Historic Route 66 has seen countless legendary motels and motor lodges over the decades. While some of those landmarks, like the Aztec Motel in Nob Hill in Albuquerque, were eventually demolished, others, like the Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, have been restored through a succession of ownership to modern replicas of their vintage counterparts.
Only one Route 66 motel has remained in operation since 1959, is run by the same family who built it, and has maintained its inceptive aesthetic: the Sunset Motel in Moriarty.
According to owners Mike and Debbie Pogue, the motel has successfully kept most of its first furnishings. “You’re sitting on original furniture; the paneling is original,” Debbie Pogue said. “Almost everything in the motel is except for the refrigerator cases. The lamps are original. We only have two chairs in all the rooms that are not original.”
Televisions, refrigerators, and air conditioning have been added since the motel’s 1969 completion, but the Sunset Motel looks much like it has in several motion pictures. Hollywood productions like “Hell or High Water” and “The Dry Land,” and the not-yet released “Land of Dreams,” have been shot there.
The day The Independent visited the motel, another movie, “End of the Road,” starring Queen Latifah, Ludacris, and Beau Bridges, was being filmed.
The motel is unmistakably identifiable to Mike Pogue, who, as son of the initial owners and builders, did much of the building himself.
Once, during a visit to Amsterdam years ago, Pogue visited a movie theater. During the previews, he spotted something familiar. “I looked up and realized ‘That’s my hotel!’ It was a quick scene from a movie that was coming up, and they filmed it in the bathroom of the Sunset Motel. Isn’t that amazing?” he said.
He has no recollection of the name of that movie, nor did he grant permission for it to be shot as his motel, he said. “There have been many little films made in these rooms that we didn’t even know about,” his wife agreed.
After successfully running the Yucca Motor Court in Moriarty for years, Bill and Elaine Pogue, Mike’s parents, began building the Sunset Motel in the 1950s while raising their two young sons there.
When the Sunset opened in 1959, there were two rooms for rent. By 1969, several more rooms had been added, and more were planned in order to complete the horseshoe-shaped design common to roadway lodges of the time. But before that final construction addition could begin, Bill Pogue died in 1972.
Elaine Pogue listed the motel for sale, but for three years, there were no takers. “We didn’t get a single ask,” said Mike Pogue.
He said a local banker told him that he had an obligation to help his mother, who was running the motel all by herself. “So I said, ‘Fine, loan me the money and I’ll buy it,’” which he did in 1975, entrusting a manager to run it for years.
After time spent on Wall Street in New York, and in Silicon Valley in California, Mike and wife Debbie returned to Moriarty to raise their own family. In a very cute turn of events, theirs wasn’t the only notable family to pop up on the block.
Next door to the Sunset Motel is the Whiting Bros. Gas Station, which also dates back to the ‘50s and holds historical significance for Moriarty.
Naturally, the sign was in need of repair and restoration. Debbie Pogue decided to write a proposal to the National Parks Service to request permission to source funding to do the project, as the station’s Old Route 66 location made it a contender for National Trail designation.
Permission was given, and a sign company was contracted and technicians were dispatched to the location. Only then was it discovered that a family of barn owls had set up home within the dilapidated sign.
The sign company backed away, refusing to continue the project.
“So hey, rock-and-roll,” said Mike. “I’m a network engineer. So I went up and put in an infrared camera, and did a microwave shoot over [to the motel] that’d bump it up on the internet, onto a website… so you could sit there and watch the owl family. You could see the mom and dad headed down to go find mice and bring, like, 30 mice a night back to the babies.”
This website was such a hit, said Debbie, that “there were people from all over who came to see.”
A group of students from Europe showed up to take pictures. They told Mike that they’d been studying the owls in class back in Germany using the website he created.
Once those owlets fledged, said Debbie, parties reconvened to get back to the sign restoration when it was discovered that, in an unusual turn of events, the female owl had laid a second set of eggs, and the project had to be called off yet again.
“I had to write for another extension [on the grant],” said Debbie. “It was one of the longest grants [the NPS] had ever done.”
After all was said and done, hundreds of owl enthusiasts had visited Moriarty and the Sunset Motel, and over 350 people had contributed to the restoration of the Whiting Bros. sign, said Debbie.
When asked about plans for any future changes to the motel, Debbie said emphatically “No. If we did, people would just go crazy!” Regarding plans for the couple, “[We’re] really trying to figure out what retirement or semi-retirement looks like,” said Debbie Pogue. “And keeping the motel at the same standards. And not losing our clientele.”
“Amazing people stay here,” Mike Pogue said. “My brother and I, when we were young, would get home from school and watch TV on the couch, and my dad would come in and say ‘Go sweep the sidewalks.’ We didn’t have air conditioning, so… we had chairs out in front of the rooms. And my dad was saying to us, ‘The world is right outside the door. Go meet them.’ Right?”
He went on to say that the couple, who also own a home in Albuquerque, do have plans for the motel, even if they do not plan to change the look at all.
“We’re going to come out here and have time to do things, to develop this, maybe do weddings here, promote the area architecturally…” At this, she chuckled and shook her head. “The last thing I wanna deal with is Bridezilla.”
Parties interested in visiting the historic Sunset Motel can visit sunseton66.com for availability and rates.