At first glance, San Luis Obispo's Madonna Inn resembles a rustic Swiss chalet removed from the Alps and plopped down beside a California highway. But peer past the gingerbread trim, and you'll discover an impossibly pink dream palace -- a wildly whimsical place where personal vision reins supreme.
"The poor words with which natural human speech is provided cannot suffice to describe the Madonna Inn," Italian author Umberto Eco wrote in his book "Travels in Hyperreality," calling the hotel "the poor man's Hearst Castle." "Let's say that Albert Speer, while leafing through a book on Gaudi, swallowed an overgenerous dose of LSD and began to build a nuptial catacomb for Liza Minnelli."
The brainchild of the late construction magnate, real estate developer and cattle rancher Alex Madonna and his wife Phyllis, the Madonna Inn has been a popular destination for artists, architecture buffs and tourists since it opened in 1958. "We really seem to resonate with the creative class, the folks who are more artistic-minded who prefer something out of the ordinary that has some thought... behind it," said Clint Pearce, CEO of Madonna Enterprises.
Los Angeles-based humorist and historian Charles Phoenix praised the Madonna Inn's "rural ranch-gone-castle" vibe, which he described as unapologetically original. "It fires on so many cylinders of classic and kitschy American pop culture," said Phoenix, known for his retro slide shows, off-the-wall Test Kitchen recipes and colorful coffee table books.
Like the cream-filled, chocolate curl-topped pink champagne cakes sold at the Madonna Inn's bakery, the idiosyncratic hotel is an architectural "confection with a flavor unlike anywhere else," Phoenix said.
Located just off Highway 101 at the base of Cerro San Luis Obispo, known colloquially as Madonna Mountain, the Madonna Inn houses more than 110 themed rooms and suites as well as a wine cellar, assorted shops and a handful of eateries -- including the Gold Rush Steak House, the Silver Bar Cocktail Lounge and the Copper Café coffee shop.
The hotel, which also features an event center and a swimming pool, spa and fitness center, has been a hit with celebrities including Dustin Hoffman, Dolly Parton, Clint Eastwood and John Wayne. It has appeared onscreen in the film "Aria" and the reality shows "The Bachelor," "The Girls Next Door" and "Little People, Big World," plus a handful of music videos.
According to Phyllis Madonna, the Madonna Inn was inspired by her husband's less-than-favorable experiences on the road. "He told himself that someday he would build a beautiful Inn... where weary travelers could feel at home and enjoy a nice meal, in a comfortable atmosphere," she wrote in her book "Madonna Inn: My Point of View," first published in 2002.
For that purpose, the Madonnas purchased a 10-acre tract from the city of San Luis Obispo in 1954. (Today, the sprawling property spans more than 1,000 hilly acres dotted with hiking and horse riding trails.)
The first 12 rooms at the Madonna Inn were completed on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 1958 -- just in time for its first fundraiser. ("The concrete hadn't even set yet," Pearce said.) The Madonnas built an additional 28 rooms shortly afterward, then started construction on the main inn in April 1960.
Phyllis Madonna, 87, said the Copper Café was the first restaurant to open, followed by the steakhouse. "We had plywood floors, no carpeting, horrible chairs to sit in," she recalled. "I was so embarrassed."
But that didn't deter travelers -- nor did a 1966 fire that damaged the center section of the hotel. Before long, the Madonna Inn had earned a reputation as a must-see landmark.
Phoenix started visiting the Madonna Inn in his early teens. "My mother and my aunt liked to go there for lunch," explained the self-described "Ambassador of Americana," who spent his formative years in Ontario in southwestern San Bernardino County.
Even then, Phoenix said, he recognized the unique nature of the hotel. "There was nothing like it in the '50s, and there's nothing like now," he said. "As many times as I've gone there, it never ceases to amaze me."
Phoenix said the Madonna Inn harkens back to an architectural era when "you could make something your own" free of corporate interference or a predilection for "cookie cutter" design. As examples, he offered the tepee-themed Wigwam Motel in San Bernardino and the North Woods Inn locations in Covina, La Mirada and San Gabriel, which are modeled after old-fashioned mountain lodges.
"You don't really get the sense that there's a bunch of bean counters" making decisions about the Madonna Inn, he said, pointing to its quality materials and old-school craftsmanship. "It's homespun and family-run and has been since the beginning."
According to Pearce, Alex Madonna channeled his own Swiss-Italian heritage to design the inn -- merging Old World architecture with Western motifs. He worked with Cal Poly architecture professor Hans Mager, a founding member of the university's architectural engineering department, and a small army of skilled California craftsmen including Bavarian-born wood carver Alexander Zeller.
Boulders culled from the hillside above the hotel, some weighing more than 200 tons apiece, form the foundation of the structure. Inside the Madonna Inn, custom touches abound -- including etched copper tabletops, elaborate murals, stained glass windows and ornately carved wooden beams, doors and railings.
