ST. GEORGE — There won’t be a full house at the corner of St. George Boulevard and 200 East anymore.
On Wednesday, Dixie Palm Motel’s neon sign came down, marking the end of 74 years the motel has provided lodging, serviced motorists on Highway 91 and, at one point, even became part of the Oklahoma City bombing investigation.
The motel’s distinctive neon sign included the words “Full House” instead of “No Vacancy.” But the upkeep required to maintain the historical motel had become more expensive than any revenue that could be generated from the motel’s 15 rooms, said Shayne Wittwer, CEO of Wittwer Hospitality, which owns the motel and two others on the boulevard.
“Just the cost alone to do that were so high to recoup the cost to the hotel’s operations,” Wittwer said.
The full demolition should take place in the next few weeks, he added.
But the owner, who comes from generations of motel and furniture store operators in St. George, said the move is still bittersweet. He can not only feel the history of St. George but his own history.
“I actually lived there for the first few months of my marriage,” Wittwer said. “It’s sad to see some of the history leave.”
Wittwer said his company and others are doing what they can to preserve as much history as they can. His own family has a history on the boulevard with his grandparents, Lester and Vanola Wittwer, opening the Wittwer Motor Lodge in 1955 on the boulevard and starting up Boulevard Home Furnishings at its first site across the street from the Dixie Palm in 1974.
In the lobby of the Aiden by Best Western, which is what the Wittwer Motor Lodge is called now, Wittwer Hospitality has created a museum of sorts with relics of boulevard motel past.
“Companies like mine and others were trying to restore and maintain some of that history,” Shayne Wittwer said.
Among the history from the Dixie Palm that won’t be demolished is its iconic sign. The sign, “Full House,” will live on as Wittwer said a purchaser in Parowan has bought it, though what they plan to do with the sign is unclear.
According to an article by Lisa Michelle Church in the Winter 2012 issue of Utah Historical Quarterly, the motel at 185 E. St. George Blvd., opened as Hail’s Motel in 1947.
Back in the days when people dialed central office exchange numbers, rather than straight phone numbers, people would dial ORchard 3-3531 to reach Hail’s Motel.
Around 1959, Brown Hail sold the motel. The new owners, not wanting to invest in a new sign, simply changed the “H” on the sign to an “S” for Sail’s Motel.
Wittwer, who serves as a governor with the Best Western Hotel Group, said the Dixie Palm also had the distinction of being one of the first Best Western-branded hotels in the 1950s.
“Best Western was founded by M.K. Guertin in California. In the early days when he was initially expanding and bringing in the hotels to partner as a membership organization, Dixie Palm was one of those,” Wittwer said.
Church said the motel would attain its present name when it was purchased in 1982 by Sands Motel owners Alma and Ruth Truman, who Wittwer calls “stewards” of the local hospitality community.
The Dixie Palm Motel name may have initially caused confusion as, according to the Washington County Historical Society, the unrelated Dixie Palms Motel sat a couple of blocks to the east at 371 St. George Boulevard on the present site of the State Bank of Southern Utah. In fact, the Dixie Palm was often referred to in the plural.
The motel last changed hands in 1992, when the Trumans sold the Dixie Palm to the Wittwers, who already owned the Best Western Coral Hills next door and the furniture store across the street.
“They were retiring and wanted to slow down a little bit,” Wittwer said. “We had the property right next to the hotel and then, at that stage, Boulevard Home was right across the street. So it just kinda was made just right.”
Wittwer said right when they bought it, they had plans to tear down the motel and replace it with a more modern lodge. But the continued popularity of the Dixie Palm changed those plans.
“We had originally purchased it thinking we would build something, but the hotel did well and we just kept it going,” Wittwer said.
At one point during that time, the FBI came calling.
McVeigh slept here
Seven weeks before the April 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people, bomber Timothy McVeigh spent the weekend at the Dixie Palm.
“At one point, we actually had the FBI interviewing us and asking us questions because he had stayed there for a few days,” Wittwer said. Media reports at the time said McVeigh was in town for a gun show before moving on to execute his bombing plot.
There were many other stories of people staying at the Dixie Palm that didn’t draw FBI attention. People needing a place to stay for their Zion trip, new families coming to the area for the first time waiting for their permanent residence to be ready or the occasional husband kicked out of his house by his wife.
But despite all the rooms being empty, the “No Vacancy” sign taped to the glass door of the motel’s office is valid. With, among other things, the roof needing a full replacement, it will be cheaper to tear down the motel and start over than repair it.
Since purchasing the motel nearly 20 years ago, Wittwer said they have already gone through three possible designs for the land and are still formulating what comes next for the site. But, he said, it will certainly be on another level beyond a motel.
“Ideally, we would like to have a really nice hotel downtown with some really cool features, a conference space, rooftop feature, restaurant-type thing,” Wittwer said. “But it’s still so early in the work. So I imagine either a kind of a resort or just a really nice downtown hotel.”
But until the motel is completely demolished, it is seeing another use: a training ground for St. George firefighters.
Giving back to firefighters
On a recent night, there were around eight fire vehicles that converged at the Dixie Palm Motel with smoke emanating from one of the rooms. St. George firefighters were on the roof, cutting out holes to let the smoke escape.
Yet there was no actual fire.
Before the motel is demolished, Wittwer Hospitality has allowed the St. George Fire Department to use the vacant motel as a unique opportunity for hands-on training.
Wittwer said they are giving back to the department after a small fire at the family’s BlvdHome location at Red Cliffs Mall on July 12 that started from an overheating sign and was quickly doused.
“They were amazing. We couldn’t believe how quickly they got it out. There was no damage to the inside to speak of, so we were extremely grateful there,” Wittwer said of the BlvdHome fire. “We knew that we were going to demo (the Dixie Palm) and just thought it would be a great opportunity for the Fire Department.”
In a statement, the Fire Department said it has been training on fire attack, search and rescue, breaching walls, as well as testing the department’s new self-contained breathing apparatus with built-in thermal imaging cameras.
“This type of training is a valuable resource to be able to have to keep skills sharpened,” the department’s statement read.
And Wittwer said it was a sight to behold, with several firefighters and vehicles in action.
“I was a little shocked the first night I went up. I thought it’d be like a few crews and a couple of trucks maybe,” Wittwer said. “But I think they had seven or eight trucks all over the place, and they were breaking into rooms, and it was pretty awesome. And they do such an amazing service for our community. We were just thrilled that they had this opportunity to go in.”
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