By Dan Rafter
Only two cars sit outside the former Snow Flake Motel this afternoon, and not a single customer stands in its front office. If not for owner Pradyuman Patel and the two women who take turns behind the front desk, you'd think the place was abandoned, another old motel left to die after the big franchises came to town. Paint peels from the walls. Cans, wrappers, and empty cigarette packs litter its parking lot. The only crowd gathers next door, behind the darkened windows of the Snow Flake Lounge.
But Patel hopes to restore his hotel to the luxury inn that once caused great excitement in the town of Saint Joseph, Michigan, a small city less than two hours from Chicago. Patel believes in the Snow Flake so strongly that he's sunk nearly $1 million into it. When people ask him why, he answers with just three words: "Frank Lloyd Wright."
No one mentions the Snow Flake without talking about Wright. Architects for the Taliesin Fellowship, a group founded and inspired by Wright, designed the snowflake-shaped building in the early 60s. No one knows exactly how much input if any Wright had in the design of the hotel, but one former owner claims that the architect inspected the vacant site from an airplane shortly before his death in 1959. According to legend, he gave the land and the project his blessing. Because of the hotel's connection to Wright, the National Register of Historic Places recently named it a state landmark, and Patel is determined to resuscitate the Snow Flake.
When Sahag Sarkisian, a dealer in oriental rugs, announced plans for the Snow Flake nearly four decades ago, the residents of Saint Joseph expected it to be the most opulent lodging in town. Sarkisian had long dreamed of building an inn as a gift for his young daughter. He guaranteed ice makers and color TVs in each of its 57 units, uncommon perks in those days. And the hexagon-shaped pool, to be topped with a clear Plexiglas dome, would give the illusion of outdoor swimming on Michigan's coldest days. There would be a cocktail lounge, a 250-seat conference center, and brightly colored jet fountains decorating a courtyard one-third the size of a football field. The building itself would be an architectural marvel, its 12 sides forming a giant snowflake, and would take up more than six acres of land along a mostly undeveloped strip of what was then called U.S. Route 12.
When the motel opened in 1962, Sarkisian put "Frank Lloyd Wright" at the top of the Snow Flake's roadside sign, above the motel's name. Yet much of the motel's design was the work of William Wesley Peters, Wright's chief apprentice. Peters, who married Wright's stepdaughter, had a reputation as a brilliant engineer, routinely bringing to life his father-in-law's ideas. The motel's wide-open spaces and luxurious rooms attracted a steady stream of business. People came to gawk at an inn that had more than 50 rooms on one level. They came to mingle in the Flake, the cocktail lounge attached to the motel. The local paper, the News-Palladium, referred to the Snow Flake as the "Million-Dollar Motel."
But Sarkisian's dreams didn't last. He knew little about the motel business and soon found the Snow Flake a drain on his finances. After his daughter died in an auto accident he lost interest in running the project altogether. By the time he sold the Snow Flake in 1979, it was already in decline. These days the motel is little more than an oddity whose best years are long past. It attracts mostly transients and drifters, and the locals snicker about its less-than-sterling reputation. With its long rows of dull-white units, interrupted by brown metal doors and tiny windows, the Snow Flake looks less like a motel than an abandoned army barrack. Across the street, semis rumble through the parking lot of a trucking company.
"It's a shame," says Michigan architect John Allegretti, one of the motel's remaining fans. "People poke fun at it now. And for a motel, I suppose it is a strange building. This is a very conservative community. People have very little appreciation of architecture here."
"It's unfortunate that not everything worked out the way it was supposed to," says Charles Montooth, an architect who worked at the Taliesin Fellowship back when the Snow Flake was born. Sarkisian, he says, "really had some drive. He really wanted to push some new ideas. It was a bold idea. It'd be nice if it could be brought back to the way it used to be."
Patel took over the Snow Flake in December 1996; his $750,000 bought him everything except the cocktail lounge, which is separate from the snowflake design. Since then he's spent about $150,000 on repairs, including new carpeting for most of the rooms. He changed the name to the St. Joseph Inn, though most people still call it the Snow Flake, and the old sign from the 60s, with Wright's name in big letters, still stands just a few feet off the highway.