In the Gold Rush Steak House, which features a hand-carved marble balustrade from Hearst Castle in San Simeon, diners eat in pink-and-gold leather booths under the gleaming golden bows of a 28-foot-tall tree constructed from electrical conduit and copper scraps left over from building projects. A wooden arch carved with the motto "Let's Eat and Be Forever Happy" greets folks at the Copper Café coffee counter.
Just as Alex Madonna oversaw the overall design of the hotel, his wife took charge of interior design.
After a pair of professional decorators failed to meet his standards, "Alex said, 'You just take care of decorating all the rooms.' I said, 'I've never done anything like this.' He said, 'You can do it,'" Phyllis Madonna recalled. "I didn't want to disappoint my husband, so I just took the bull by the horns and jumped in."
She'd hunt for furnishings in the Robertson Boulevard shopping district of Beverly Hills, then "lay it all out on my carpet at home and decide how I was going to decorate each room," Madonna said, selecting a different theme for each one.
For inspiration, she used the rooms' whimsical names -- Caveman, Cloud Nine, Country Gentleman, Hearts & Flowers, Safari and so forth. The Jungle Rock room, for instance, features animal prints, natural rock walls, leafy tree limbs and a cascading waterfall shower, while the Old Mill room boasts a miniature water wheel.
Rooms such as Edelweiss, Irish Hills and Matterhorn pay tribute to the Madonnas' European heritage. And the Pick & Shovel suite, which features a 50-foot red leather couch, tractor-seat bar stools and a gilded pair of the eponymous tools, salutes Alex Madonna's roots in the construction business -- and the family's official brand: a crossed pick and shovel.
"Alex used to joke that if every room [was] different, you could never make the same mistake twice," Pearce said.
Asked what inspired the Madonna Inn's predominant color scheme, a bold, vibrant pink known to Southern California decorators as "Madonna pink," Phyllis Madonna said her husband admired the red leather booths he found in some fine dining establishments. "He never wanted to copy anyone else, so the next best thing from red was going down a little to pink," she explained.
Alex Madonna's yen for originality is evident throughout the hotel.
Among the Madonna Inn's most popular attractions is the downstairs men's restroom, which features green-tiled walls, oversized clamshell sinks and a rustic rock waterfall that doubles as a urinal. The one-of-a-kind washroom was a finalist in Cintas' America's Best Restroom contest in 2005.
As Alex Madonna told The Tribune newspaper then, inspiration for the outlandish lavatory came in 1961 as he and a 70-man crew battled to finish building the bathrooms in the inn's wine cellar in time for a fundraising event. In place of the two antique urinals he had originally planned to install, Madonna opted for a waterfall surrounded by large rocks -- and the result has been a hit with visitors ever since.
"He loved to invent and do different things, unusual things. He was very creative," Phyllis Madonna said of her husband, who died in 2004 at age 85. "Every inch of this place reminds me of Alex."
(She and Pearce denied a rumor that the restroom was designed by Hollywood set designer Harvey Allen Warren, pointing out that the hotel's old gas station also boasts a waterfall urinal. But they did confirm another show business connection: animal trainer Louis Gobel, whose Jungleland USA was a popular Thousand Oaks attraction for decades, supplied the Madonna Inn with zebras, giraffes, buffalo, camels, a lion and a baby elephant at various times.)
German artist Katrin Mayer, who toured the Madonna Inn in December 2014, said she was struck by the hotel's "amazing" architectural details.
"From a European perspective, it is so American," the Berlin resident said, although, she added, the inn also reminded her of Neuschwanstein Castle, the fanciful 19th century castle built by King Ludwig II of Bavaria in southwestern Germany. "This place is an analogue, a materialization of images and dreams and a kind of ahistorical vision that gathers all these imagined [visions] of places."
Over the decades, that vision has expanded to include the 21,000-square-foot Alex Madonna Expo Center, which opened its doors in 2004, and the Pool & Fitness Center, which opened in 2007. A remodel overseen by the youngest of the four Madonna children -- Madonna Inn general manager Connie Pearce, who's married to Clint Pearce -- was completed in 2009.
Even with those upgrades, Clint Pearce said the goal behind the hotel remains the same: "taking you out of your everyday life and giving you an experience that's different."
"We're going to continue to cherish and respect the past, but we're going to continue to build and focus toward the future," Pearce said. "You can't make it a museum, but you can honor all the great assets and attributes and at the same time be fun and attractive and relevant..."
Phoenix agreed. "I have nothing but admiration for the place and nothing but praise for the Madonna family [for keeping] it rolling over the years," he said. "Above and beyond all the wild[ness] and wackiness of it and the complete one-of-a-kindness of it, its greatest offering is the heart and soul of it, the honesty of it, the homespun-ness of it... It's a national treasure."