marlborough had no local historic preservation laws like the City of St. Louis; even after the State of Missouri passed a law enabling all towns, cities and villages to have historic preservation districts and ordinances, the village fathers were simply not interested. The motel owners did not want to be bothered with Coral Court any longer and their attorney advised them to sell.

As the fate of the landmark became clear, the concern of its supporters shifted to preventing further deterioration of the motel while it was on the market. Although the motel was roped off and patrolled regularly by the police, it did not prevent “souvenirs-seekers” and vandals from breaking into the rooms. Some even loaded the bricks into their cars, hoping they would become a valuable investment for future resale. Tragically, they hastened the destruction of the unique landmark.

The Coral Court Motel was closed in 1993 and razed two years later. The motel was actively on the market for nearly 3 years but nobody was able to afford the $1.5 million pricetag plus the extra $1 million estimated for renovation. Shortly before its destruction in 1995, Coral Court preservationists remained loyal. The Museum of Transportation in St. Louis, where a Coral Court unit was planned to be moved and eventually displayed, could not afford the more than $100,000 to move the building intact.

Once again, Coral Court fans came through. The museum staff and an all-volunteer labor force of about twenty, showed up for the bungalow’s solitary trip to the museum. For two-and-a-half-weeks, they they dismantled the selected unit, piece by piece; stacking heavy bricks and blocks. Working on the unit’s outside portion, these determined volunteers unhinged doorways, lifted garage doors and pried off aluminum windows. While on the inside, they carefully unscrewed fixtures, coat racks and curtain rods, and carried out any remaining furniture. History owes all of the museum staff and volunteers a huge thank-you for their selfless labor.


After sitting in storage for five years, a new feature at the Museum of Transportation was built in May 2000. It is a semi-permanent exhibit about the Coral Court Motel. It features the Streamline Moderne facade of one of the motel’s 1946 units built of glazed brick and glass blocks. Once again these original materials are back together for our appreciation. The exhibit also covers the impact of “car culture” on the nation with a 1941 Fleetwood Cadillac peaking out of the Coral Court garage. Meanwhile Bobby Darin’s Dream Car, a space age “Jetson-like” fantasy from 1962, sits close by in the same room. Included in the display are pieces of CCM memorabilia and photo examples of other landmarks on U.S. Route 66. When enough funds are collected, the museum plans to rebuild the entire Coral Court unit outdoors for all to enjoy. Can you imagine the sidewalk leading to this Deco masterpiece? It could be called the “Walk of Shame”. Yes, for only $$ you can have your name (or anyone else’s name) engraved in a brick for the sidewalk for all of posterity. :-)

What was built on the site of the former Coral Court? Instead of history, nostalgia and a fabulous landmark, there is now a subdivision of 45 single-family homes called Oak Knoll Manor. Only the original, distinctive stone gates and a few pillars remain. You must look closely to see them behind the growing trees and shrubbery. The motel’s stone gates and the Oak Knoll Manor subdivision are located between Sunset Bowling Center and Rothman Furniture store, in the Village of Marlborough, Missouri. One of my future projects is to have a historic marker placed in front of these stone entrance gates, so tourists and locals will have a permanent reminder of Coral Court.

Sometimes I think about the motel’s last years and the energy spent fighting to save her. Ardent Coral Court fans fought passionately to preserve this ageless beauty. There were no true winners. Money, or the lack of it, won in the end. If there had been just one St. Louis corporation, or, in the spirit of Coral Court, just one “anonymous” hero with enough money and concern for this magnificent motel; maybe fifty-four years of memories, an architect’s vision and an owner’s dream would not have been destroyed and lost forever.

IF you would like to write to the Village of Marlborough in support of our proposed Coral Court marker, please go to City of Marlborough St. Louis County government page.

In 2004, Bill Boll and Shellee Graham completed their award winning video documentary "Built for Speed: The Coral Court Motel." The program has received rave reviews from the media and won the 2005 Aurora Award for International Broadcasting. The Museum of Transportation's Automotive Building (where the Coral Court display is housed) underwent an extensive renovation and was reopened in December 2005.


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