Forging a new future for motels

A saloon bar in the desert

With its captivating landscape, Old Hollywood legacy and burgeoning creative community, Pioneertown is securing its spot as a hot new escape – and the member-founded Pioneertown Motel is putting Mane Street back on the map

By Kate Lough    Above image by Cole Kilburz     Saturday 5 September, 2020    Short read

Only a couple of hours outside Los Angeles, the landscape becomes otherworldly. Surreal geology, gnarled Joshua Trees and the wide starry skies of the desert expand before you with a magnetism not many places possess. It was this spell-binding effect of the landscape that lured members and brothers Mike and Matt French to Pioneertown, an old Western movie set slap bang in the middle of the desert.

‘Our parents moved out to Palm Springs in 2010,’ remembers Mark. ‘It’s only 40 minutes from here, so we came out to the desert a lot and just fell in love with the area. Pappy & Harriet’s, which does big shows with great bands also caught our attention.’ 

So much so, in fact, that in 2014 the brothers decided to buy and renovate Pioneertown’s old motel, which had been opened in 1946 by Roy Rogers and Gene Autry as a waypost for movie stars on set. Mike moved from Manhattan; Matt from Portland and, today, the brothers live as neighbours in Pioneertown full-time. ‘It had so much opportunity,’ says Mike. ‘We wanted to restore it to a degree where it would be the best place to stay in the High Desert. It also has this incredible Old Hollywood history, which we wanted to celebrate while creating a rustic, modern experience.’ 
A motel in the desert
A bedroom in a motel in the desert
An old redwood lodge, the single-storey motel has 20 bedrooms, with much of the artwork and furniture sourced or made by the local community. ‘It’s pretty special. You just open your door out onto the desert, there’s no pavement up here. But the most special thing is the inclusiveness. We get horseback riding groups, families, celebrities, motorcycle groups. It’s a universally interesting place with the blend of the landscape, history and Old Hollywood.’

Rogers and Autry originally bought the 32,000-acre slice of desert because the landscape had the uncanny ability to look like Texas, Arizona and California all at once. ‘There was a vision back then to create a real town and destination, so Pioneertown is on a relatively standard city grid,’ explains Mark. Since those Old Hollywood days though, Pioneertown has evolved into a thriving community. ‘There’s a really cool neighbourhood feel but it’s also really remote. You have a blend of the old-timers who have been here for decades, plus artists, creatives, musicians and horse people. It’s a very welcoming place.’

COVID-19 forced the brothers to shut the motel until early June – but they’ve since seen an explosion of interest in Pioneertown. ‘People are moving out here every day, gravitating towards the desert: creatives from New York, Los Angeles and Nashville, so that’s been a silver lining,’ they add.
A barman standing in the middle of a bar
Now, the brothers are looking onwards and upwards. This month, they’re due to open the next phase of their renovation project, the Red Dog Saloon, which was once the centre of the action in the Pioneertown movie set. Adjacent to it will be the Red Cabin, which connects to a back room in the Saloon, with the idea that it will suit VIPs or events in the future. ‘It’s our Swiss Army Knife room,’ says Mark. Back in the saloon they will be offering a simple Mexican menu with tacos and chilaquiles, as well as cocktails such as mezcal palomas and spicy margaritas on draft. ‘We’ve built in a to-go window, so you can walk up through the movie set and order directly through the hatch,’ the brothers explain. ‘We’re also working on a garden so you can get all your food and drink to go and sit around in the desert. It will be a fun, historic saloon vibe.’

It’s this sense of having fun while enjoying the area’s remoteness that is key to the Pioneertown experience. ‘When people arrive here, passing jagged mountains and boulders, there’s a shedding or delayering that happens. They forget their phone and unplug. But it’s not like the Big Sur or Amangiri – people are here to explore, hang out and have fun. They really settle into the experience at the motel and disappear for a bit.’
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