By Timothy Rawles / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ
Back when automobile travel was the main mode of transportation across America, roadside motels like The Blue Mist in Florence were a common sight along the lonely highway.
Motorists would spot large marquees touting all the modern amenities from air conditioning, kitchenettes, and TVs to later HBO. These roadside sleepovers were almost as important as gasoline to the tired driver.
Today, thanks to air travel, these rustic accommodations have been replaced by boutique hotels and fancy corporate mid-level overnighters in the middle of town rather than on the outskirts.
But diehard enthusiasts have kept midcentury motels alive. There are groups that take road trips across the country just to stay in these single-story vintage landmarks.
The Blue Mist may not be a bucket list destination, but it is considered a historic property in the City of Florence. It also has a dark past, for reasons that aren’t so restful which we will get to later.
First and foremost, The Blue Mist sits directly across from the Arizona State Penitentiary which is home to several of the state’s most notorious inmates. Since Arizona still uses capital punishment several of its most dangerous residents sit on death row.
If you happen to get one of the rooms facing the prison your view will include giant chain link fences, razor wire, and guard towers. It might feel intimidating, but that’s all a part of the experience.
On a lighter note, the motel wasn’t always called The Blue Mist. Built in 1946, it was originally named the Desert Sunshine Lodge. Cowboy star Gene Autry was one of the first investors and would stay at the then 10-room motel on business trips.
It wasn’t until 1956 that the courtyard would get a pool. The name change would come after Joe O'Betka, a real estate broker, bought the property and rechristened it. For some, the new name was confusing. But O’Betka said it was a matter of subliminal advertising.
"At that time, a lot of people driving through here--most of 'em, actually--didn't have refrigeration in their cars,” he told Phoenix New Times in a 1996 interview. “So, my wife and I decided to come up with a name that would make 'em want to stop in, jump in the pool and use our air-conditioned rooms."
The color scheme aptly reflects that chill. The single-story building has that vintage roadside aesthetic. Long, covered walkways incorporate different geometrically designed cinder block pillars and walls. The exterior is painted an audacious shade of Windex blue in contrast with the red barrel roof tiles.
Parking spots are conveniently placed just outside your door and the lobby still screams 1950s tourist pit-stop offering a small front desk, sightseeing pamphlets, and postcards.
Based on photos from the booking affiliate, Magnuson Hotels, the rooms feel like an uneven timeline of interior design. The polyester bedspreads serve as budget reminders and the tables and chairs carry the exterior’s blue theme inside. Outdated 80s pine cabinets and bedside tables hold up modern flatscreen TVs and touch-tone phones. The atmosphere of this motel is fun and adventurous. There are even rumors that room 22 is haunted although the current owners are tight-lipped about why.
In 1984 an inmate named Robert Moorman brought his adoptive mother Roberta to the Blue Mist. Prison officials allowed him a temporary furlough from the adjacent prison so he could visit with her. On January 13, 1984, Moorman bought a few knives and brought them back to his room where he used them to dismember Roberta. Moorman was caught and eventually executed in 2012.
Despite that grim mark on the motel’s past, it’s still a prominent part of Florence’s history. In 2012, It was designated as an endangered historic property by the Arizona Preservation Foundation.
Whatever its fate, The Blue Mist will always be a reminder of Arizona’s importance in roadside hospitality when early style and design met practicality and convenience.
The Blue Mist Motel is located at 40 South Pinal Parkway, Florence.