Building the Avalon Motel

[The Avalon Motel is well known to most area residents, and not always for the best reasons. Few people, however, know the history of the motel. Here, we take a look back with an Avalon man who had a unique role in the creation of what once was a flourishing local business.]

By Denny Brown

Sometimes when I'm working on the property across from the Avalon Motel, I stop and reminisce about how we use to play “one hand below” in the parking lot every Sunday night.

It was the best night, because Sunday was always slow at the motel, with only a few cars in the lot. We would have as many as four on a side. Carey, who went to school with my older brother, could throw the ball from the Emsworth end to the Bellevue end of the parking lot. I would be told to go deep. Running as fast as I could, Carey would launch the football high into the darkness and I would start to look for it. You would only have a fraction of a second when it would appear. Nuts! I missed it. Then the comments would start. "You stink! Idiot! It was right there!" Sometimes when we couldn't find enough players, we would ask Carey's sister Trish and my neighbor Diane (she could beat me up until I reached the fourth grade) to play. There was nothing worse than playing defense and having the girls catch a pass. Again the comments came.

Recently, when I was at a 60th birthday party, I was asked how the Avalon Motel came to exist. I guess my brother, who lives in Texas, and I are probably the only ones who know its history.

Mom and Dad, who later would be known by my friends as "Frank R." and "Elizabeth S.," moved to Avalon in 1955 and bought 512 Ohio River Blvd. On the site where the motel is was a huge farmhouse with a wrap-around porch. I, being 5 years old, thought it was the biggest house in the whole world. Dad worked for Koontz Equipment in Emsworth, selling parking meters to municipalities. Money was tight. They would repair parking meters in the cellar just to make ends meet.

After winning a rezoning court case against some of the neighbors, the first six rooms of the motel were built. If you are looking at the present motel from the sidewalk facing the river, it's the building that doesn't have a second floor. In the back were an additional six unfinished rooms. It would take another year until these six rooms were ready for rental. Dad would go to work and mom would clean the rooms. Being 6 or 7 years old, I was oblivious to the long and tiring days my parents put in.

Children today have “Bob the Builder” to watch. We had Bob the bulldozer operator. As he would push the dirt around, making either a foundation or the driveway, my brother and I would have one of the best playgrounds. At the end of the day, we were covered in mud.

Back then, there was no interstate highway system. One of the main routes from the airport to downtown Pittsburgh was to cross the Sewickley bridge and take Route 65, Ohio River Boulevard. We would advertise that the Avalon Motel was five miles from downtown Pittsburgh. Most of our customers were business people. They would check in on Monday night and stay until Friday morning.

Dad wanted to expand, but Mom was tired. Cleaning 12 rooms, raising two children, cleaning the home…you get the picture. It was time to hire some help -- the next door neighbor, to be precise -- to clean rooms.

The second phase of construction required some help from my grandparents. Both would refinance their homes and lend my parents the money. The loan would be paid back in less than four years. The room total was now 21, with a small, two-bedroom apartment. These additional rooms were located in the building just to the right of the original six.

Back then, motels never had a room 13 (superstition), so there were actually only 20 rooms.

The time had come to bring down the old homestead and enlarge the parking lot. Let the games begin! It took a long time getting used to living in a small apartment. The motel office was in the front room and people thought our living room was a lounge. I remember one Saturday morning when my brother and I, still in our PJs and watching the Three Stooges, were joined by a motel guest who came in and sat beside us in our living room.

The year was 1960: The Pirates won the World Series and the third phase of construction for the motel had begun. Rooms 22 through 36 were added on the Bellevue side of the Motel, making the building an "L" shape. Dad resigned at Koontz. We now had about 12 employees. Three of the new rooms could be rented as one-bedroom efficiencies.

