In today’s Motel Monday post, we’re going to be taking a closer look at the former Travel Inn of Meridian, Mississippi. However, the real story for today is less about the motel and more about the person behind the design of the motel. Read on to see what we mean.
The South’s Finest
Built in 1957, the Travel Inn motel touted itself as “one of the South’s finest”, and as a postcard dated 1962 attests, it truly was:
“Well-appointed rooms, air-conditioning, TV, Wall-to wall carpet, Piped in music, built-in refrigerator, Unique lighting effects in each room. King beds, airport service, swimming and wading pools, lounge, gift shop, Beauty shop, restaurant with meeting facilities.”
With the exception of “piped in music” and “unique lighting effects”, we see these amenities as normal perks that we’ve grown to expect from today’s chain motels; however, back in mid-twentieth century America, traveler’s felt that they were, indeed, living in finest motel the South had to offer.
Still, along with the motel and amenities it offered, the design of the Travel Inn is exemplary of the Mid-Century Modernism architectural style that was the calling card of local Meridianite architect, Chris Risher, Sr. Starting with the office’s angular roof and steel and glass façade to the ribboned canopy of the sidewalks that took you to outdoor spiral staircases leading to the second story rooms, the design of the motel was a mixture of post-war optimism and whimsical delight.
“In League with His Muse”
In the 1930s, Meridian native Chris Risher graduated from Auburn University in neighboring Alabama then went to work for a summer work four hours away in Florence on the Frank Lloyd Wright’s Rosenbaum House. He returned to his hometown of Meridian after World War II to practice architecture in the 1940s and became one of the most prominent Modernist architects in Mississippi.
Though praised mostly for his Modernist designs, Risher could work in both traditional and modern styles, leaving fellow architect (and Auburn alum) Samuel “Sambo” Mockbee to declare Risher to be “always in league with his Muse and Art”. Indeed, he had such a mind for design that he could have moved north to compete with the likes of Auburn classmate Paul Rudolph. Instead, however, he moved back to his beloved Meridian and brought the folks there a sophisticated modernism.
A Legacy of Modernism in Meridian
Chris Risher, Sr., died in 1999, but he left behind as a legacy his brilliance for Modern design all over Meridian that starts downtown with the Vise Building – a building which Risher remodeled in 1947 in an International style that may have been a bit too early for some Mississippians. This was followed by the Googie-inspired Travel Inn in 1957 and the 1962, Masonic Children’s Home (now Hope Village for Children) where stepped up a gently sloping hill, he connected rectilinear group houses with a steel canopy 300 feet long.
Risher’s use of glass in Modern architecture is evident in the sophisticated, delicate, humane, and personal way in which he filled the façade of Congregation Beth Israel (1965) with sections of stained glass taken from the original 1906 synagogue. Today, those windows contain glass from the former Beth Israel education building which was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan on May 28, 1968. He also inserted glass boxes within the wings of the classrooms at Crestwood Elementary School (1965) so the young students could have these little courtyards to learn and play in.
In 1977, Chris Risher won an Honor Citation from the Mississippi AIA for what would be one of his last projects in Meridian – the Meridian Police Station. It was more than evident by then that Risher had become a master architect – one that had mastered the art of Modernism and how to design a purposeful and beautiful building that has been used for study by architectural students ever since.
Modern Meets Present
Most of the buildings Chris Risher designed are still standing and still functioning as designed. However, the police station was under threat of the wrecking ball when a newer police station was been built in 2013. In 2020, it was bought for $35,000 by a local contractor who’s restoring the architectural icon, but is still keeping mum on his intentions for it.
Additionally, the Travel Inn is no longer the finest motel in the South. It is now the two-star Super Inn that a 2015 Tripadvisor called clean but “nothing special”. Indeed, a long way from the lap of luxury it once was.
Nonetheless, if you’re a fan of mid-century modern architecture you won’t be disappointed by the Travel Inn or the half dozen or so other works of art designed by one of Mississippi’s most renowned Modern architects that are still around. They truly are some of the South’s finest.
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