The Coral Court Motel in Marlborough, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis, was an exceptional example of art deco and streamlined modern architectural styles of the 1930s and 1940s. This once-popular motel on Route 66 was demolished in 1995.
In 1940 John Carr, an ex-con who had served time at the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, purchased eight acres along Watson Road — Route 66, on the city’s south side. He was charged in Toledo, Ohio, for transporting a female across state lines for prostitution. In the 1930s, he ran an up-scale brothel in St. Louis and was rumored to be mob-connected.
In 1941, Carr hired architect Adolph Struebig to design a motel that was an incomparable motor lodge and would spare no expense. The site was perfect for his plans of creating create a cash-based business conveniently located just one mile outside the St. Louis city limits. Construction began that summer, and by early 1942, the Coral Court opened as the United States prepared its mobilization effort during World War II. It is thought that Carr named the motel for a coral business investment he had in Mexico. At that time, he also owned a home near Sarasota, Florida.
The motor court’s exterior featured curved walls, glass blocks, and honey-colored ceramic tiles. It originally comprised a main office building and ten buildings with two units each. Each unit had two rooms and a private garage. Beautiful pin oak trees shaded the units in a park-like setting. Carr insisted that the grounds be manicured, and every aspect of the operation was perfect.
Among the dozens of small “mom and pop” motels on Route 66, the Coral Court was an immediate success with travelers. Within no time, the motel stayed booked far in advance. However, there were hints of a dark undercurrent to John Carr’s high-profile motel. It was renowned as a place where guests could stay without questions, and vehicles could be parked in a private garage. Though unknown to the general public, it was said that the Coral Court secretly provided illegal gambling and call-girl activity. At one point, Carr built an underground room with an escape tunnel. Later, it became known that Carr was bribing the Marlborough police department to keep his secrets.
In 1946, 23 more two-unit cabins were added, bringing the site to 66 rooms. Three two-story buildings were added near the back of the property in 1951. That year, Carr married former prostitute Jessie Hughes.
On October 6, 1953, Carl Austin Hall, a notorious kidnapper, briefly checked into the Coral Court. Hall had fled Kansas City after he and his accomplice, Bonnie Heady, had kidnapped and murdered Bobby Greanlease, the son of a wealthy Kansas City Cadillac dealer. A cab driver suggested the Coral Court, leading some to believe the driver knew John Carr. Carl Austin Hall was soon arrested, and he and his accomplice, Bonnie Heady, were sentenced to death. In the meantime, only half of the $600,000 ransom they received for the kidnapping was recovered, leading some to suspect that John Carr had taken some of the money. Hall and Heady confessed to the kidnapping, and swift justice was served when they were executed side by side in the Missouri State Penitentiary’s gas chamber on December 18, 1953, only 29 days after the sentence was passed.
This incident brought notoriety to Coral Court, and it soon became a popular venue for adultery and a “no-tell motel” where vehicles could be hidden in enclosed garages.
A swimming pool was installed on the property in the 1960s. At that time, the motel advertised the property as having 77 rooms and cottages with private tile baths, hot and cold water, porter and maid service, Beauty Rest Spring and mattresses, hot water radiant heat, and 24-hour service.
In 1965, John and Jessie divorced, and she ran off with a man named Julian Stewart, an ex-con who had worked at the motel as a desk clerk. When making her escape, she took a briefcase full of incriminating documents and one of John Carr’s Cadillacs. Jessie and Stewart fled to Florida and soon married. Carr tracked them down two years later and sent two friends to bring Jessie, the briefcase, and the Cadillac back to St. Louis. Three years later, John and Jessie remarried.
In the meantime, the Coral Court continued to be popular, sometimes catering to celebrities including Frank and Nancy Sinatra, Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster, Danny Thomas, and others.
Route 66 was bypassed by Interstate 44 in Missouri at the end of 1972. The traffic loss led to a decline in many businesses on old Route 66. However, John Carr maintained the motel in good condition. But the business decline forced Carr to rely even more on “no-tell” clients, prompting him to allow rooms to be rented by the hour. Word spread of the motel’s activities, and public opinion soured.
In 1984, John Carr died, leaving the Coral Court to his wife, Jessie, and head housekeeper, Martha Shutt. Jesse Carr soon took ownership of the property and married Robert Williams, the current motel manager. She and her new husband operated the motel for several years. However, they did not maintain the property to Carr’s standards. Soon, the buildings began to decline, and Jessie sold options on the land to prospective developers for a shopping mall.
At the risk of loss to demolition, the Coral Court Preservation Society successfully listed the property on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. By August 1993, the lack of maintenance had taken its toll, and the Coral Court closed and was listed for sale for $1.5 million. The motel was on the market for almost three years, but no one was interested due to its high price tag and renovation costs.
Preservationists tried to prevent further damage to the Coral Court while it was on the market, roping off the site. Though it was patrolled regularly by the police, it was vandalized, and property was removed. Unfortunately, listing the property on the National Register of Historic Places did not protect the site unless public funds had been invested in the historic property. This was not the case, and in June 1995, the motel was demolished. However, volunteers worked for weeks to carefully dismantle a complete Coral Court unit before it was entirely gone. Piece by piece, these salvaged remains were rebuilt and moved to the Missouri Museum of Transportation. The exhibit opened in May 2000 and remains on display today. A 1941 Cadillac is positioned in front of its garage as part of a larger exhibit on automobiles of the era.
Jessie Carr Williams passed away on October 15, 1996.
Today, the land contains a 45-unit housing development called Oak Knoll Manor. The original, distinctive stone gates are still in place. It is located at 7755 Watson Road.
© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated May 2023.
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