The final phase of construction, which was the Emsworth side of the building, started in 1962. With the addition of units 37 through 48, the motel became the shape it is today. President Kennedy and the Soviets had their big nuclear confrontation and war had been averted. Civil defense was on everyone's mind, and my parents were no exception. In the back corner of the new building, a game room /nuclear bomb shelter was built. They purchased enough survival foods to last six months. Twenty years later, the garbage man would carry the foods away. At the time, when the shelter was being built, it was believed that the roof, made from plywood sheeting covered in tar paper, would stop the nuclear fall-out. It was a great place for a 12-year-old and friends to play.

The motel occupancy during the mid ‘60s had reached near 90 percent. My brother and I, now in our teen years, had outgrown our little bedroom, and the motel needed more office space. Mom and Dad rented the second floor apartment in the house located on the Bellevue side of the building. A year or so later, they bought that house. This was the first time we felt like a normal family.

It didn't take long before the motel apartment disappeared. Our living room became a coffee shop. Mom’s and Dad's bedroom now had two desks, and our bedroom became Room 13. The superstition was gone.

At that point in time, the Borough of Avalon had only beer gardens. Wine and liquor sales were not allowed in the local establishments. That was to change. The River Road Inn (now the Rusty Dory) was located about three city blocks away, and the owners wanted to pass a law allowing motels with 16 or more rooms to have full service restaurants and lounge liquor licenses. A referendum was passed in the 1966 elections. A couple of years later, all taverns were granted permission to have full service bars.

The motel was operating like a well oiled machine. The coffee shop served a full breakfast and was a great attraction to the motel. At night, the shop became a limited restaurant. Mainly a steak menu, it, too, served the motel well. Only being in eighth grade, I became the master of the kitchen. My culinary career was short-lived. The River Road Inn was under construction, building motel rooms. Mom and Dad had to make another life changing decision.

We were motel people and knew nothing about the restaurant business. My parents felt that they had no other recourse. The Kon Tiki Restaurant and Lounge opened in December 1967. It specialized in Polynesian food and drink. With little experience in the food industry, a chef and a head bartender became our teachers. On the first floor was the lounge, a dining room that could seat about 36 people, and an outdoor patio. The second floor was the main dining area. Also on the second floor was a private room suitable for small parties. The Kon Tiki could serve a many as 200. We now employed around 50 people. The first couple of months were very chaotic.

One of the first problems we faced was parking. With the motel at 90 percent occupancy, the main lot had only a couple of extra car spaces. An additional lot was added on the Emsworth side of the building, but it wasn't large enough. I was about to get a new weekend job.

My 16th birthday was conveniently two months before the grand opening. Mom and Dad made it a point to teach me now to drive. I passed my driving test in record time. I thought I must be a natural. Boy, was I naive! After hiring a couple of my friends, we were off and running…literally. We would park cars in lots that we rented as far as a block away. I remember telling customers at 7 p.m. that a table would not be available until 9:30 p.m. The food was the best! Even after starting college, I would come home on the weekends to park cars. The tips were that good.

Sometimes it was hard working every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night. At the time I thought I was missing a lot of school activities and things most kids did in their late teens. But I wasn't alone. Most of my friends worked at the Kon Tiki too. We were bus boys, dishwashers, short order cooks, motel desk clerks and valet parkers. When payday came around, my buddies would wait to see who signed the checks. That's how Mom and Dad became "Frank R." and "Elizabeth S." Even today when we get together, it's just a matter of time until a Kon Tiki story is told. Boy, the stories!

After a tour in Vietnam, my brother started to work in the kitchen. He loved cooking so much that he would have a cookbook published in the late 1990s. From 1975 until 1979, I would manage a motel that Mom and Dad owned on Interstate 70 in Washington County called "The Avalon Motor Inn"…but that's another story!

They say everything has a price. Around 1972, a group of investors approached Mom and Dad with an offer they couldn't refuse, so they sold the Avalon Motel. They moved into a house across the street from the motel on Ohio River Boulevard and started to travel. When I look back on those years, I realize it was a life so different from normal. The one thing that was always constant was the love from my parents.

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