"I have a lot to do here," Patel admits, heading out of his office and into the nearly empty parking lot. "All the rooms here need a lot of work. It's going to take a lot of time before I have everything looking nice." He pauses outside the swimming pool. It never did get its Plexiglas dome; instead the metal framework for one rises above it like an oversize jungle gym. It doesn't do much to keep out the leaves, twigs, and wrappers, and a blanket of them covers the bottom of the pool. A layer of rust decorates a door leading to a shower that no longer works. Cracks snake across the concrete patio. "The outside needs a lot of work too," says Patel, shrugging. "Everything here needs work."
He walks to the second spoke in the snowflake pattern, flipping through a ring of keys. He stops at room number eight and knocks loudly. Hearing nothing, he opens the door a crack and peeks into the room. "I'm sorry," he tells me. "The maid hasn't gotten here yet." We step inside; the room smells of smoke and old beer. Sheets are tangled in a ball at the foot of the bed. Beer bottles are strewn along the nightstand, on top of the television, across the floor. Candy wrappers, empty bags of Oreos, and crumpled cigarette packs litter the room. The original furniture is still here: wooden chairs with red seats, a thin cabinet running along the bottom of one wall, a brown table with a single, skinny leg in its center. The Snow Flake's designers considered this luxury; today it seems rather spartan.
But then Patel pulls open the drapes, exposing the center courtyard through floor-to-ceiling windows, and suddenly it's a little clearer what led him to invest nearly $1 million in this run-down old place. Stretching from one end of the Snow Flake to the next is a chunk of green big enough to field two or three softball games. Only the fountains, all 120 feet of them, interrupt it. On the courtyard's edges, dozens of rusted metal chairs lean forward, waiting, just like Patel, for the guests to come. "I saw this and thought it could be a great family place," Patel says, stepping into the courtyard. "I'm going to put some play equipment in here, for children. I think I can make this place work."
Allegretti supports Patel's drive to revamp the Snow Flake. Earlier this year he wrote to state officials, urging them to consider it for landmark status. He insists that the motel can still be beautiful. To those who doubt it, Allegretti suggests visiting the building on the colder nights of the year, when long icicles hang from the snowflake-patterned awnings. "The place just has a warm feeling to me, even though it's built out of cold concrete," Allegretti says. "It's certainly worth preserving. And I hope this new owner can restore some of its original dignity."
Officials with the Michigan State Historical Society also hope that better days are ahead. They're counting on the landmark status, with the accompanying tax breaks for repair work, to help Patel restore the Snow Flake to its original condition. "The Snow Flake has that unsavory reputation now," says Bob Christensen, national register coordinator for the society. "You hear about it all the way up to Lansing. But I stayed there in the 1970s, and I found it a real unique place. There's a real potential for it to be rehabilitated while still keeping its character. There has to be some way to make a go of that place."
Patel's plan for saving the motel is simple: he wants to turn it into a tourist attraction, targeting midwesterners in love with Wright. He plans to paint the roof sky blue, the color Peters showed in his sketches. He wants to build that Plexiglas dome over the swimming pool. And already he's capitalizing on Wright's name: a class of students from the School of the Art Institute has reserved five singles and seven doubles for this summer. Earlier this year students from a Wisconsin college came to study the work of a man who, though not Wright, may be the next best thing. "Frank Lloyd Wright is the only reason I agreed to buy this motel," says Patel. "He's what's going to bring people here. A lot of people told me I'd never make money off this place. They said I'd lose it. But I told them to let me take the risk and see what happens."
Of course, being a businessman, Patel isn't relying solely on Wright to save his investment. He recently closed a deal with Travelodge to add the Snow Flake to its chain. But Wright won't be completely left out. "I'll still have them let me put 'the former Snow Flake Motel' on the business cards and the sign," says Patel. "And I'll put 'inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright' on them too."
Saint Joseph is about 100 miles from Chicago. To get to the Snow Flake, take Interstate 94 east into Michigan. Get off at exit 23, the one for Stevensville, and turn right. You'll be on the Red Arrow Highway. Follow this road about one and a half miles. The Snow Flake is on your left, at 3822 Red Arrow Highway. You can't miss it.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by Lloyd DeGrane.